The online magazine Slate ran a story this morning that does a good job of dissecting book sales over the past year. In it, Laura Miller explains how the New York Times
compiles its best sellers lists (it isn't broadly based on sales, but a survey of certain, secret bookstores), how it was gamed this year, and then examines subsets of fiction and nonfiction to see what has sold well.
In the midst of it, she explains some of the why these books did well, or not.
It is worth reading this story--I have to confess, I am not a huge fan of Slate--because Miller sums the year up well and as artists, we need to also have part of our brain in the business of our art.
There are a couple of pullouts I noticed in Miller's report. The first is that books are not movies. Movies must make money right away in order to be viewed as a success. Unless it is from a well-known author (Dan Brown, Danielle Steele, JK Rowling, etc.) books rarely are breakout hits in their first week much less first year or even two.
Instead, most books that end up doing well from new or moderately known authors require a period of intensive selling. This can be months and even years.
So the takeaway is that we cannot and should not view book sales within the frame of a calendar year. Publishers should because they need to keep track of the bottom line, but everyone else should realize that books have lifespans and require effort.
The second piece is that Miller notes agents and publishers are sick of a genre related to the book Gone Girl. Yet, these books are selling well. If you write in this genre--intentionally or by happenstance--are you going to be rejected because the publishing establishment is sick of a genre that sells well? Or will you get short shrift because they are bored?
Last, the vaunted author's platform is getting harder and harder to create. In past posts I've written about the proliferation of insipid writing advice the often comes in the form of top ten lists, such as for dialogue, plot, etc. They are generally crap because the tips are obvious and bring nothing new to the conversation or understanding of how to write.
What they are designed to do is help a writer build a platform. Amazingly, it works for some and they have fairly healthy followings. However, because SO MANY ARE DOING THIS NOW, the competition for that audience is intense and I believe the wave has crested. The audience is looking for something better, more authentic, and that is new.
Further, the media is fractured. There are few media outlets (and social network sites) that can draw a large audience to what you've written or that can help you build a platform.
My advice is rather than build your own platform and drive yourself crazy watching your blog, Twitter, etc. followers never grow beyond about 500, leverage someone else's audience. There's ways to do this and you're welcome to give me a call or send an email and ask.