How to Build a New York Times Bestseller (or Maybe Not)

A question from the gallery:

Now that Redshirts has become a New York Times bestseller, to what do you attribute its success? Anything that could be replicated by the rest of us?

To answer the second part first: Maybe. To answer the first part second, there are several factors which I think came into play, which I will lay out below. But be sure to stick around for the end, because I will have a point to make there.

So, here’s how I think we — and by we I mean me and a whole bunch of other people at Tor Books and beyond — made a NYT best seller:

1. I wrote seven other largely successful science fiction novels first, two of which (The Last Colony and Fuzzy Nation) were NYT best sellers in their own right, albeit on the paper’s extended list. Which is to say Redshirts didn’t pop up out of nowhere. I’m in my seventh year of being a published novelist, I’ve published regularly, stayed (and built an audience in) a single genre and — this is important — I’ve been fortunate that all the novels I’ve published so far have generally been critical and commercial successes, meaning that so far at least I’ve not had to spend time rebuilding a fiction career that’s had a setback. All of which contributes to a certain amount of personal momentum going into Redshirts out of the gate.

2. I wrote a commercially accessible book. Independent of the quality of the book itself, the concept of the book is accessible and easy to understand, both to devotees of the genre and — again, this is important — to those outside of it. I can explain the book to anyone in a sentence (“The crew of a starship realize they’re doomed if they go on away missions and try to change their fate”) and almost everyone who has not lived under a rock for the past 40 years knows enough about televised science fiction that the possibilities for the book open up in their head.

In her Live Journal review of Redshirts, spec fic writer and fan Marissa Lingen (whose opinion I respect quite a bit) was puzzled why, in 2012, I would essay the concept of red shirts, because it’s not exactly a new idea out there in the world. The answer to her question, however, is implicit in the question itself. The idea of “red shirts” has been out there in the world for long enough to reach a level of cultural critical mass, which made it a good time to write a novel about it — which is a thing that hadn’t been done yet. Jokes, skits, short stories and subplots about them? Yes. A novel where they are out front? Not really. And as it happens a novel is a fine format to dig into the concept more than one might be able to do in a short story, skit or subplot, which is a distinct advantage in this case.

3. I wrote a book that didn’t suck. A commercially successful book does not necessarily have to be well-written, but it doesn’t hurt things if it is. Redshirts is well-written — or, perhaps more accurately, it’s written in a manner which is easy for most literate humans to read, with efficient prose and a light, speedy style that rewards swallowing the book in big gulps rather than sipping it slowly. Even more simply put, it’s designed to be fun to read, and to read fast. These are fine qualities for a novel to have when one is hoping for commercial success.

4. I had the support of my publishers and they executed flawlessly in production and promotion. The book was given a fantastically accessible look by Tor Art Director Irene Gallo and cover designer Peter Lutjen. My publicist Alexis Saarela wrangled strategically advantageous interviews and appearances leading up to the arrival of the book and plotted a month-long book tour to help push the book and to get me in front of readers and booksellers. Tor’s marketing folks and bookstore representatives were canny in building excitement for the book prior to release. My editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden rode herd over all of it and helped tweak strategy and kept me in the loop (which is actually important). On the audiobook side, Steve Feldberg at Audible helped put together an audio package that that included Wil Wheaton reading the book — a perfect match for the material, both in terms of Wil’s acting history and also his affinity for the material.

Having publisher support is a huge deal. As with anything else, it’s not determinative regarding success — anything can succeed or fail — but it increases the options available to you and the number of potential paths you have for success. In my case, this publisher support follows on points one through three: I have a good track record and I gave them a book that was marketable. But after that it’s about what they do on their end, and in this case, they nailed it, and are continuing to do so.

5. We released a large chunk of the book early and for free (and promoted it). Releasing the prologue and the first four chapters of Redshirts on and then through electronic retailers gave fans a sneak preview to get them excited about the book and also helped to give readers who were not familiar with my writing (or not sure a book about red shirts would be to their liking) enough of a taste that they could decide whether to commit to buying the whole thing. This helped drive presales, which were a significant portion of the first week sales, particularly electronically. I also and anecdotally believe that offering that first chunk of the book probably trimmed back the desire to illegally post the book online; we made it easy for people to read enough to know whether they wanted to support the book or not that posting the whole thing was in many ways superfluous.

