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Copyright 2005 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

Factors that Influence the Success of a Book


The Contract


Jacket Text/Description

Good Writing


Publisher Promotions        

Timeliness of the Subject


Retail-Shelf Placement



Author Publicity

Cover Art


Shelf Life

Also refer to the FAQ on Publishers, which includes answers to questions like these:
What are the chances of getting my own manuscript published?
What are the chances of becoming a successful author?
What does it cost the publisher to produce a book?

Factors that Influence the Success of a Book

There are many factors which influence the financial and literary success of a book.  How many of those factors can you influence?  All of them--if you are savvy, thorough, willing, and persistent.  

A Decent Contract

The contract can make or break a writer's career--not because it means the writer does or doesn't get published, but because the terms can make the difference between a writer making a small sum or an actual living at his work.  The contract also determines how the writer gets paid, how the manuscripts are turned in, the timeframe in which they must be accepted or rejected, and the specific obligation the writer has to the publisher (a particular title, a book in a particular series, a book of a particular genre, etc.).  In addition, the contract specifies which party is responsible for what in warranty and liability issues.

Aside from the size of the advance, the effect of the contracted terms are not usually immediately apparent to a writer.  It is usually later, when royalties begin (or do not begin) coming in, when accounting is merged rather than separated for different books, when subsidiary rights are exploited without additional recompense, or when the author finds out that his life's work has been -- without his permission -- abridged into a comic-book version of a novel, that the effects begin to be seen.

In a good contact, the writer is compensated adequately for the rights that are being sold.  If you sell more rights to the publisher, you should expect a larger advance, better royalties, better contract terms here or there, or all of the above, depending on your agent's negotiating skill, your history of book sales to date, and the projected sales for the contracted work.  There should be enough time specified in the contract to do the job; the publisher should not be able to sit on the manuscript for half a year before accepting or rejecting the work, and so on.  You should have the right to refuse to permit abridgements, condensations, and other versions of your work.  And so on and so forth....  A good contract is a form of security for the writer--as much as there can be in this industry, that is.  It should allow you to focus on your work, without worrying so much about your future.

Refer to Contracts for a discussion of specific terms, negotiation issues, and other contract-oriented topics.

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Good Writing

Good writing, a solid story, believable characters, intriguing ideas, etc..  As Micole Sudberg, Assistant Editor, Tor Books says, "...the best way to get your manuscript looked at is to write well."

Why do so many first novels fail?  Or perhaps the better question is, why are so many first novels rejected?  I would say it is because they are exactly that:  first novels.  First novelists have not usually spent enough time writing to learn their craft.  They have finished their first novel, yes, and that was a great accomplishment for them, a wondrous experience, and so on.  But, finishing the writing of 100,000 words is not the same as learning to hone each cadence, sharpen each word of dialog, tighten one's pacing throughout a novel, and so on.

Your first book should teach you how to write and find your voice.  Every book after that is an exercise in sharpening and increasing your skills.

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If it takes six years to get to market, a novel about a current event won't have a tenth the appeal that it did during or immediately after the event.  In SF, timeliness is more a matter of making sure you extrapolate your science reasonably enough to withstand the next few months of discoveries and developments.  In modern fiction, getting to market in a timely manner can mean the difference between catching the market and losing it.  Of course, getting to market too quickly can also mean that the writer has not taken the time to create a well-crafted product.  For example, I have yet to see a well-crafted book about current events that has come out within two months of the event.  Usually they are simply transcriptions of rambling interviews or poorly and hastily researched versions of popular crimes or events, such as the Harding/Kerrigan fiasco, the O.J. trial, the Michael Jackson trial, and so on.

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Good  Editing

Editors can help writers identify and fix story flaws that could kill the book in a discriminating market.  I've heard many professional writers make statements such as, "The best editor is he who edits least."  However, that can be a dangerous attitude.  Yes, there are editors with weak skills, poor judgement, and tendancies towards micromanagement and microwriting of a manuscript.  However, most editors are skilled at what they do.  Their suggestions are usually about clarifying points that the writer did not make clear, expanding an undeveloped idea, or cutting deadwood, padding, and other types of verbosity.

A good editor is a necessity for any writer, and there are instances in which many of the trademark phrases and quotable lines of a story are actually attributable to the editor, not the writer.  Robert Heinlein's work created much controversy when it was reported that his editors were responsible for many of the most memorable lines in some of his more famous novels.  As for myself, I would say that my editor's comments have been valuable maps to the flaws in my writing, thus allowing me, with each new novel, to improve my stories, style, and overall writing.

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Cover Art

A visually appealing or exciting cover will catch the eye.  An unaesthetic, clumsy, or inappropriate cover can significantly detract from the sales of a book.  Unfortunately, many more covers are usually printed than are books.  This is because covers take up less warehousing space and are expensive to print (four-color printing, expensive paper stock, etc.) more than once.  When a publisher thinks a book might sell beyond its initial print run (10,000-20,000 books), the publisher has a larger stock (40,000-80,000) of cover flats printed and simply stores the flats in the warehouse. Even if a publisher admits that a cover is provably detrimental to sales, that book can continue to be reprinted with that cover because there are more cover flats stored in the warehouse than there are reprints of the novel itself.  For example, Storm Runner, one of my own novels, is in this situation.

