Reading Between the Lines of the List: Bestsellers Not Best Writers

“It’s a bestseller list, not a best writer list.” That’s what a writer said to me, and it’s true as it is simple. It makes a crucial point about thinking about your work. Danielle Steel and Jonathan Franzen write differently, but their fans love their work.. One thing they have in common: their books work so well for so many readers that they’re both members of the bestseller club.

This is why you need readers to give you feedback as you write and after you’re finished. Only readers who know writing or the kind of book you’re writing can give you the feedback you need. If your budget allows, find a freelance editor who’s worked on books like yours that have sold to the kind of publishers you want to buy your book to get a professional’s perspective on whether your manuscript to market.

Mark Coker is a wonderful guy who is the founder and CEO of the fast-growing ebook publisher Smashwords. He’s a sponsor of and speaks at the San Francisco Writers Conference. At a lunch with a group of agents (Elizabeth likes to call us a coven), Mark made me realize that ebooks have disintermediated all of the people between authors and readers. There’s a pure unbroken connection between writers and readers. There are extremely successful ebook authors who don’t promote their work.

This means that the readers around the world who do find their books tell their networks to read them. Readers are becoming curators. They’re replacing traditional reviews and marketing. Online reviews and word of mouse will make any book succeed, regardless of who publishes it or how. A portent of things to come: Smashwords is already selling more books abroad than it is in the United States in Apple’s iBookstore.

Mark predicts that by the end of 2012, consumers will buy more ebooks than print books.  One sign that he may be right: the day Janet Evanovich’s new book Smokin’ Seventeen went on sale, it sold 100,000 copies in hardcover and just as many ebooks.

The fate of a book still comes down to the response of the first group of readers to buy it. How enthusiastic they are is more important than how many of them there are. Nothing will stop a great read from finding its audience. This helps explain why self-published books like The Shack and The Christmas Box became bestsellers.

Whether your book is literary, mainstream, commercial, or practical, if it delivers well enough, your future is assured. One way to prove your book will sell as well as you want it to is to test-market it in as many media as you can, including as an ebook.

If you’re giving talks or have other ways to sell it, do a print-on-demand book. Prove it works. The reviews and testimonies you post on your website will help convince a publisher and more readers to buy it. Sell enough copies, and agents and editors will come looking for you, but you may decide that you’d be better off continuing to do it yourself.

A bonus for reading this far: if you visit, you can download an excellent guide for promoting your book.

 The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 16-20, 2012 / / [email protected] / 415-673-0939 / / @SFWC / / 1029 Jones St. / San Francisco, CA 94109 / San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean / free classes / / [email protected] / @SFWritersU