6. We released the eBook DRM free (and when retailers slapped DRM on it inadvertently at first, made it easy for people to get the DRM-free versions we promised them). I suspect there is a significant number of people who bought Redshirts to help make the point that trusting one’s readers and letting them own their electronic versions of the book was the right thing to do, or for whom the DRM-free status of the eBook was the thing that tipped them from maybe getting the book to definitely getting it. I like it when people make statements like this, and hope they keep doing it for all my Tor releases in the future.

7. Jonathan Coulton wrote a kick-ass theme song. Jonathan Coulton’s audience and mine overlap heavily but are not completely congruent, so having him write a theme song and having that out there for his fans to pick up on helped the more curious ones to check out the book (and vice-versa; hey, did you know you can buy the song for a dollar?). Likewise, for my fans, it gave them an awesome earworm a week ahead of the release, which I think had a positive effect on sales.

8. The book came out just ahead of Father’s Day. Given the number of books I signed that featured the inscription “Happy Father’s Day,” I think that Redshirts was a popular gift for this particular holiday, and that probably had an impact on first week sales.


9. I have a big online presence and that allows me to let lots of people know about my upcoming work. We’ve talked about this before, right? Right.

And now that you’ve stuck through all the reasons that I think allowed Redshirts to hit the best seller list, here’s that caveat I warned you about:

10. This is not the only path, or a guaranteed path, to the NYT list (or to writing success in general). All these things worked for me this particular time. There are lots of writers who have written more books than I — and have admirably successful careers — who have never hit the NYT list. There are lots of people who write accessible, readable books who don’t hit the list. Lots of books have strong publisher support and don’t make the list. And so on. Likewise, there are books that come out of of nowhere, writers with their first books, books that are terribly and/or challengingly written, which hit the list. There are no guarantees about anything.

Keep in mind that the NYT lists are not just about raw sales: the New York Times uses its own secret sauce of sampling and algorithms to build its rankings, and beyond that rankings are influenced by other relative factors. It’s why, for example, Redshirts dropped off the Hardcover Fiction list in its second week despite selling as many books in its second week as Fuzzy Nation (which made the extended list) did in its first week. Mysterious are the ways of the NYT best seller lists.

Also keep in mind that a book can be successful and never chart on a bestseller list. Old Man’s War is my best-selling book but it didn’t get anywhere near the NYT list in any format. All it does is sell, week after week, year after year. Likewise, prior to Old Man’s War, my most successful book was Book of the Dumb, which sold over 100,000 copies, many through Costco and Sam’s Club, which at the time the book was released didn’t have their sales sent into BookScan. From the point of view of bestseller lists, it was as if those books were never sold. I still got paid for them, however. Which is nice.

Ultimately, I think the secret of any success, writing-wise, is just to write the book that you want to write. I didn’t write Redshirts in a calculated attempt to scale a list; I wrote it because I thought I would have fun writing it and maybe people would have fun reading it. I did, and for the most part it seems people do. In that regard it’s a successful book. Everything else, including the NYT list, is frosting on the cake.

74 Comments on “How to Build a New York Times Bestseller (or Maybe Not)”

  1. Great column about a wonderful novel.
    I vaguely recall Robert Anson Heinlein being asked what got “Stranger in a Strange Land” on the bestseller lists, and saying: “Sex!”

  2. I will fully admit to squeeing when I updated the NYTimes list at work (I work at a library) and saw Redshirts was on there. Congrats!

  3. “Ultimately, I think the secret of any success, writing-wise, is just to write the book that you want to write. I didn’t write Redshirts in a calculated attempt to scale a list; I wrote it because I thought I would have fun writing it and maybe people would have fun reading it.”

    Very good advice Mr. Scalzi. Thank-you.

  4. I did buy it on the Kindle specifically because it is DRM free. I would have bought eventually in hardcover form otherwise, but the DRM free version definitely had something to do with me buying it immediately. BTW, both my son and I greatly enjoyed it, as we do all your books.

  5. The best advice I got about how to promote my first book was “write the next book, make it the best you can.” My fourth book hit the NYT bestseller list, and “write the next book, make it the best you can” is still the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten.

  6. I just finished “Redshirts” last week and really enjoyed it. The premise of the book reminds me of Heinlein’s concept of Universe as Myth. I think this would be a great idea for Mr. Scalzi to explore further, perhaps with characters from Old Man’s War showing up in the Redshirts universe, for example.

