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What Causes a Bestseller

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PUBLISHED AUGUST 1996

by Curt Matthews, Chairman, Board of Chicago Review; Independent Publishers Group


Is there a secret to success in publishing? Or perhaps seven habits, or a thirty-day, or -minute, or -second plan that will insure success? I don’t think so. The truth is that absolutely no one in our business knows what makes certain books take off like skyrockets (leaving aside the Stephen Kings, etc.) while other titles that seem equally promising languish in the warehouse.

There is, however, an approach that works. I don’t have a catchy name for it, but the basic idea is that if you take away the reasons for failure, what you will have left is success-not necessarily a skyrocket, but success. Since this approach has nothing to do with secrets, keys, or quick fixes, it is a little uninspiring; and since it focuses on identifying and solving problems rather than finding golden opportunities, it strikes many people as negative. But then again, it works. At the risk of being uninspiring and negative, I have in mind devoting this space in the newsletter in months to come to identifying problems that damage the prospects of publishers and their books. Some of them will be very specific. The first is general but pervasive.

The publishing industry is in many respects an absolute mess. This however is merely a fact. The problem is that many small and midsize publishers spend far too much time and energy complaining about this mess and imagining the way things ought to be. With apologies to Karl Marx, the goal is not to change the industry, but to understand it so we can get on with selling books. We are not allowed to make the rules, but we have to play by them.

You all know the litany: the poor taste of the reading public; the obtuseness of reviewers; the egotism of authors; the sloppiness of printers; the stupidity of returns; the timidity of booksellers . . . this could get to be quite a list! But if you find yourself spending much time with such laments, or much time with people obsessed with them, you may not have much of a future in the publishing business. The problems are real, and they can be intractable, but we cannot afford to let them become excuses for failure. Instead, we have to understand the problems and learn how to maneuver around them, and over them, and through them.

The publishing industry is remarkably open to new and smaller players. Imagine trying to market a new kind of car, or even a new eggbeater! The openness of the industry is not unrelated to the fact that it is in many respects a mess. More orderly industries offer far less opportunity for newcomers.

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