Tag Archives: Bestsellers

Breakout Books

The following piece was published ten or fifteen years ago.  If I didn’t think it still had validity I wouldn’t reprint it here…



FROM TIME TO TIME a writer bursts upon the literary scene with a first novel of astonishing accomplishment, and the world gasps as if witnessing the genesis of a supernova out of a hitherto undetected star. Critics poring over the author’s pedigree for clues to his development usually find only such banal biographical facts as that he was a reporter for his high school yearbook or a bridge columnist for some obscure midwestern newspaper. But this author had apparently been struck to his knees by a sublime inspiration and spewed the work out of his soul in one volcanic eruption. One thinks of Catch-22, The Naked and the Dead, Gone with the Wind, or Raintree County. In some cases the author never again rises to the height of his first book, and in not a few the author never writes another book at all. But that first book is enough to make the author’s name a household one forever after.

Professional writers often greet such events with mixed emotions.


Death Spiral, Where is Thy Sting?

Only a few years ago, a 50% reduction in the first printing of a bestselling author would mean she had entered the dreaded Death Spiral from which there is no recovery.

For those of you who have not been trapped in the cockpit of a plummeting career, the Death Spiral works like this.  If the printing of your first novel was 100,000 but net sales were only 35,000, your publisher will print only 35,000 of your second book.  And if that one nets only 15,000 your publisher will print only 15,000 of your third book – if your publisher is loyal enough to offer you a contract on a third book.  In all too many cases, as printings and sales spin to earth in a sickening downdraft of failure, publishers will not sign you up for new books.

Blockbuster author Jean Auel – 45 million copies of her Earth’s Children prehistoricals  in print worldwide – has just taken a big hit with the printing of the sixth book in the series, Land of the Painted Caves. Her publisher, Crown, issued 465,000 copies, a big drop over prior printings.  Yet neither she nor her publisher seem overly concerned.  Why?

“There has been a sea change in publishing since Ms. Auel’s last book, ” says New York Times book beat reporter Julie Bosman.  “In the last year, many anticipated novels have sold as many e-books as print books in the first week of publication.” Auel says ““I don’t care if they read it in e-book or in hardcover….If they enjoy it, I don’t have any objection.”

For authors threatened with a nosedive, e-books may be the wind beneath their wings.

Read Promoting Jean Auel’s ‘Land of Painted Caves’ as an E-Book.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the New York Times.


America Became Literate on Christmas Morning

Every month we eagerly await the e-book sales report issued by the Association of American Publishers and International Digital Publishing Forum. But we’ll be biting our fingernails until mid-February and mid-March when the respective stats for December and January are issued.  We’re dying to see whether predictions of the tidal wave of sales predicted for January come true.

For instance, USA Today trumpeted “Millions of gift-wrapped iPads, Kindles, Nooks and other digital reading devices resulted in an unprecedented surge in sales of e-books last week.”

How big a surge?  We can only speculate but the dimensions can be inferred from USA Today‘s bestseller list: a week after Christmas e-editions of the top six books outsold print editions.  Furthermore, say reporters Bob Minzesheimer and Carol Memmott, “Of the top 50, 19 had higher e-book than print sales. It’s the first time the top-50 list has had more than two titles in which the e-version outsold print.”

Not convinced?  That same week, 165,000 Stieg Larsson e-books were sold, exceeding by 10,000 the number of Larsson p-books.

Still not convinced?  Barnes & Noble says it sold 1 million e-books on Christmas Day.

Details in Week after holidays, e-book sales outdo print

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by USA Today.


Times Deems E-Books Bestsellerlistworthy

Back in July 2009 USA Today began tracking Kindle bestsellers. Now the New York Times will provide an e-book bestseller list commencing early next year.  It will include not just Kindle sales but sales in all formats. We’re not sure how the listmakers will weight Kindle vs. iPad vs. Sony vs. Nook etc., and if the Times‘s secretive selection process for print book bestsellers is carried over, we’ll never know how it’s done for e-books, either. But you can try asking Janet Elder. She’s the editor at the newspaper tasked with surveys and analyses.

Julie Bosman, who covers the book biz eat for the Times, reports that the paper “will also redesign the section of its Sunday Book Review that features the best-seller lists.  She quotes Sam Tanenhaus, the Book Review’s editor: “To give the fullest and most accurate possible snapshot of what books are being read at a given moment you have to include as many different formats as possible, and e-books have really grown, there’s no question about it.”

Details in Times Will Rank E-Book Best Sellers.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by The New York Times.


Amazon Cuts the BS

As of this writing, the top ten titles on Amazon.com’s Kindle bestseller list are free. Does that devalue the list in your mind?