  7. “So basically what you’re saying is it was pure luck.”

    I would not be the one to say that luck does not play a huge role in things. I know that I have been lucky to be in the right place at the right time with the right book. Old Man’s War was one of those books, and it looks like Redshirts could be one of those too.

    But luck isn’t just about the allegedly lucky event; it’s also about how you capitalize on the event, based on your who you are and your own resources to develop that luck. The same potentially lucky event can happen to two different people, and one will build on it and the other won’t — so one person will be “lucky” and the other won’t be.

    Which is to say that the adage that “luck favors the prepared” is something I believe.

  8. I’m really happy that you covered the “I wrote a book that didn’t suck” because I think a lot of people gloss over that fact and focus on the marketing side too much. From the reader’s perspective, all the marketing and glitz and promotion doesn’t mean squat if the book is unreadable.

    Which is why a lot of self-pub authors these days are still being lumped into the might-as-well-be-garbage category because they don’t take the time to make substantive edits and storytelling revisions. Instead, they focus more on advertising and social networking.

    And while that matters, and there is more than a bit of luck required, a lot of it boils down to, like you said, writing a book that doesn’t suck.

  9. For another book with redshirts up front, check out James Alan Gardner’s “Expendable” where the away teams are made up of the ugly and disfigured who presumably won’t be missed as much when they die horribly.

  10. John, thanks for graciously giving a thoughtful answer to my stupid sarcasm!

  11. “…When I went out searching for the origin of the quote I found that it was spoken by a master of experimental research; Louis Pasteur. A literal translation of the French does not do it justice. For those who speak French, he said:

    ‘Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits prepares.’
    Lecture, University of Lille (7 December 1854)

    “Wiki quote provides a translation as follows: ‘In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.’… ”

  12. Congratulations again, John.

    I always enjoy it when you share your perspective on writing and success in writing (Writer, Professional, Good comes to mind). It’s funny that reading thoughts on writing and publishing from successful writers has helped me get to the point where I’m writing a novel and not worrying if it will be successful. I’m writing something I like, and I bet I can find at least a few other people who enjoy it.

    I’ve been excited to read Redshirts since your visit to Seattle last year. It’s second in my “to read” pile, right after my brother’s latest.

  13. I would have added “Successful novels have codas to pad out the length without bogging down the story” except I guess that’s not done all that frequently?

  14. Some people prefer the codas over the novel, Improbable Joe, or alternately like them both, or so I’ve seen in reviews.

    However, I will say that I am pleased that a non-conventional format does not seem to have hampered the book any.

  15. The NYT list is calculated in a strange manner. In the last two years I’ve had two books on the NYT bestseller list at #27 and #23. That same #23 came in as the #5 scifi/fantasy in the country on BookScan, but scifi/fantasy is so tiny compared to other genres. A lot of it depends on what else comes out against you in the same time period. I have another series that sold as many copies during release as the one that hit #27 but it didn’t get on the list, near as I can figure because it came out the same week that George Martin owned most of the list because of Game of Thrones starting on HBO and Charlene Harris had a new season of True Blood. Between the two of them and the various versions of their books, they owned most of the NYT that week.

  16. @Jeff, just what I was coming to the comments to say! Gardner’s Expendables series does a really interesting job of tackling the redshirts idea from a more serious perspective, and it always makes me sad that his books are not more well-known.

  17. Sophia, Jeff:

    I am a fan of Expendable, although I don’t know that I would consider it a parallel to Redshirts. I would explain further but it would require spoilers, which I’m not ready to go into yet.

  18. Since I shop at neither Costco nor Sam’s, I somehow missed _The Book of the Dumb_. By any chance, is it an eBook?

  19. Stupid, stupid … went back and discovered the lack of “The”. Very sorry. Not a troll, I promise.

  20. Thank you for posting this. One of the considerations I have as I start on this writing adventure is whether to go towards self-publishing (which I support because I have read a number of self-published novels and stories that were quite good, even if they could have used a pass or two by a good editor) or to try going the traditional route. I was very curious what exactly a publisher brought to the table to off-set the higher per-sale profit of self-publishing (especially since I hate trying to sell myself on social networking sites that successful self-publishing seems to require). But what really decided it for me was your last paragraph. “…write the book you want to write.” You are right. No matter which direction I end up going with trying to get it published, I should write what I want. So true that everything else is frosting (and what tasty frosting it is).

