Opening Remarks
Publishing Passions

What Makes a Bestseller?

This is a loaded question, and one that can have a variety of answers.  How passionate is the author about the topic/subject?  Are they able to write in an engaging manner?  Is this book unique or are there 3 others just like it already in stores?  Assuming the answers to these questions are favorable, there are typically three key ingredients for success in any type of publishing: platform, placement and promotion.

By "platform", I mean author platform, primarily.  Years ago, this implied things like author visibility, speaking engagements, whether they're a regular columnist in a key magazine, etc.  These are still important pieces, but now you have to add in things like how popular their blog is, how large an e-mail list they have access to, etc.  That's one of the reasons why I'm so excited to be part of the team that's going to publish Robert Scoble's and Shel Israel's upcoming book on blogging.  These guys have an enormous platform which will help drive sales of the book.

The placement component rests on the shoulders of the publisher.  You obviously can't sell a copy of a book if the store doesn't have it, but ensuring there's at least one copy on the shelf is only part of the battle.  You need to devise a plan that helps this book rise above the shelf noise created by all the other books.  That's where placement's close cousin, promotion, comes into play.

Promotion is often the trickiest piece of the puzzle.  I've seen far too many cases where promotional dollars were spent trying to increase awareness, only to result in a disappointingly modest increase in sales.  Authors often push their publishers to spend a load of money on ads in trade magazines and newspapers, for example.  I'd rather spend that same money on a promotion with one of the key booksellers.  Remember my earlier point about rising above the shelf noise?  The best way to win this battle is to put a book in one of the highly coveted promotional slots in the store.  This results in placement on an endcap, in the aisle, by the cash register, etc., along with a nice discount to the customer (typically 20-40% off) -- now that's where you start to move the sales needle.  A full-page ad in USA Today is great, but wouldn't you rather catch that same customer in the store with their wallet in hand, ready to close the transaction?

If you're a published author, don't go beat up your editor because your book never made it into an in-store promotion.  Only a small number of books can be promoted like this at any time.  Most promotional decisions are jointly made by the publisher and the buyer who works for the store/chain.  Lots of factors go into this, and maybe that's a good subject for a future blog entry...  Btw, although this seems to focus exclusively on brick-and-mortar sales, similar promotional techniques work for the online resellers: cover placement on a subject page at Amazon, their "Better Together" promotions (where they encourage you to buy two related books rather than just one) or inclusion in one of their e-mail blasts can have a huge impact on sales.

I wrote about author platform first because I feel it's the single most important ingredient for a bestseller.  Sure, placement and promotional activity can boost sales of just about any book.  But the sales difference between a book written by an author with a solid platform vs. one with a lesser or no platform is huge.  Thanks to all the platform vehicles available these days, authors can help drive more sales than ever before.

If you're already an author or just thinking about writing a book, take the time to develop an inventory of your own author platform.  Just because you don't have a website with tons of traffic or an e-mail list with a million names doesn't mean you have nothing to offer.  Are there any contacts in your address book who do have access to these things?  If so, how can you leverage that relationship?  The more tangible platform components you bring to the table, the greater the likelihood of getting an editor's attention -- more importantly, the greater the likelihood of becoming a bestseller.


John Nardini

Excellent article! I've been on all sides of the publishing equation -- publisher, author, retailer, and agent -- and can say this is one of the best summaries of what makes a bestseller that I've ever seen. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but these are the rules. I've added you to News Gator, so I'll be reading more, though I'd prefer football or Nascar over baseball. :-)

Joe Wikert

Thanks John. I appreciate the support. I'm not much of a Nascar fan, but I'll probably have some comments about my favorite team (Steelers) when the NFL season starts.

David Mayhew

What, no Big Ten basketball posts? I guess we should be glad Joe's Boilermakers are having the season they're having this year. Watching a prolonged series of playoff games would really cut into his blogging time....

All kidding aside, keep the good stuff coming, Joe.