Before you say yes, ask yourself whether you’d rather have a #10 book on the for-pay bestseller list or a #1 on the free list? Motoko Rich, former book biz reporter for the New York Times, wrote that “if a free e-book rises to the top of the Kindle best-seller list — or Barnes & Noble’s ranked list of free e-books — it automatically gives an author more visibility. ‘When you push to No. 1 of any best-seller list, that in itself seems to beget publicity,’ said Brandilyn Collins, who writes suspense novels with Christian themes and whose novels “Exposure” and “Dark Pursuit” were No. 1 and 2 on the Kindle best-seller list earlier this month and remain in the Top 10 (and are still available free).” (See With Kindle, the Bestsellers Don’t Need to Sell.)

Whether you see it that way or not, Amazon has decided to split off the frees from the for-pays. Publishers Weekly‘s Rachel Deahl reveals that Amazon’s practice of lumping the two together “will soon no longer be an issue. A representative at the e-tailer has confirmed that the company will be splitting its Kindle bestseller list, creating one list for paid books and another for free titles. The date for the switch is vague—the rep would only say it will happen in ‘a few weeks’—but the switch will certainly be noticed.”

As counterintuitive as it may sound, I’m not sure I think this is a completely desirable shift.  While traditional listkeepers would recoil in horror at the idea of folding giveaway e-books into the paid bestseller list, digital technology has turned so many traditions on their ear – why not this one?  As I said to Ms. Deahl, who interviewed me for her article, popular free e-books reveal as much about consumer tastes as popular sold ones.

Another consideration is scale. Maybe it’s more important for the fledgling e-book business to concern itself with quantity rather than quality. Bestseller lists are generated by the velocity of sales in any concentrated time period. Most free e-books, like most paid ones, sell at a modest velocity.  Perhaps we can learn from those that move rapidly, even if some of them do so because a publisher is hyping them.

That said, splitting the list does give us a significant new way to judge e-book consumption.  We can now compare what people are reading to what they are buying.

The changeover in Kindle metrics may have another effect, according to Ms. Deahl: “After Amazon splits its lists, writers may soon find more competition—and potentially less payoff—for getting to the top of the free downloads list. Then again, maybe not. Getting to the top of any heap, as author Brandilyn Collins told Rich in the Times, is a good thing.”

By the way, we should take a cue from Ms. Deahl and refer not to “free bestsellers”, a grammatical car wreck if there ever was one, but to the “free downloads list”.

In any event, do read Amazon to Drop Free Books from Kindle Bestseller List

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the New York Times and Publishers Weekly.



Early in the 1980s I had the privilege of serving as agent for The 13th Valley by John Del Vecchio, a stunning novel about the Vietnam War. I remember making an appointment with Marc Jaffe, the legendary editorial director of Bantam Books whom I held in awe, and handing him the manuscript saying,  “I’ve waited years to have something worthy enough to submit to you.”

Bantam acquired and published it and it garnered the kind of notices that few authors and agents dare to dream of.  Many of them said it there would never be so fine a book about the war as The 13th Valley. As Vietnam and its lessons faded in memory, tragically supplanted by other wars, it looked pretty certain that indeed there would never be another work of fiction about that episode to match The 13th Valley.

So, I was surprised and intrigued when Matterhorn, a novel by Karl Merlantes about the Vietnam War published by Grove Atlantic, arrived on my desk a week or two ago with a personal note from Jofie Ferrari-Adler, its editor, commending it to me.  Ferrari-Adler is not only a fine editor in the classic mold but the author of a wonderful series of interviews with distinguished editors and literary agents published in Poets & Writers.

On the strength of his passionate recommendation I read Matterhorn over the last week and completely concur with him: for raw terror and heartbreak you will seldom read a better book about Vietnam or any other war.  And yes, it more than holds its own with The 13th Valley.  Early in the book a medical crisis – every male’s worst nightmare – arises so horrifying that I defy any man to read it without doubling over in abject dread.

And things only grow worse from there.  Far, far worse. Terribly, terribly worse.

The lesson of Matterhorn is not just that war is hell, but that we forget so quickly and completely that war is hell. Twenty years separate World War I, the war that was supposed to end all wars, from World War II; five from that one to Korea; ten from Korea to Vietnam; twenty to Desert Storm and ten to the second Iraq war. Matterhorn bears witness to the truth that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.  For that reason alone it must be read.

Perhaps the most endearing tradition in our industry and one that cannot be duplicated in the digital era is the bestowal of books by editors upon publishing colleagues.  The gift says something about the giver, the recipient, and the gift itself.   “We share visions! We share tastes! We share viewpoints! We share passions!”  When you hear its denizens talk about “The publishing community” it’s that collective frame of reference that homogenizes disparate and sometimes warring elements around that mute object, the book.

Sadly, the economics of our industry have compromised this tradition. But from time to time a book will fetch up on my desk or be handed to me across the luncheon table and the editor will say “You simply have GOT to read this!” and we remember why we’re still in this business.

And that is my way of publicly thanking Jofie Ferrari-Adler for this precious gift. The best way for me to repay him is to say: You simply have GOT to read Matterhorn.

Richard Curtis


Everything Else Going Digital, Why Not Bestseller List?