  21. “My editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden rode herd over all of it and helped tweak strategy and kept me in the loop (which is actually important).”

    And, I would add from experience, not really all that common. I’m not the only writer who discovers promotional things my publisher(s) are doing only after they’re already happening. Sometimes LONG after. Like when a friend emails you to say “Hey, did you know that your book has been FREE on Amazon for the last two weeks?”

  22. +1 on Expendables. By the end of the series, it is becoming evident that there’s more to the Explorers Corps than meets the eye, which is to say that they never were mere “Expendables.” And it seems to me that that’s more fun than figuring out that the U.U. is “channelling” an old 2000’s TV show from another universe.

    I guess you can colour me not-a-huge-fan of Redshirts. I’d like to be more specific about the feedback of what doesn’t work for me; I haven’t quite identified that yet, and I suppose it mayn’t be worth the effort. Just as The Scalzi’s not keen on promising reviews of others’ slush piles, “for free.” It’s quite a bit of work to do useful criticism. Cheap shots are easy, but aren’t very useful, and if I’m going to irritate Mr Scalzi, I want to do it *well*! :-)

  23. > 5. We released a large chunk of the book early and for free (and promoted it)
    > 6. We released the eBook DRM free

    These are what pushed me past the purchase point. Redshirts is my first eBook purchase because I liked the preview material, and I don’t want to lose the eBook if I decide to switch devices/vendors/formats. Lack of DRM really makes a difference to me, since I get to own the thing I paid for.

  24. do the nyt bestseler lists incorporate ebboks now? i thought it was just bokseller numbers

  25. Congratulations on having another hit. I just ordered a copy for my Kindle and will be enjoying it when I get on the plane for my flight home. :-D

  26. “3. I wrote a book that didn’t suck”

    Way to bury the lede there, John. (And also, congrats on your NYTiness!)

  27. Josh Jasper:

    There is a NYT list for eBook fiction and an NYT list for combined eBook and print sales (as well as the various traditional print-only lists). When I was #15 on the Hardcover Fiction list, it was #22 on the eBook fiction list and #27 for the combined print/eBook list.

  28. John – I can certainly second the value of the great work you have done at making an interesting blog part of your personal PR campaign. I used to be an avid SF reader but in the last 10 or so have fallen into reading historical non-fiction and ‘mystery’ novels for fun. I found your blog & enjoyed reading it for a long time before commenting even. That lead me to “Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded” – which I loved so much I read all your other stuff. Some of it is really enjoyable reading (thank you BTW) and none of it was bad ;). You rekindled my interest in SF & its simply because of this blog that I ‘found’ you. I love your Big Idea thing because that has introduced me to even more interesting books ( if I live to 150 I might get through my current reading list -hopefully everyone will stop publishing now so I can catch up)

  29. One thing I wonder if you would get a kick out of reading – Donald Westlake wrote one of his serious crime novels. “The Hook”, about and old, successful, writer and a younger, struggling one. Its pretty dark but it talks about how tough it is to break through in publishing and about how brutal the business can be on authors.

    I’d love to hear the opinion of an actual author to the details about the business. Given that he had a 40+ year career I’d guess it would be good.

  30. I really like the “write what you enjoy” philosophy. Nobody trying to just write a commercial book would ever come up with The Android’s Dream or Agent to the Stars, and the world would be far poorer without them.

  31. As for point # 2, you succeeded! I have a non-SF-reading, non-Star-Trek-watching sister. All I had to do was show her the cover of the book, and she GOT IT. Not living under a rock, that one.
    Congratulations on your success.

  32. I really enjoyed Redshirts and its complexities. Did anyone else find themselves comparing and contrasting The Narrative with The Tradition in the Mercedes Lackey Godmother series?

  33. As someone who wasn’t a big fan of Star Trek and never noticed (or heard anyone talk about) the short lifespan of “redshirts” on the program, the term has always meant to me an athlete who doesn’t play his sport his first year in college in order to learn the game while saving his eligibility. But I was pretty sure that wasn’t what it would mean in your title…

    That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, as I have all of your books I’ve read so far. (The God Engines is still on my To Be Read shelf, but soon – I think I’ve read all the rest.)