Ellen Gerstein

Wondeful points, Joe. Here's a thought - you bring up the importance of in store promotion, but how do you get the customer in the store in the first place? Maybe a full page USA Today ad isn't the way for every book, but somehow the message has to get out to the bookbuying public. Not every book will get a full blown marketing campaign, or even participate in any advertising, but there are a lot of other ways to let customers know that they want, no make that NEED your book. You can't deny the fact that our customer is not often just hanging out in a Barnes & Noble or Borders browsing around for books (note: we in the trade call them B&N or BGI respectively, and we'll probably all start using that shorthand here). If they do go there, our research shows that it's as a desitnation buy, because they heard about a book on "Oprah" or "Today", or they read a postive review of a book in their local newspaper, or even a new piece of software came out and they need to update their systems. Impulse buys are happening less, and if you want to increase your chances of one happening, strong marketing is the way to do so.

You have to put them in the store, or online with a mission - to buy YOUR book, accept no substitutes. How do you do this? There's no hard and fast formula for success. Combine publicity activities, targeted advertising, online promotions, and yes, a strong author platform, and you've got a pretty good chance of rising above the tide.

I'm not encouraging everyone to run to their publishers and demand wide-spread national adverting and billboards in the top 10 cities for their book - the majority of books published couldn't possibly benefit from that. But there are smart ways to go about putting together a promotional campaign. I know something about this, being a marketer at Wiley for the past 10.5 years and having worked on a number of bestsellers on the business and tech shelves. It's not a hard and fast science, and the rules certainly seem to change every day. But I wouldn't trade my job for any other one in publishing (well, *maybe* to be the marketer for "Harry Potter", but that's it, I swear.)

Again, great post, Joe. It certainly shows how exciting this blog is going to be. And remember, you're a Duke fan at heart, really you are...ACC scores and recaps are expected around here.

Joe Wikert

Thanks Ellen. Now the whole world can see why the Publisher isn't entrusted with all the decisions! Seriously, you make some excellent points.

FWIW, I tend to prefer the e-mail blasts that often accompany the in-store placement programs I mentioned in my original post. They're typically well-focused and aimed at readers who have bought similar books in the past. But, I realize there are other tools and I always look to your knowledgeable team to pick the right mix.

David -- Did you really have to bring up the Boilermakers? As Ellen said, I'm now officially a Duke least as long as Purdue continues to stink things up.

Lydia Teh

Dear Mr Wikert

I'm glad to stumble upon this blog. As a Malaysian author with a recently published book Life's Like That - Scenes from Malaysian Life, I have hopes that my book will become a bestseller. And your blog has given some good insights into this subject. Thank you. I hope you'll continue to post entries that will enlighten both writers and readers.

Ed Bott

So, Joe, how do you feel about electronic publishing? Will we see e-books achieve significant (ie, double-digit percentage) market share in the next 10 years? What are the barriers to their adoption?

Joe Wikert

Lydia -- thanks for your kind words. I hope your book becomes a blockbuster!

Ed, it's great to connect with you again! As far as e-publishing is concerned, I think the future is extremely bright. However, I'd be lying if I said that I thought the printed book was going away anytime soon. Even though I used my children in my initial "Publishing Passions" post ( ), I recognize the fact that they use books all the time in school. Since they've grown up with them, I'm sure printed books will be very important to them throughout their lives. However, until we get past the notion of just porting a tree-book to an e-book, we'll probably never see enormous adoption rates.

The biggest barrier I see is this recognition that an e-book needs to be developed with the delivery platform in mind. Wouldn't it be great if you could introduce the concept of a hyperlink to a printed book so that someone could just touch a phrase they don't understand and they're magically taken to a definition of that phrase or the first place it appears in the book? Instead, you have to flip back to the index, look it up, and then jump to that page. Oh, and while you're doing that, you need to keep a thumb on your original page so that you don't lose your place. That capability obviously already exists in the electronic world, but it's not something that's generally built in to e-books. Plus, I believe you have to construct the material in more bite-size chunks in an e-book, allowing users to read just the essentials, then drill down further (with links) if they want.

