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 Tor.com 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.