Commercial success — how?

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Many books are published each year and the vast, vast majority never make much of a ripple.  They hit shelves, get a review or three, sell under 10K copies, and go out of print.  Yet lots of them are well-written in one respect or another.  I can think of a few that have even had a reasonably strong marketing push behind them, and yet still found only a small audience.  Why did they fail to achieve commercial success?

Now, I know (a) some authors care little about commercial success; and (b) commercial success varies by person and is a pretty slippery concept. But for purposes of this post,  let’s call “commercial success”  sales in excess of  40K units (in all formats), whether that happens all at once or over time, for a book that manages to stay in print for a while).

What do you think is the difference maker or makers for books that find success and those that don’t?  I have some ideas but they’re pretty loose.  I mean, I’ve read novels I thought were great, yet they were written by writers who seem to sell very few copies.  And I’ve read novels I thought were not so great, written by writers who sell a lot of copies.

Any thoughts on this?  What are some of the components of  the “secret sauce” of commercial success?

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19 thoughts on “Commercial success — how?

  1. i have noticed the same thing must be good p.r. and movies dont hurt you could write i crap book and make a crap movie and your book would sell look at twilight

    • Good p.r/marketing is a factor, but not enough by itself. I’ve seen books succeed without it, and books fail with it.

        • It also aligns with my own theory of one of the big factors (perhaps the biggest) in driving commercial success, namely, the degree to which the characters resonate with readers. Whatever one thinks of the artistic merit of Twilight, the characters certainly resonate with the readers (and that Oatmeal piece convincingly and humorously tells us why).

          I always determine whether I’ve done my job as an author by reading reviews/commentary and seeing if readers/reviewers come away from the book talking about the characters primarily. If so, I’ve done my job. If not, I’m thinking “uh-oh.”

  2. There is a kind of perfect storm of buzz that needs to happen. Reviews, Author interactions/ interviews, marketing, pimping via all the usual sites.

    Thing is, even with all those factors, there’s no guarantee of a hit. Good writing, solid plot, an author who knows his craft…all mean little if all the factors don’t jive, and even then, may only sell 3k copies.

    It’s a crying shame really. There are some excellent authors that will never get their stories to an audience while shit authors can score a best seller due to the right buzz.

    I think some of the magic mixture is continuing to write. Sometimes it takes momentum to finally get that hit, then folks realize “Hey, this dude wrote X, Y and Z as well!” and those books finally get more play.

    Regardless, I think the creative has to keep doing it, keep writing (or drawing, painting, playing guitar) until it sticks (which it may never do). “Commercial Success” I think is only one facet of “Success”.

    “Commercial Success” depends on the cruel whims of fate and a fickle audience whose tastes change with the wind, and often have little if any taste.

    • “I think some of the magic mixture is continuing to write. Sometimes it takes momentum to finally get that hit, then folks realize “Hey, this dude wrote X, Y and Z as well!” and those books finally get more play.”

      This is a good point, Jeff. Of course, the writer has to have at least enough success to keep the backlist in print so that a later, more successful novel can bring readers back to earlier work that is still available.

  3. Pretty hard to say, sometimes, in case of Harry Potter for example, it is just the right “thing” and even if Mrs Rowling won’t have any other success, she had the right book at the right time.

    It all depends on the target audience: which, for all writers, should be oneself first and foremost. If you enjoy your work and pour a lot of yourself into it, the spark will be felt thus resulting in lasting popularity. With novels it is the same as with any mass-media-artform, I reckon. Yes, you can cater to the masses and be good (Robby Williams comes to mind) or you end up being a clone of somebody else (most likely what the marketing guys think is ‘good’) in which case you might be successful for an instant and then vanish.

    If you do something that is merely a copy of something else you will, in most cases, not enjoy any success. Original work, if successful, will have a lasting impact, and even a good clone will do, but in the end it has to be something one can enjoy and will remember.

    I’m just rambling, I guess

    • Yeah, but I appreciate that rambling. Obviously there’s no hard and fast answer or every author would be doing it. I’m just curious about what others think drives this kind of success.

