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The Artistry of Creating a Bestseller

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Dottie, my wife of 43 years, is an incredibly talented artist. Talented is the operative word. You’ve seen the type. Dottie can look at something for a few minutes, ask “How is that done?” and then immediately answer herself. Then she’ll buy a few supplies, and without much ado, she creates a beautiful piece of art in nearly any medium. With acquired or self-taught instruction, her talent enables her to create. Give me those same supplies and I’d hurt myself! I don’t have the same artistic talent as Dottie. Creating bestsellers also requires talent. Give two different publishers instructional guidance and tools to create a bestseller… who knows what will happen? I can assure one thing, that the publisher who has talent will do best.

So what is the talent required in creating a bestseller? I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to witness the talent of a variety of publishers–both large and small–for over four decades. Although there is no magic pill available to ensure building a bestseller, I’ve found that there is a common denominator, a common talent to the artistry of creating a bestseller. This is very simple…. it’s the ability to implement a strategy and to orchestrate teamwork. Regardless of the strategy, the budget, the book, or the publisher, all the ingredients need to be planned and orchestrated to work together. The talent is the publisher’s ability to make it all function cohesively. And it’s important to understand that you never really know which member of the team is going to have the most impact in creating the success. But everyone has to carry his or her part of the responsibility. I’d like to share some unique experiences of success in the hopes that you can pick up a few ideas that will be helpful in your publishing program. Some publishers I will mention by name while with others I must respect their confidentiality.

14 Consecutive New York Times Bestsellers

Undoubtedly, one of the best experiences I’ve enjoyed as a publishing consultant was helping a very controversial publisher ring TheNew York Times bestseller bell 14 straight times over a five-year period, including the #1 position. It was especially satisfying because of the many, many obstacles that needed to be overcome; these resulted from the controversy that seemed to always surround the author and publisher. We understood that achieving bestseller status would begin with the major accounts–Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-A-Million, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, etc. They were very, very important to our strategy. We began with a test of the first book in a selected number of their stores, bolstered by publicity and advertising. The bottom line? The book sold, and the key accounts were very satisfied with the publisher’s performance in all facets. The national accounts were convinced that our program would work seamlessly and agreed to a wider distribution. We participated in many, many promotions with them, enabling us to pop the book onto their internal bestseller lists. This meant it would be given wider exposure within their operations. Having gained the national accounts’ confidence, we then were able to establish a formula for success. We timed the release of each new title to be time-coincident with major seasonal promotions such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, Summer Reading, Health & Fitness, and others. Yes, we bought our way into their “co-op” promotions. (Their definition of co-op was “you pay and we’ll cooperate.”) This bought favorable “real estate” position in their stores. Then our strategy was to ensure that the initial laydown of our books in their stores would occur at the beginning of a sales week, so that all our initial sales would be lumped into that first week of selling activity giving us maximum weekly sales numbers. Shipments were synchronized to accomplish the arrival of our book in all their stores in every location in the United States at the same time. We knew which stores–national chains and independents–were stores that reported their weekly sales to TheNew York Times. We blitzed those cities with major publicity that drove buyers to those stores to ensure high sales volume. The strategy worked for this publishers 14 times in a row! These successes involved 14 different titles over a five-year period. The talent here was certainly the ability to orchestrate, on a very large scale, all the elements necessary to building success. And make no mistake… a significant part of the talent was gaining the respect and confidence of the major accounts by proving our ability to perform.