While the digital revolution has redefined such terms as “book”, “author”, and “publisher”, the bestseller list has remained more or less immutable. It’s still pretty much the Sunday New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and a few other well respected gatekeepers like the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

There are countless imitators and emulators but until last year they were all based on the same fundamental principle, the velocity with which print books flow through checkout counters. They offer a snapshot of what the public is reading. But – given the growing popularity of e-books, are the old BS lists beginning to sound like…well, BS?

The e-book camel got its nose under the bestseller tent last July when USA Today announced it would include Kindle sales in its metrics. This week the newspaper added the Barnes & Noble Nook and Sony’s Reader™. According to the paper’s press release, USA Today‘s “list ranks titles regardless of genre or format, providing one of the best assessments of which books are most popular among readers and consumers each week.” USA Today boasts a daily print circulation of almost 2 million. It’s website, usatoday.com, claims to reach over 6 million daily.

How much will the addition of e-books impact on the bestseller lists of t0morrow? It will be interesting to find out. With Google, Amazon, Sony and B&N claiming e-warehouses of between 500,000 and 1 million books, the influx of titles into the list may skew the rankings like an elephant sitting on a see-saw.

Here’s the press release: USA TODAY’S Best-Selling Books List Continues to Add Digital Sales Information

Richard Curtis


Big Box Chain Targets Obscure Books for Breakout

Michaelangelo had his Lorenzo de’ Medici, and Beethoven his Count Razumovsky. But where are today’s patrons of the arts? Tatiana de Rosnay, whose St. Martin’s Press novel Sarah’s Key has spent some six months on the bestseller list, might well claim Target as hers.


Not long after publication de Rosnay’s novel was nearly on life support until the discount retailer waved its magic wand over it, selecting it as a Bookmarked Club Pick and vigorously displaying and promoting it to customers. This blessing exalted Sarah’s Key to the Times list, with Target alone contributing more than 145,000 sales in its 1700 stores.

Through its book club, as well as a program it calls Bookmarked Breakout, both started in 2005, the company has highlighted largely unknown writers, helping their books find their way into shopping carts filled with paper towels, cereal and shampoo,” writes the New York Times’s Motoko Rich. The chain’s success rate is all the more remarkable in that it carries no more than 2,500 books a year, according to Rich, but every one of them is displayed face out.

How does Target do it? Rich quotes Patrick Nolan, director of Penguin Group USA’s trade paperback sales division: “Target says every month, ‘Here are some new titles we’re bringing to you, and you can trust us, even if you haven’t heard of them,’ That is a very different approach.”

Read details here and learn about some other titles that Target has rescued from obscurity and lofted onto a pedestal.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the New York Times.


Dan Brown Book Killer Shoves McMurtry, Brooks, King Off The Road

September is traditionally the month when publishers release their biggest books. The strategy is to lock bestsellers into bookstores through winter and capture the Christmas sweepstakes. Christmas is by a wide margin bookselling’s biggest season.

But major book houses are pulling to the side of the road to let Dan Brown’s behemoth The Lost Symbol, with a purported 6.5 million first printing, rush past. Hopefully the vacuum created by its sweep to Number 1 on the bestseller list will suck some other books into its slipstream. Among those books are novels by authors who at any other time would seize and occupy that list – Larry McMurtry, Terry Brooks and Stephen King among them.

Instead, their publishers are scrambling to rearrange publication release dates or reconfigure sales and marketing strategies.

Read about it in this article in London’s Times Online. The headline says Brown’s book has created “panic” among its rivals. Sara Nelson, former editor in chief of Publishers Weekly, called The Lost Symbol a “book killer.”



Does Dan Brown Have the Atomic Bomb?

Given the hysterical headline of an article on the Guardian.co.uk’s Observer website, either Dan Brown has become a world superpower or the Guardian’s staff has contracted a fatal case of Hyperbolicism, or “Hype” for short. Or maybe they’ve forgotten that the same thing was said about Riding the Bullet, Stephen King’s novella, when it was published originally online in 2000. Anyway, here’s the headline:

Could Dan Brown’s new novel spell the end for the printed word?

And the subheadline:

“Hopes are high for Dan Brown’s sequel to The Da Vinci Code, with an ebook version of The Lost Symbol expected to transform a struggling publishing industry.”

It’s all about the release of Brown’s new thriller, The Lost Symbol, set for release on September 15. The Observer says the print run will be six and a half million. After the over-the-moon nuttiness of the headline I’d be inclined to check that figure. We’re certainly happy to confirm that Brown’s book will be a blockbuster bestseller and we will welcome the e-book edition’s appearance at the top of the format’s bestseller list. We just suspect that the printed book will still be standing when the book’s surge, and the hype, are over.

If there’s a nugget of news in this conflated story it’s that the e-book will be released simultaneously with the print edition. The business wisdom of simultaneous e-book and p-book publication has been fiercely debated with sharply divided opinions expressed by both pro and con supporters.