Imagine how fast you could get through the last book you read if it was constructed this way. I'm not just trying to save time though -- since we're all different, this model would allow us to dip in and out to different levels on any given topic, depending on how far you want to go. What would enable you to do this? It would be possible because the author constructed the book this way. That's not so easy in a printed book. It's this sort of layering of the content that I believe needs to be taken into consideration to build a truly effective e-book.

Joe Wikert

Ed also did a great job summarizing an e-book vision on his own blog:


As an author, I am in full agreement that authors should not pressure publishers into advertising in major trade journals and that pursuit of end-caps has a better return on investment.

I guess you are suggesting that us authors consider getting such requests as clauses into future book contracts a good idea...

James McGovern

Joe Wikert

Boy, if you can get a publisher to put an endcap guarantee into the author agreement you should jump on it! Then again, I'm not sure how long that publisher would be in business. Don't forget that the account/bookstore really makes the final decision on what they want to promote. Yes, publishers certainly influence that, but it's part of they buyer's job to make the final call. IOW, I really couldn't put that sort of language into one of our contracts because I simply cannot guarantee it will happen.

Dave Taylor

Joe, I gave a talk at the last Waterside conference all about promoting technical books and the moment that most stands out for me was when I asked the authors in the room to raise their hands if they thought that the burden of selling their books was on the publishers. Every single author raised their hand, and they all looked shocked and crestfallen when I told them all that they're terribly wrong and that books are sold by authors, not publishers.

The publisher is the enabler, but particularly in this modern networked world, it's buzz, word of mouth, transmission of memes, whatever you want to call it, that sells books. Why do some books on a given subject turn into best sellers even though there are others on the shelf that might actually be better written or more thoughtful? Because authors with passion, enthusiasm, and a ceaseless drive to promote their knowledge in their community of expertise win.

I would love to get a marketing plan from my publishers, I would love to have their VP of Marketing (even at Wiley) call up and say "Dave, we've just agreed on a $100k budget for your book promotion. Where should we start?" but quite frankly, my answer would be "let's start online. Let's start by disseminating the information that's in the book. Let's start by making sure we not only have a good book Web site with lots of content, all the examples, and lots of reasons people should buy the book, but let's also seed 50 opinion leaders -- hopefully with blogs -- so they can write about the book too."

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Here's a peek at one of my book web sites, just as a tangible demonstration of what I'm discussing: Well over 30,000 people have visited this site because it wasn't built as a digital sales brochure, but as an information archive, as a site that would have value unto itself, whether or not the visitor had purchased the book. It still amazes me how many authors don't even want to have a Web site for their book, or are willing to push it out to the publisher who gives it 30-60 minutes of attention then ignores it until the next edition comes out. Surprise, that's a failing strategy for generating any buzz and certainly for long-term book sales.

There's so much more that authors should be doing to promote their books, but all too many believe that they're done once they submit that final edited chapter. And there are too many publishers who don't bother to communicate to authors at the beginning of the project that it's a journey, not an end point. You're not "done" when the book is published, you're really only barely getting started.

Especially when you think about what I've been discussing for the last year, that sales are predicated on being found at the right moment in the sales cycle, not on pushing out your message and trying to sway public opinion and convince someone they need to purchase your product. But that, in fact, is the topic of my next book. :-)

Evelyn Rodriguez

Joe, welcome to the blogosphere. I've heard a lot about the the necessity of a "platform" beforehand. I've gotten to wondering why would an author that has a decent platform chose a traditional publisher over self-publishing. Perhaps you could answer that in a future post?

Kathy Sierra

I'll give my personal reason, FWIW, and it's that I would much rather spend my energy in the business of doing whatever it is that I do/write about, rather than trying to be in the publishing business. I've had friends with a following go the self-publishing route, and it seemed like a ton of non-creative work.
But another huge reason is that a taditional publisher can get the book *out there* in stores both brick-and-mortar and online, in a way that I could never hope to do on my own, no matter how hard I worked. If you have something of real value but it's not in stores, it would be a shame if people simply didn't hear about it, who would otherwise have bumped into it in the bookstore.

