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What Vaults a Book to the Top of the List?

by Dee Power Copyright 2005

The business of books is big business with 175,000 new titles released each year and sales in the United States of about $40 billion. But what makes a book successful? Are there any common characteristics that can spur on sales? As part of the research for The Making of a Bestseller Dee Power and Brian Hill, the authors, surveyed over 100 editors and agents to answer those questions.

Previous Success is the Key Indicator of Future Success

Editors and agents are in agreement that an author’s previous bestselling book is the key factor in determining future success. Publishers Weekly, an industry publication, recently disclosed that 90% of the authors who made the PW bestseller list in 2004, had had a previous book on the bestseller list.

Quality of Writing is Paramount

For writers yet to produce a bestseller, comfort can be taken in that both agents and editors rank quality of writing highly. Great writing wins out. However, there are no hard and fast criteria about what constitutes “great writing.” It comes down to subjective judgments made by individuals. Book critics may argue that a successful book by the very virtue of its sale's success can not be considered great writing.

Reviews, Whether Good or Bad, Don’t Count

And speaking of reviews, the survey participants discounted the importance of reviews to nearly last place in sparking sales of a book. This contradicts the advice given to “new” authors that it is critical they get their books reviewed. These results could also indicate that as an author becomes more successful, has built a fan base and has had previous bestsellers, reviews decline in importance.

Timeliness of Topic is of the Essence

Old news is bad news when it comes to the subject of a book’s topic. Common sense dictates that there isn’t much interest in topics that have already been hashed over by the daily news media. Since book production takes from six to 12 months, it’s an amazing feat to get a book on a hot topic out to the market at just the right time.

Word of Mouth and Fan Base

Readers telling other readers about a fabulous book they’ve just read has a tremendous impact on success. Book buzz is priceless in the publishing industry. Authors on the upward sales track take their fans seriously.

What’s Not As Important

Reviews have already been mentioned as not having as great an effect on success. Promotional efforts whether those of the publishing house or the author’s, fall toward the lesser end of the scale in importance as well. Advertising doesn’t seem to be as important either.

Money Doesn’t Count

Contrary to popular belief, or perhaps it’s just wishful thinking on the part of the author, the size of the advance paid isn’t a significant factor to success.

The most important factors in a book’s success,
in order, are:

Previous book was a bestseller
Quality of writing
Timeliness of topic
Fan base
Word of mouth
Author’s promotion
Size of advance

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