Health & Wealth Book Successes

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to consult to two “health & wealth” publishers whose successes were achieved in similar ways–40-30-30 Fat Burning Nutrition and the phenomenon called Rich Dad, Poor Dad (also Rich Dad’s Cashflow Quadrant, Rich Dad’s Guide to Investing, and Rich Kid, Smart Kid). All were initially published by small publishers, PMA members Wharton Publishing and TechPress, respectively. Each publisher went through similar difficulties in getting distribution, publicity, etc. Then the two publishers connected with multilevel marketing companies that created huge undercurrents of demand for their books and the elusive publicity tool–word of mouth. Rich Dad, Poor Dad and the subsequent titles in this group have truly been phenomenal successes, and they illustrate how positioning one book in the right way can escalate the success of subsequent titles by the author/publisher. Initially Rich Dad, Poor Dad was turned down by several distributors! (Smart, eh?) Persistence pays off. On its own, TechPress was able to convince Barnes & Noble and Borders to handle it. Because of the wonderful personal appearances by the author(s), it began to sell. And guess what? The distributors became interested. TechPress went with one of the larger distributors, but its needs quickly grew well beyond the distributor’s capability. A co-publishing arrangement was then made with Time Warner. The accolades Rich Dad, Poor Dad has gained are countless. It’s achieved every bestseller list and was named Best Book of the Year by Business Week. The subsequent three titles have also become bestsellers. Three new titles will follow in these illustrious footsteps in June. In addition to helping TechPress in other matters, I’ve been privileged to handle their foreign rights, which currently exceed 60 different translation rights deals in countries as large as Japan, Germany, China, and Korea and as small as Slovenia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, and Iceland. Rich Dad, Poor Dad has even achieved bestseller status in most of these 60+ countries. Sales of the Korean publisher’s edition are approaching 1 million copies in its first full year! The talent in TechPress’s artistry has been widespread and well orchestrated. Robert Kiyosaki (co-author) is a magnificent and tireless speaker who communicates extremely well with his audiences in a manner in which they feel spoken to, not at. Sharon Lechter (co-author and publisher) is a tremendous businesswoman who knows how to ask questions, evaluate the answers, and make sound judgments.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Before some readers of this article were even born, there was Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull! I worked for its large New York publisher, Macmillan, who at that time was one of the top three publishing houses in the world producing literally thousands of new titles annually in every category imaginable. We published this tiny little book of very few pages that our school department had listed in its catalog as 5th grade material. Little did we know what was in store for us! Since our expectations were not high, we did a very small first printing. Our premonitions were initially correct, since after a very long time we still had most of that first printing in our warehouse in Riverside, New Jersey. Then it happened! Talent kicked in. Reader’s Digest ran an excerpt and the rest, as they say, is history. The timing was perfect. In those days, it was very popular to be of the “free spirit” mindset. And everyone was testing the waters of that mindset! What could have been better than to read about the wisdom gained from a seagull while strolling on the beach! The exposure gained from the talented work of Macmillan’s publicity people in securing a serialization deal with Reader’s Digest was the catalyst that launched this mega-bestseller; millions and millions of copies are now in print. We took advantage of each and every opportunity that surfaced, including mass-market paperback, foreign, and movie rights. I had to chuckle a few years ago when I saw that Macmillan was still seizing the opportunity by introducing a 25th Anniversary Edition of Jonathan Livingston Seagull in a silverslipcase. The talent here, of course, was the persistence of the publicity department to get the Reader’s Digest excerpt, and there was also a lot of luck with timing!

The Old Turtle

Now here is an excellent example of talent. A few years ago, Don Tubesing called me. He is with Pfeifer-Hamilton, a small regional publisher for whom I had done some earlier consulting work. Don said, “Bob, for some reason, I’ve published a children’s’ book, and it seems to be doing pretty well here locally. I think it might have some national potential. Can you help me?” He sent two of his marketing people to spend a few days with me to develop a marketing plan. As a small, regional publisher that had never done much on a national scale, there were several considerations. Money was certainly one. If the book took off nationally as well as it had done in the publisher’s home state, tens of thousands of copies would need to be printed requiring substantial cash that simply wasn’t available. And what about the risk? What if we printed all those books and it bombed? Ugh!! Finally, Pfeifer-Hamilton had never done business with the major chains on a national basis, so how could we get their support? Answers: We developed a strategy of creating groundswells in markets that were significant but manageable. (Not New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles!) The book dealt with the environment, and although not exactly religious, it held to the idea that there was a “Supreme Being” (God). That year, Earth Week and Easter Week were the same, so we opportunistically took advantage by using that timing to launch The Old Turtle. We chose three market areas that were: (1) Large enough to be significant but small enough to manage, (2) Environmentally sensitive, and (3) Geographically diverse. As a big believer in the need and effectiveness of publicity, I recommended that we engage the skills of one of the best hands-on publicists in the business (Alice Acheson). With Pfeifer-Hamilton’s marketing director, Carlene Supola, I visited the major accounts to convince them about our “groundswell” strategy and that we needed their support in those three market areas. If we were successful in those, we would roll out the same strategy in another three, then another three, and so on. We blanketed each market area for about four weeks with Alice’s great publicity backed up with good inventory in the chains. We proved to the national chains that Pfeifer-Hamilton had the talent needed to run a campaign and produce a quality and very salable product. Now, about eight years later, The Old Turtle has sold about 1 million copies as well as winning several important awards including the coveted Abby Award presented by the American Booksellers Association.

It Takes Talent!

There have been others, and God willing, there will be more. But I’m certain the artistry in creating bestsellers will always be similar to Dottie’s talent. Publishers can read all the publishing books, get all the sage advice from publishing experts, attend all the publishing workshops and seminars. But the bottom line is that the publisher needs to have the talent to orchestrate all the elements necessary to create its own piece of art.

Bob Erdmann is a California-based publishing consultant. As a two-term President of PMA, he created the highly successful Trade Distribution Program that has gained $10 million in sales for PMA members. Erdmann’s worldwide clients use his consulting services to help them reach that bestseller status. He can be contacted via phone at 707/726-9200; fax: 707/726-9300; and e-mail: BobErdmann@aol.com.

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