  4. Cover art and the title are definite factors in getting a person to even pick up the book. Word of mouth would be the most important after those two, I think. To that end, I think the story structure would have to lend itself to being talked about. And I have a testable theory about that… there is a mathematical series of numbers out there called the Fibonacci sequence. What is called the golden ratio of that sequence pops up in all sorts of things we humans tend to find appealing; from music to women to the products we buy. This article talks about the golden ratio existent in video game music, but it explains the phenomenon well. (

    I would bet money that most of the novels that go on to be breakaway commercial successes from no-name authors–that is, they don’t have a marketing campaign behind them to drive sales–have in some way a story structure that takes advantage of this golden ratio where the major story beats occur in proportion to each other in a way that matches the golden ratio. (And I suspect most authors aren’t doing this intentionally.) I don’t think that all novels that are structured this way will be raging successes, only most of them, as the novel depends on several other factors to be a success, But if one can get some data behind the phenomenon, I think this hypotheses will have more merit.

  5. Everything else being equal (as in, assuming it’s a reasonably good book), marketing can play a huge factor. And a print run to back up the marketing. Without the marketing and print run, I think it’s much harder for a book to break out into wider notice. Sadly.

    • True that, Bruce. A book needs some presence on the shelves to attract the casual browser buyer, which can be a big deal.

  6. Woody Allen said that success is 90% luck, but Oprah says there’s no luck at all (just preparation meeting opportunity). I think they’re both right, so that averages to 45% pure unadulterated luck combined with preparation (working your ass off every day not just to write, but to write WELL) meeting opportunity (working your ass off every day not just to get your material in front of anyone, but getting it in front of exactly the right someone).

    That’s the business end. On the creative side you need a whole cast of characters that resonate with real people–make decisions that real people would make, have real emotions, are funny sometimes, stupid sometimes, embarrassed sometimes, and otherwise feel real while speaking to some universal truth that anyone and everyone understands.

    The closer you get to PEOPLE, the more you understand yourself and the people around you, the more your fiction will resonate with readers who are drawn, coincidentally enough, from a pool of . . . that’s right, you guessed it: PEOPLE.

    Here’s a fast tip: When you’re writing dialog, make sure your characters speak in contractions. You’d be surprised how many writers think people say “you would be surprised,” and could not type the word couldn’t to save their lives.

    • Agreed. I honestly think the best (but obviously not the only) predictor of a book’s success is the degree to which the characters resonate with readers, and characters resonate (or don’t) for the reasons you mentioned.

  7. I’ll assume we’re talking about new(er) authors here, because once an author does get noticed then the books will sell based on the name on the cover and nothing else (ie. Stephen King could publish his grocery list and it’d still sell a million copies). It’s getting to that point that’s tricky.

    Personally, I think that a big part of it is word-of-mouth. Look at “The Da Vinci Code” for example. Dan Brown’s 3 previous books weren’t really big sellers, so he didn’t really have any pedigree yet. When Da Vinci was first released it had nothing major going for it until a few people picked it up and started talking about it. As the weeks and months went by it got to the point where it was the ONLY thing people were talking about. I met people who had never read a real novel as an adult who had bought it based on what they had heard. And in the end, the book isn’t really that good (Angels & Demons was much better).

  8. Like mentioned above I think cover art can have a significant impact to the casual buyer or someone who just wants to pick up a book in a certain genre, but they haven’t decided on a specific one in advance.

    Example from my own experience.

    I can’t get myself to pick up Forgotten Realms novels from 2nd edition (ie stuff with the old yellow/black FR logo) because I find most of the cover art unbelievably ugly/unappealing. Most of it looks like something from Conan the Barbarian from the 80’s, even if a lot of that stuff was published in the late nineties, if not early 00’s

    The art direction is immensely better in the 3rd ED and later novels in my opinion. Generally the novel trilogies share a common theme in the artwork.



    as opposed to


    Anecdotally before I had heard anything about Twilight I had seen the cover for the one of the books that has like a chess piece in red/black/white on the cover, and I almost picked it up without knowing anything about it because I thought it looked awesome.
    Needless to say, when I found out what Twilight was about, all desire to pick it up disappeared, heh

  9. I agree that there are many books that are great, but fall short in selling, and that some books that deserve to be flushed down the toilet can get thousands, or millions, of readers.

    I guess it depends on the publisher, the author, and the audience. It heavily depends on how the book is received, i.e. how the publisher markets the book, and how the author writes it. To get people hooked on a story, there needs to be a twist (such as Harry Potter had a wizarding school, Lord of the Rings had hobbits, and even Twilight had a twist with vampires). Of course, it can also just be about layout, or how the book is written, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Amelia’s Notebook, just having something that makes it stand out.
    After the author writes the twist, then the audience needs to find it and love it, which goes back again to the publisher to make it easier for the audience to hear about the book. If the right people find the book and tell others about it, then the book goes viral.

    Then again, I’m just an amateur who has no idea about getting real books published.

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