  34. “Some people prefer the codas over the novel, Improbable Joe, or alternately like them both, or so I’ve seen in reviews.”

    I liked the codas, but what I liked more was that they weren’t part of the story. I’m in favor of streamlining and tight pacing and editing, and the codas seemed like a clever way to have that while still getting other story bits in there.

  35. Part of “Commercially accessible” was “Picked a great title”. The original titles “Scalzi’s reading from his next book!” and “[secret handwave indicating you’ve heard the reading]” weren’t too bad, but “Redshirts”? Dude, we all knew what the book was going to be without reading the 1-line description. (The book still had to Not Suck, but it was obvious that Scalzi was having fun writing it.)

  36. I think you’re one of the only sff people that doesn’t write ‘door stoppers’ (I guess Joe Haldeman too). Salute.

  37. I know it’s off topic, but the closing thought “Everything else, including the NYT list, is frosting on the cake.” just leaves me with a huge desire to make a cake with mounds of frosting. I’m headed to the kitchen!

  38. I got lucky today and picked up my copy at Half Priced Books! Now it sits on my to read pile. Anyway, concerning #9, my theory is that the dramatic posting concernings whites and the lowest difficulty setting was purposely posted when it was to generate the most controversy and thus the most traffic to the site (which advertises the book too) just before release. I would never expect JS to admit to such a thing, but it would certainly not be the first time marketing this type has happened.

  39. Yahooda:

    You’re making the “hindsight is 20/20” assumption that I knew that the Internets would explode over the “Lowest Difficulty Setting” piece, which I did not, nor would it have been how I would choose to draw attention to a book that’s entirely unrelated. Commissioning a song based on the book? Yes. Entirely unrelated controversial blog posting? No.

  40. I suspect there is a significant number of people who bought Redshirts to help make the point that trusting one’s readers and letting them own their electronic versions of the book was the right thing to do, or for whom the DRM-free status of the ebook was the thing that tipped them from maybe getting the book to definitely getting it.

    I would have bought the dead-tree edition anyway, but this is why Redshirts is my first (non-textbook) eBook.

    And not to make an economic statement, though I do agree with that statement. My reasoning is the same reason I use Ubuntu instead of making a hackintosh and why I continued to buy CDs and rip them until Amazon and then Apple woke up and smelled the coffee in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Yes, it’s relatively straightforward to circumvent software/music/ebook publishers’ “security” measures, but I can take a hint; unless they’re making it user-friendly, I’m not their user because I have other options and competitors to whom I can give my hard-earned money.

    Jonathan Coulton’s audience and mine overlap heavily but are not completely congruent, so having him write a theme song and having that out there for his fans to pick up on helped the more curious ones to check out the book (and vice-versa; hey, did you know you can buy the song for a dollar?).

    I snagged it off YouTube the day it was put up so I could start tormenting my friends with it. Then, once they had been assimilated, I sent them to Mr. Coulton’s laudably clean and easy-to-navigate website to browse and hopefully buy a copy. I got my official paid-for copy when I bought his whole catalogue after enjoy your cross-promotional podcasts.

  41. My impression is that you did a lot more self-marketing for this book than for the others — although it seems to be a general ramp-up, with you having done an awful lot for Fuzzy Nation as well.

    Does that sound right? Or was I just more aware of it this time, for whatever reason?

  42. Sean Eric Fagan:

    I think I did a bit more marketing for this one because the early buzz (especially from booksellers) was quite positive so there was opportunity here.

  43. It’s a completely different kind of book and I’m sure you haven’t read it, but James Alan Gardner’s Expendable (1997) is also explicitly a novel about redshirts.

  44. Regarding the NYT’s secret sauce and point #10, especially about books that sell week after week: I worked at an independent new and used bookstore for a few years, and those sales numbers were always fascinating to me. Our store didn’t sell a huge volume and we didn’t have a very good return policy with our supplier (i.e. it was pretty much never worth our while to return books), so we had to be very very careful about the new books we bought for the store, even bestsellers. We used the LA Times list because we were in the LA area, so it came closer to reflecting what we could actually sell.

