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The Tortoise Strategy in Action: Bestseller Case Studies

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by Deb Vanasse, IBPA Independent staff reporter

Deb Vanasse

Within the publishing industry, bestsellers are conventionally defined in terms of rapid sales that occur during the launch period, resulting in bestseller lists that show early buying trends which may or may not lead to sizable sales over the long term. That fast start by Aesop’s hare, after all, was no guarantee of success.

Drawing on strengths that include a focus on readers, perseverance, and commitment to a core list, independent publishers take a longer and broader view of the bestseller. Their sales figures prove the significance of a simple yet powerful factor in a book’s ultimate success—continued attention over time.

Eyes on Results for Readers

When Curt Matthews, co-founder of Chicago Review Press, received a very short cover letter describing the project that would become Outwitting Squirrels, by Bill Adler, he knew the concept was “a screaming winner.” In the suburbs, he says, what people talk about are schools and how to keep squirrels out of bird feeders.

Photo of Curt Matthews

Curt Matthews

Time has proven him right. Sales of Outwitting Squirrels, first published in 1996, have surpassed half a million. Now in its sixth edition, the book continues to draw attention. “Every three or four years, it gets reviewed again in the Wall Street Journal,” Matthews reports.

Attention to the interests of readers led the Chicago Review Press to acquire another title that has achieved impressive sales figures over the years. First published in 2001, Backyard Ballistics, by William Gurstelle, is about “stuff adolescent boys adore,” Matthews says. When he brought the book home, his son was so enthralled with the projects described in its pages—including a cannon powered by hair spray that shoots potatoes 200 yards—that Matthews ran right out and purchased the materials.

“These are the sorts of books I love to publish,” Matthews declares, not only because of sales figures—this title has sold more than 750,000 copies so far—but also because of what the books do for their readers. Backyard Ballistics, for instance, encourages kids to become “first rate scientists” by explaining the physics behind the fun.

In addition to these how-to titles, Matthews points to a memoir as an example of a book that has sold hundreds of thousands of copies over time. The Chicago Review Press first published Assata, by Black Panther activist Assata Shakur, in 1988. Noting that the book continues to sell very well, Matthews credits its popularity to “a fine mind” working on the perennial problem of racism. And while the situation that thrust Shakur into the limelight is now history—shot twice by a New Jersey police officer, she was charged with the officer’s murder—the recent opening of relations between the United States and Cuba, where she fled to escape prosecution, has put her back in the news.

Intuiting Signs of Appeal

Sometimes the factors that draw readers to particular books, turning the titles into bestsellers over time, are tougher to discern. O.T. Nelson was a housepainter when he wrote The Girl Who Owned a City, saying he wanted “children to realize that they are important and that they have the ability to think and make a difference.” When the unsolicited manuscript crossed the desk of Henry Lerner, founder of Lerner Books, he liked the novel and decided to acquire it—“As simple as that,” says Lerner publicist Katie O’Neel.

First released with a print run of 5,000 copies in 1975, The Girl Who Owned a City now has well over 200,000 copies in print, O’Neel notes. In 1995, Lerner released a new edition, and in 2012 it released a graphic novel version of the story.

Kathryn Otoshi Headshot

Kathryn Otoshi

For Kathryn Otoshi, owner of KO Kids Books, it was clear from the beginning that there was something special about her children’s book One. “While I had written a few other books before One,” Otoshi explains, “this was the first book people responded to by actually saying, ‘Wow, big publishers would love this one! You should sell it!’”

But Otoshi wanted to publish a book with sales that would please Publishers Group West (PGW), the distributor of her other titles. “Plus, conceptually, the book One was about the power of one,” Otoshi reasoned, “so of all my books, wouldn’t it make the most sense to publish this title myself?” She did exactly that, releasing One through KO Kids Books in 2008.

“I remember holding the unfinished copy in my hands and telling my partner, Daniel Jeannette, that this book felt different. It was the first children’s picture book I had ever done that dealt with symbolism, where colors (red, blue, purple, etc.) represented characters with varying personalities and emotions.”

The Girl Who Owned a City CoversReaders responded enthusiastically. Beyond the target market of children ages three to seven, One has sold well among teens, college students, school counselors, educators, and psychologists. Various organizations also picked it up “based on its empowering theme,” Otoshi reports, citing women’s shelters and character education programs among the examples. Following an initial print run of 8,000, One has sold more than 250,000 copies.

Marketing Moves

When the first edition of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, by Brian Patton and Bart Robinson, was released in 1971, there were no other hiking guides to the region, Andrew Hempstead recalls. The co-owner of Summerthought Publishing, Hempstead says the book had “no marketing,” except that “the authors would park at popular hiking trails and sell it out of the back of their vehicles.”

After an initial print run of 5,000 and a second run of 5,000 three months later, Hempstead estimates total sales now top 260,000. “Word of mouth has been our best marketing tool,” he explains, coupled with Summerthought’s intimate knowledge of the market for the book.

Otoshi applied strategies from her previous work in the film industry to get people talking about One even before it came out. When you think about how a movie is released, she explains, “you start seeing teasers, trailers, and advertisements. Then as it gets closer to the movie’s release date, you’re bombarded with more reviews, promo, and PR to build up the excitement. By the time the movie is released, everyone knows about the movie. The same goes for your book. Everyone should know about your book by the time that it’s launched.”

For Lerner, the focus was on traditional school and library markets, which the publisher alerted to The Girl Who Owned a City with the same kinds of direct mail campaigns it uses to promote other titles. Those campaigns initially fueled interest in the book, and it “reviewed well,” O’Neel says, “but more importantly, kids liked it.”

By continuing to promote their entire lists over time, independent publishers keep readers talking about their bestsellers. “The game we play is to put them out and support them,” says Matthews.

As Hempstead points out, an independent publisher’s ability to connect one-on-one with book buyers can make all the difference. In the case of the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide, connecting includes delivering the book in person and talking with vendors about changes that might be helpful in updated editions. “We also work with local visitor centers and park staff who recommend the book,” he adds.

“When you look at your book, think about the different demographics it appeals to and then build programs,” Otoshi recommends. “Think organically and let the world respond and guide where your book should go. I saw that kids were doing skits with One, and that gave me an idea to start doing skits with students in my own presentations. Girl Scouts were making murals of One; some schools did lightshows, and recently a professional dance company in New Jersey, the Lustig Studio, did a ballet of One. This is the world responding in its own ways to my story.”

Guidelines for Slow-Growth Successes

Bestsellers make everyone happy—publishers, authors, and readers. By committing to the long view of success, independent publishers allow their titles the time the books need to rack up impressive sales figures.

Still, not every title is destined for bestseller status. “The truth is that it’s very hard to write a good book,” says Matthews. And even with the best efforts in writing, editing, and marketing, he notes, a publisher “can’t hit it all the time.”

Otoshi agrees: “Not every book will appeal to the mass market, nor should you force it to if it’s not meant to be that kind of book.” But for those titles that inspire readers, she adds, the potential for growth is “limitless.”

When aiming to acquire bestsellers, Matthews and Hempstead recommend that publishers look for books that address the needs of niche markets—and the larger the niche, the better. “So much of the [traditional] bestseller-think is creating the demand,” Matthews explains. “What independent publishers can do is create the book that readers are waiting for.”

The other advantage that allows independent publishers to grow bestsellers over time? Perseverance. “We don’t give up on books,” Matthews says. “We don’t put them out of print.”

Deb Vanasse, who co-founded 49 Writers and founded the author co-op Running Fox Books, is the author of 16 books. Her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; and What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion; along with Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold (April 2016).

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