Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Mystery of the Bestseller

I've been thinking about what makes a bestseller. It's never been my goal to break the box office of books with a thrilling new release (though I do think our new releases are rather thrilling). It's my goal to shed some light on a few good stories and to present compelling authors to discriminating readers. I think that's even in our mission statement somewhere.... Anyway, I've been asking myself how books like Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy or Lee Child's 61 Hours find their way to bestseller lists. With Child, it's a little more straightforward. It doesn't much matter what he writes, after all. His name sells the book. But Larsson? Now that's different.

Stieg Larsson died in 2004; The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo wasn't released until the following year. The book was written in Swedish, and the author made only casual attempts to publish it during his life. I remember when it first came out and Barnes & Noble chose it for their recommended reading title of the month. I was working for BN at the time, and those books sat in a big pile by the cafe, hardly touched by a single customer during the course of the day. The third one just came out at the end of May, an immediate bestseller. What happened between the first book's release and the last? Did the BN promotion eventually take effect? Was it the corresponding film release - a film most people still talk more about seeing than actually go to see? Was it the gradual wooing of the phenomenal cover art? Did people finally pick up the reviews and take them seriously?

I have a theory. I think a few people read it and started talking. They talked louder and longer than they usually did, and they talked about the book in particular. Other people took these first people seriously, picked it up, and talked about it themselves in a louder and longer way than usual. This louder and longer talking about this series of books was relayed through an exponentially growing network of readers and non-readers alike until everyone who hadn't read it bought it, those who had read it pre-ordered their copies of the third, and those who will never read it pretended that they would by buying copies of all three and setting them prominently on their bookshelves. Voila. A bestseller is born.

As I said before, it's never been my goal to set such a monster in motion. But it intrigues me. I am fascinated by every shift in the sales ranking for our first release, The Advocate's Betrayal. I wonder who it might be on the other side of Amazon, clicking the pre-order option. I wonder how they got there, what inspired their purchase, how they heard of it, how long it will take them to read it, whether they will recommend it to friends or keep it in a great collection of pretty books left unread. I want to know these things, but I never will. Readers are the great mystery, the ungovernable democracy that determines what will and will not move from the untouched stack of over-printed titles to the hottest thing on the market. Bravo, readers. I salute you.

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