    But the most interesting was compiling lists of the store’s bestselling authors (our software wasn’t great, so this was actually a fair bit of work to do). We’d track all-time bestselling, not per a given week. Or rather, all-time since moving to a new location and starting to sell new books and buying a software system to track them. It didn’t take everything into account — most of our used books weren’t tracked at all, though we tried to put a bunch of the more important ones in the computer; and sometimes the software glitched in a way that caused certain sales not to be counted — but our fourth highest author, for example? John Steinbeck. Hooray for required reading! Then Salinger, Orwell… Jane Austen was normally pretty high, too. In fact, I think I remember the day I discovered Bukowski had surpassed Austen (he ended up our third highest last time I checked, I think). I was ticked. Bukowski’s books were also stolen a LOT…

    Continuing with the less, um, highbrow end of things, The Black Hand (a book about the Mexican Mafia) was a huge seller at our store for a while, even after it dropped off the LA bestseller list. Apparently, going by many customer comments, many people in our town had relatives in the Mexican Mafia, who were mentioned by name in the book. And they always seemed so proud of the fact. Eesh.

  45. Jo Walton:

    “It’s a completely different kind of book and I’m sure you haven’t read it”

    As noted above, I have read it and am a fan of it. I also (as noted above) think it’s not about “red shirts” per se, which I personally see as a peculiar subset of expendable characters, materially different, in terms of plot and existential being, from the characters of Expendable. Of all my books, the one I think probably is spiritually closest to Expendable is The Last Colony.

    I’m not entirely sure why you’d be sure I hadn’t read it, incidentally. I’ll note that I went out of my way to crash Gardner’s kaffeklatch at TorCon 3 and tell him how much I enjoyed his book (I was such a newbie I didn’t know crashing a kaffeklatch was bad form).

  46. Scalzi: “assumption that I knew that the Internets would explode over the “Lowest Difficulty Setting” piece, which I did not”

    That might be the scariest thing I’ve read in a while…

  47. That might be the scariest thing I’ve read in a while…

    Could be. But Scalzi’s not the only one who’s spawned a tempest on matters they thought were perfectly obvious and non-controversial (I’m thinking of DC comics and a couple of their characters’ sexuality)…..

  48. I love the book, I’d place it in third, after “Old Mans War” and “Agent…”

    If there’s ever a film or miniseries on cable, Charlie Sheen should play Kerensky…

  49. John

    I’m grateful for the non-spoilers policy; it will be a while before I can legally acquire it here in England and I really do not want to know the plot before I read the book!

    Incidentally, Closed Circle – CJ Cherry, Jane Fancher and Lynn Abbey- have been selling their e-books DRM free since they got Closed Circle up and running.

  50. John — I was sure you hadn’t read it or you wouldn’t have said that Redshirts was the first novel about redshirts! I’m not sure I quite see the distinction you’re making between subsets of expendable crewmembers, but OK.

  51. As a couple other people said #6 was what pushed me from “I will buy it eventually” to “I will buy it the day it comes out”. It was a very easy and straightforward way to express my opinion on DRM in a way that is understood by those in charge.

  52. gwangung: But Scalzi’s not the only one who’s spawned a tempest on matters they thought were perfectly obvious and non-controversial

    Of course he knew it was controversial. The whole point of the “lowest difficulty setting” metaphor is that it attempts to be less controversial than the “privilege” metaphor.

  53. Re: written in a manner which is easy for most literate humans to read

    My one real complaint with this book is your obsession with and use of ‘said’ in dialogue to the exclusion of all other dialogue tags. I know that use or said vs other dialogue tags is a…contentious… issue in the writing world but it made the dialogue feel very dry and repetitive. It felt like the book was written as a screenplay and then your editor went and edited in ‘Dal said’ to every single line of dialogue. When each line of dialogue is longer the exclusive use of ‘said’ isn’t as abrasive because you aren’t encountering it so often but your short back and forths style of dialogue mean that ‘BLAH said’ makes up a significant percentage of the word count.

    This wasn’t so bad reading the book because your eyes gloss over superfluous words quite quickly and easily but in the audiobook it was extremely grating. Despite being a huge Wil Wheaton fan and having bought a copy of the audiobook in addition to the paper version I almost didn’t get through listening. While it isn’t his fault at all I desperately wanted to claw his eyes out after every dialogue heavy chapter of ‘he said, he said, she said, he said, she said, he said’.

