How books become hyper-sellers

I’ve never read Game of Thrones. Or watched any of the TV episodes. Apparently it’s the Wars of the Roses with a fantasy setting and modern multi-dimensional characters to appeal to the Z-gen audience, which sounds interesting – and George R R Martin is an excellent writer. But I’ve never gone out of my way to check it out.

Essential writing fuel!
Essential writing fuel!

Possibly it has something to do with my unerring ability to be interested only in things that aren’t commercially popular. But it might be something else.  After all, I read – and enjoyed – all the Harry Potter books. And Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings remains my all-time favourite novel.

The actual explanation is that this sort of story doesn’t appeal to me. Obviously it appeals to a lot of other people. Which begs the question – why did it take off? I am fairly sure George Martin didn’t expect to have such a runaway success. Authors dream of it – few actually achieve it. It’s a lottery.

I can’t speak in detail for Game of Thrones because I haven’t read it, but the usual reasons why a book abruptly gets big, commercially, come down to three factors:

  1. It keys into something, suddenly, that ‘clicks’ with an audience. They start talking to each other about it. Word of mouth is what sells books. But for that to happen, the book has to ‘click’ with readers first, and in sufficient numbers to enter general social consciousness. Cultural tastes and trends change like dreams:  authors and publishers alike struggle to second-guess what might make a book hit the spot.
  2. It’s boosted by something outside the usual ‘book reading’ audience, a TV show , movie or (these days) a game. The problem with books, commercially, is that the usual market sector – the people who regularly buy and read books – is limited by comparison with the potential audience, the general populace. Books that REALLY take off do so by appealing to people who wouldn’t normally buy books. And for that to happen, the book usually has to be translated into some other form – one that the non-reading audience usually goes to for their entertainment.
  3. Luck. All of the above is possible only when sales and ‘discoverability’ – the awareness of the book – reaches a critical level. And that is usually down to chance. I’ve had books I’ve written take off like skyrockets – my illustrated history of New Zealand, particularly, which has gone through two editions and is still in print nearly a dozen years after it was first released. Nobody expected it. And yet I’ve had other books that have been brilliantly reviewed, well received by all critics, and acclaimed – but which have sat there languishing before being consigned to the remainder heap. Sigh…

All three factors have to come together for a book to REALLY sell big. And, as I say, it’s a lottery. Of course, that doesn’t stop us trying – and, though his writing doesn’t appeal to me, good on George Martin for getting his books out to such a wide audience. You can’t complain about that.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


11 thoughts on “How books become hyper-sellers

  1. Luck really is huge in this, isn’t it? Like you, I have not read Game of Thrones nor am I interested in that period. The Wars of the Roses was such a dismal period so no doubt a little fantasy and centuries later makeover make it seem a little, well, rosier. 😉 And it does seem that combination brought in those people who “normally do not buy books.” As you say, they come to the story, usually, via different means. I suspect some may end up buying the book. Nonetheless, when these “hyper-sellers” happen, all writers benefit. Thank you, Matthew!

    1. I used to play a board game about those wars but that is the limit of my knowledge. My university courses on medieval England cut off at the beginning of them. I have never followed them up since. As you say, a rather dismal period. Luck is absolutely a factor in transforming sales. I always think of J K Rowring in that regard. Who could guess that her books might take off as they did? Not the publishers who turned down her agent on the reasonable assessment of poor commercial return, all things being equal. And that was a reasonable call in a hard nosed and usually marginal business. Every publisher wishes for the luck factor, but it’s not an everyday commercial certainty. I should add – the other luck there was the tremendous quality of Rowling’s writing. She really is great. I despair about what the calibre of other hyper sellers tells us about the tastes of western society in general (fifty shades of dismay… ☺).

    1. Apparently the author of said volume ran a Twitter Q&A at her publisher’s expense, which turned into a kind of epic fail for publicity purposes. I never sqw it, but some of the choicest tweets were re published by local media, and they were very funny. But not what either publisher or author probably had in mind!

        1. Well, I thought so – apparently one of the queries included asking whether the author has a ‘safe word’ that stops her writing. I’ve never read her books (and won’t) but… 🙂

          1. You should read the one star reviews on Amazon. I do that sometimes, just so I can laugh till tears run down my face! One woman’s one star review has over a thousand comments, carrying on the hysteria…. 😉

  2. Good post. When she had her daily talk show, there was the Oprah effect, as well. I wonder why certain movies hit big as well. I need a story and some dialogue in there somewhere.

  3. Hi Michael. Per our permission situation, I scheduled this article as a featured guest post for Oct 13th. I’ve included the usual bio/credit/link back to your blog. I look forward to it.

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