Anecdotes about Cover Art

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Jacket Text/Descriptions

If the book blurb (the description on or inside the jacket) is misleading, readers may be disappointed enough that they will not pick up a book by that author again.  For example, a blurb might indicate that a novel is a light romance with many moments of humor.  If it turns out that the book is actually an emotional drama with irony, rather than light humor and which has only a thread of romance, readers who enjoy romance may not pick up other books by that author again.  In the same vein, readers who are looking for a science-fiction novel can be disappointed when a book blurb describes what is essentially a fantasy story as SF.

Often it is the editor or some other person from the publishing house who writes the book blurb/jacket description.  As a writer, if you want to have a say in what goes on the cover of your book, ask to review that text or ask to have the option to rewrite the description.  Remember that the publisher might have a better idea of what elements of the story will most appeal to readers who pick up the book at a glance, but that also, publishers can go overboard on an overly dramatic take on the story.  Also, what is important about the book to the writer may not be important to the reader of that short description.

As for me, I did not write the book blurbs for my first several novels.  What I do now is ask my editor to write the initial blurb.  Then I rewrite it and send it back.  We go through this a few times until we're either both satisfied, or until time runs out, and Shelly is tired of my truly-this-is-the-last-change note about how this one word will make the description flow better. It is a much more satisfactory process to me than that of simply being surprised by the description when the book comes out.

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Publisher Marketing and Promotions

In publishing, marketing is directed at salesmen, distributors and retailers, not at readers themselves.  This means that the publisher will push the book at conventions and sales conferences, will send publisher's newsletters to distributors, will announce lead and secondary-lead titles with some fanfare, and so on.  Publishers also provide free copies of books to reviewers, ship boxes of free books to conventions for attendees, and will sometimes print up posters and bookplates for signings and speaking events.   Publishers spend between $7,500 to $500,000 to market a book.  On average, that's about $20,000 a book.

Authors who want additional publicity should consider spending their own time and money to market their work.  This includes setting up signings, arranging for book tours, speaking at events, attending conventions and conferences, arranging for newspaper and radio interviews, contacting reviewers, and so on.  One boon of the information age is that the increasing popularity of the web has made author publicity easier in a variety of ways.  Authors can now promote their own work via "sanctioned" or fan-based web sites, genre-specific web sites, review sites, and industry-specific sites which often include listings of genre authors.  Publishers are also reporting that one of the two things that influences readers to order or buy a book is the ability to read a sample chapter online.

Are there any success stories from author-sponsored publicity online?  Actually, yes.  For example, Diana Gabaldon's Drums of Autumn became No. 1 on the Wall Street Journal's best-seller list within days of release, primarily because of an underground web following based on portions of the novel which Gabaldon had published on her own web site.

I have heard many authors complain that their publishers do not seem to be doing any or enough marketing because the authors do not see magazine ads for their work.  However, according to Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Senior Editor, Manager of Science Fiction, Tor Books,  "In point of fact, book sales are notably resistant to advertising, until you start getting into the stratophere -- TV ads, mass-transit ads, and the like.  Certainly I'm unaware of an ad in any of the SF magazines having ever convinced a bookseller to order an extra copy of anything."

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Retail-Shelf Placement

Face-out or spine-out, eye-level or ankle-level, etc.  You can sometimes influence a retailer by establishing a personal relationship with distributors and retailers.  Being available for signings, providing posters and other promotional materials, etc., can make the difference between your work being just another spine on the shelf and ending up with an eye-catching "Recommended" or "New Author" tag attached to the shelf with your book.

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Author Publicity and Promotion

Coming soon!

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Shelf Life

On average, a mass-market paperback stays on the shelf only 3 months, and in recent years, the trend is toward only 2 months.  A trade paperback might stay as long as 6 to 9 months.  Hardcovers are available until the paperback comes out or until the next hot, new hardcover pushes the previous one off the display racks.  Almost all published books go out of print in 3 months.  On average, best-sellers go out of print in 2 years.  If a book sells well during its usually short time on the shelves, the title is often set up as an auto-reorder.  In this case, when a copy sells, the store automatically reorders another copy of the book.  This doesn't mean that stores will carry more than one copy of the novel; just that they will reorder that novel when that one copy does sell.  This is unfortunate, of course, for readers who are seeking a novel in the time it is absent from the shelves, and unfortunate for the author who loses that potential reader.

Shelf life, which translates into backlist, is especially important in series fiction.  When a series features characters that readers can follow from novel to novel, readers often want to purchase the entire series.  If earlier books are hard to find, unavailable, or out of print, later books will be more difficult to sell.  Every title in a series sells better when the entire series is available.  However, it seems that, more and more, publishers are no longer looking at series fiction in terms of an extended backlist.  Increasingly, publishers are looking at series fiction on the basis of how each individual title sells, rather than how the series sells as a whole.

Online booksellers often claim to be able to extend the shelf life for books by maintaining an extensive backlist of titles unavailable in retail stores.  Using sophisticated ordering software and drop-shipment delivery systems, online booksellers order and stock on a JIT (just-in-time) basis, thus avoiding costly warehousing, inventory taxes, and other overhead.  However, Ingram (the largest distributor in America) has estimated that, of the 1.3 million active ISBN titles, only about 600,000 are actually available, regardless of the rather extravagant claims of many online booksellers.

Copyright 2005 Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.

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