  54. @beth 7:10 pm
    Yeah, or nuhuh ;p
    I’ve always kind of thought that the voicer for audio books
    should do different voices for each character, and only
    leave in the “Rob said” “Rod said” stuff often enough to
    remind me of who whoever is (I expect I prefer more of
    that than you).

    Also, all audio books should severely disinclude all two
    paragraph descriptions of things like a hairdo, a Harley,
    an outfit that does or does not have a cute scarf and why
    he chose a scarf instead of a bowtie, why an over head
    cam is totes awesomer than….

  55. thump, bounce.
    crunch, crunch, Bounce, BOUNCE, crunch.
    What The AAHHH!!
    Oh, this hurts, and the repairs will be expensive.

    And all because the soothing sounds of the the
    audio book talker speaking the explanation about
    why the character uses non detergent motor oil
    put me to sleep.

  56. A commercially successful book does not necessarily have to be well-written…

    (Cough) Da Vinci Code (cough)

  57. Jo Walton: I am not Scalzi, and i have not yet read his latest book, but I think there is a major difference between the crew members in Expendable and the Star Trek Redshirts; Redshirts are specifically the extra crew members who go down with the Named crew members, the ones you know are going to survive, so that somebody can die dramatically to prove it’s dangerous, but nobody needs to shed tears over Kirk or McCoy or Spock. The Explorer Corps *are* the crew who go down. There is no Captain or XO going to the planet. Similar as far as basic result (the one who goes down to a planet with the potential lifespan of a gnat) but very different narrative purpose. And I think that’s pretty spoiler free, since this is the stuff one knows going in.

  58. As someone who has read, and enjoyed immensely, both books, what Lenora says is completely correct. The books are about completely different things altogether. It’s sort of like saying that given Bester’s The Demolished Man, Simmons’ The Hollow Man has nothing to say. Or Neuromancer and Snowcrash, or Midshipman Hornblower and the Wine Dark Sea, or the War of the Worlds and the Tripods, or, to be more obscure, Barton’s Dark Sky Legion and Cook’s The Dragon Never Sleeps. While none of those are a perfect analogy, they are all books with a surface similarity but are really about fundamentally different things.

  59. @ jj

    Six archetypes.
    Five plots.
    Four characters.
    Three settings.
    Two narratives.
    And on literary theory to rule them all!

  60. Thank you, John. Your analysis is always always ALWAYS appreciated.
    Former senior analyst for CIA, NSA–Alma “WTF did I do to my life becoming a novelist?” Katsu

  61. The best work always comes from the heart rather than hatched in some boardroom. Good to see this lesson repeated. I’d be interested to hear more about the promotional aspect of your book launch: how much focus was there on nailing down pre-orders from your existing audience?

  62. I am the self published author of three novels and two short story collections. I’m a writer, not a salesman. I pay almost no attention at all to marketing of any kind and therefore I sell few books. But I picked up a copy of a popular series by the most famous and widely read author on earth. It sucked so bad I became immediately convinced it’s all smoke and mirrors. On acid I am better than this guy and when traditional publishing finally dies, I’m convinced I’ll be famous…dead probably but famous.

  63. Reblogged this on Elisa Nuckle and commented:
    Honestly, I feel this list is important for all writers to understand. There’s a lot of guesswork that goes into a commercially successful novel, and what works for someone like Scalzi won’t necessarily work for different writer (even one in the same genre with the similar publisher and/or fanbase).

  64. I only got about fifty pages into Expendables. I don’t mean to say it’s a bad book, but it just Wasn’t My Thing, whereas Redshirts was Very Much My Thing. Perhaps the difference is that the opening scenes of Expendables attempted to provide a perfectly rational explanation for why all these interstellar explorers were sent to almost-certain death, whereas Redshirts started from the premise that the high death rate among Intrepid crew members was a bizarre phenomenon, and… ran with it. I would compare Redshirts to a certain somewhat-recent SF movie, but to name the movie would spoil the book.

  65. Reblogged this on Cat's Liminal Space and commented:
    Not that I’m harbouring any delusions of The Timekeepers’ War making the NYT Bestsellers list (maybe tiny delusions for future novels)… but this is an excellent list of all the different facets to be worked in order to get there. I’m going to be working with this list, or a small-press-friendly variation of it, to market my own novel. Hopefully with a small fraction of Scalzi’s success (though I would happily accept a larger fraction). What are your thoughts?

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