Joe Wikert

I think Kathy sums it up pretty well. Distribution, especially into the key accounts, is one of the most important reasons to work with a publisher rather than self-publish. Marketing and promotion are two other considerations. Finally, you need to factor in the editorial value-add that a publisher brings to the table (e.g., development editing, copy editing and tech editing, for computer books). I realize there are services you can hire for this, but it's built into the traditional publisher model.

melissa goff

hey i'm young, but i'm trying to look up the best way to get out there. i'm writing poetry,, and thoughts, kind of a dictionary my own analysis and definitions of words, do you think this sounds interesting, or should i just give up. i know i sound naive but i've been on lulu and i don't like e publishing. even though there may be possibilities. but what every writer first thinks of is there book being picked off a shelf in a library, it's more personal and i would prefer it, just by opinion, am i the ony one sorry for the babble email me please.

Joe Wikert

Hi Melissa. My publishing expertise is about as far removed from poetry as you can get. You might want to do some digging around for other blogs or sites that talk more specifically about that sort of publishing. That, or perhaps start your own poetry blog, see who comes to visit and start asking some of your questions there.


FWIW, I tend to prefer the e-mail blasts that often accompany the in-store placement programs I mentioned in my original post. They're typically well-focused and aimed at readers who have bought similar books in the past. But, I realize there are other tools and I always look to your knowledgeable team to pick the right mix.


Eric R. Ashley

I'm just starting this promotional stuff with my new book "Death of a Blogger" self-published at Lulu. Its a mystery focusing on the blogosphere. So I found it interesting that you were publishing a blogging book.

I'm working hard to get my website high in multiple search engines, have buttons out on my site, went to a conference and handed out some CD's to some bloggers, and I am trying to get out of the 'long tail' of bloggers and into the top twenty percent.

I've reworked my website so that the name of my novel is likely to come up when someone google searches for my site, but of course thats not all that much. What I'd really like to get is google hits for "Blogger Mystery Novel" in the first ten.

I'm hoping to send a copy off to an influential blogger to review it(waiting on an email reply), and I've given one away to an A-lister already hoping he'll like it.

Sadly, my budget is extremely limited, and while I have more time than money, I still have many responsibilities.

Any other suggestions?

Also, I remember reading of "Eragon" which was self-published, and the author went on something like a 300 visit tour, and eventually got picked up by a publishing house for a reprint.

Also, how do you go about getting a book tour set up? Is it worth the time?

I know this is a lot of questions, and I'd understand if you skip a few. Perhaps in further posts...


Dear sir, I would like to get some ideas in making local people reading bestseller books from different part of countries. Most of bestsellers were translated into the local language, but how to make them confident with these translated (by assuming as good) books and make them to buy it?

Mary E. DeMuth

This is a terrific post. I found you through Wildfire Marketing. I have five traditionally published books out there right now, with four more on the way (Harper Collins) and work very, very hard on platform.

*blog, with a high technorati ranking
*growing database
*speaking nationally and internationally
*On TV and radio
*good, solid website

The frustrating part: If a publisher has dropped the ball (I had one go through two major transitions during two book releases), there's really nothing I can do to get the book out there. Though I got a terrific PW review for my novel, the publisher was simply not shipping the book to bookstores (because of transitional issues). That's the frustrating, random part of the business that's really hard to manage.

Also, you wrote: leverage that relationship. I am still pretty leery about leveraging my relationships. I don't want to come across as obsessive compulsive about selling my books in some sort of multi-level marketing frenzy. I guess I view it this way: I give back to my friends a lot, whether they're high profile or not. And I only ask for favors if it seems to fit in with my book's niche or my own relationship with that person. Using the word leverage freaks me out a bit.

Mary E. DeMuth

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