The ‘Instant’ Bestseller

In my previous post, we looked at the length of the “average” chapter. But what about the “average” book?

If you’re a first-time novelist hoping to submit to a big publisher, you may be advised to cut your book to 70-80,000 words. Why, when the average bestseller is close to twice as long?

Because the longer your book is, the more expensive it is to produce, and publishers want to minimise how much risk they take with debut authors. Similarly, a reader may not be willing to commit to a great big doorstop of a book from an unknown author. (Consider how thick the later books in the Harry Potter series were compared to the first).

If you’re an indie novelist who is going to publish your work solely electronically, you may not need to worry about length constraints. However, if you’re interested in offering a print edition, beware: the extra costs involved in printing a lengthy novel can make print publication both unaffordable for readers and unprofitable for writers.

Keeping these points in mind, we might hope to find some debut bestselling novelists to model our own debut or indie works after. But such books are few and far between.

In 2015, the New York Times reported that James Patterson has written over 200 books, of which 114 have made it to the NYT bestseller list – goodness only knows how many he’s written and had chart since then. His coauthor here, Bill Clinton is obviously famous in his own right as a former president, but also as an author – including other books written with Patterson. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s coauthor, Louise Penny, is also a well-established author, though it’s easy to believe that a book coauthored by either of the Clintons and a non-sentient rock would also become an “instant bestseller” as State of Terror‘s Amazon page boasts.

Brad Thor’s Black Ice is his twentieth book in the Scott Harvath series. Likewise, Better Off Dead is the twenty-sixth book in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, and Game On is the twenty-eighth book in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series.

Publishers and readers aren’t just buying more books by theses authors, they’re buying books about these characters.

David Baldacci has written ten different series, and had two books in this list. Diana Gabaldon penned the wildly popular Outlander series, among others. Liane Moriarty has written a plethora of adults’ and children’s books. Paula Hawkins wrote the enormously successful The Girl on the Train among other novels. The Dark Hours is Michael Connelly’s thirty-sixth book. Sarah J Maas’ Crescent City series follows her extremely popular A Court of Thorns and Roses series. Hook, Line, and Sinker is the incredibly prolific Tessa Bailey’s follow-up to It Happened One Summer (in 2015 alone, she put out TEN books). Jodi Picoult has written around 30 novels, and Stephen King has written 64, not including those he wrote under a pseudonym.

The majority of the authors on this list have spent decades building their writing careers. They aren’t just more experienced than most of us – they’re also allowed a hell of a lot more freedom now than they would have been with their first or even second or third novels, by publishers and readers alike. I’ll pick up a book written by Picoult or King even if the cover is ugly or the topic doesn’t interest me, simply because I trust them.

In fact, the *only* debut novel in this batch is Miranda Cowley Heller’s The Paper Palace. But she too has one hell of a pedigree to follow – her Penguin profile describes her as “senior vice president and head of drama series at HBO, developing and overseeing such shows as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, and Big Love“. Gulp.

Now, the list I’ve analysed here is drawn from those books available from my local library. And libraries are probably more likely to purchase books from established rather than debut authors, even if they do chart (especially as not all books that take off in the US garner as much success in Australia – I can’t imagine current non-fiction bestseller Battle for the American Mind doing well here). So I went back to the lists for 2021 and 2022, and scoured them for debut novelists that hit #1 in the past year. Aside from Miranda Cowley Heller, I found only two: Quentin Tarantino and Delia Owens.

Tarantino’s book Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is based on his film of the same name, and given his fame in the movie business, I hardly think Tarantino can serve as a model for aspiring or early-career novelists. Delia Owen’s Where the Crawdad’s Sing was published on August 14 2018, and by September of 2018, it was recommended by Reese Witherspoon’s book club. As a result, in 2019, the book sold more copies than any other title, and continued to sell well in 2020, 2021, and now in 2022, making it one of the best selling books of all time.

Now, unless you are signed on with a big publisher that can get your book a celebrity book club endorsement two weeks after your book hits the shelves (and make no mistake, while G.P. Putnam’s Sons, est. 1838 might sound like a lovely quaint little publisher, it has been an imprint of Penguin since 1996), you probably won’t find Crawdads a particularly useful model either. Additionally, though Owens might be a debut novelist, she was already known for her popular memoirs, including the international bestseller Cry of the Kalahari co-authored with her then-husband. I can only imagine that publishers, celebrities, and readers alike are more willing to take a gamble on your novel if you’ve already been a bestseller in the world of memoirs.

None of this is to dismiss the immense talent and the dedication of these authors who have turned out high-quality, beloved books for years or decades. Rather, new authors should simply be mindful of the gulf between what a debut author should expect in terms of sales, income, and accolades, and also in terms of what publishers and readers will expect from them in terms of length, freedom to experiment, creative control, etc. I think most writers know their debut novels won’t enjoy the success Stephen King’s shopping list or Jodi Picoult’s refrigerator memo might, but we are often encouraged to look to bestsellers as if they are the “gold standard” of writing for everyone.

In The Bestseller Code, the authors suggest that it is a book’s “DNA” that is the best predictor of whether it will make it to the bestseller list. But while it may certainly be the case that bestsellers on the whole share certain things in common, writing like a bestselling author is woefully short of what is actually needed to become a bestseller. If writing quality, pacing, magnetic characters, etc. were the only criteria, we should see far more debut novelists on the list than we do. Established authors are vastly over-represented. Of the 44 separate entries to the #1 slot over the last 12 months, only three were debut novelists, and as we have seen, really only one was a first-time writer in the public arena.

Is there no one we can learn from, then?

You may have noticed one name conspicuously absent from my discussion of writers’ track records above: Colleen Hoover. While It Ends With Us was far from Hoover’s first novel, she represents a very interesting case indeed.

Hoover published her first novel Slammed a decade ago in 2012, and later that year, published Hopeless, which made it to the top of the NYT bestseller list. Many of her books were self-published before being picked up by major publishing houses, and rather charmingly, Hoover published her first novel so that her grandmother, who had just gotten a Kindle, could read it. Hopeless was the first self-published novel to ever top the NYT list.

In our next post, we’ll take a look at how she did it.

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