Is it content, or is it marketing?
Ahh, grasshoppers. The answer to the (literally) million-dollar question is: Yes.
The other answer is: Sometimes, one or the other.
But you knew that, right?
This morning I emailed a close friend of mine who works in Big Publishing to get her take on the question; she absolutely confirmed my instincts, nearly word for word.
Sometimes we see a book on the best-seller list, and we wonder, Why? How?
I think it is important to ask those questions thoughtfully and not disdainfully. Here's what my friend wrote in her answer this morning: "Lots of times when a book is a huge hit and I don't get it, I think to myself, clearly there is something about this--writing, premise, information, voice, characters--something that is speaking to people. Even if I can't figure out what it is."
Amen. A best-seller sells well because the writer has somehow made a connection with a large group of the population. Don't begrudge it.
I believe it is very bad writing karma to disrespect the best-sellers, and I'll tell you why. Those books are revenue generators for the publishers, and without those big names selling books in every airport and Wal-Mart from here to Timbuktu, there would be. No. Cash. To finance more modest projects, like those you and I hope to have published someday. So next time you feel tempted to sneer at Danielle Steele or Robert Jordan or Jack Canfield, remember that discretion is the better part of valor. And also: what goes around, comes around.
That said, here are the Ten Steps you need to follow if you'd like to have your own best-seller:
1) Write a mind-blowingly good book.
2) I mean it. Write the very best book you can. Take a course, or join a critique group, if that kind of thing works for you. And see the story through to the end. Trust me: five brilliant chapters do not a finished product make.
3) If you are not adept at line editing (and even if you are), hire a Grammar Fascista™ or Fascisto™. You need at least one more pair of eyes to go over your stuff to make sure that your form is as perfect as your content. Trust me: agents and editors care about spelling and grammar--more than you'll ever know. They are the gatekeepers to the Holy Land of Publishing; if you don't get past them, you'll be forever on the outside.
4) Do meticulous research to find five agents who will be such a great fit for you and your work that they will weep with joy upon reading your query/synopsis/manuscript, then call you immediately afterward with a fat contract in hand.
5) Write a synopsis that highlights the brilliance of your book and a query letter that shows what an interesting, hard-working, affable, sane, and easy-to-get-along-with person you are.
6) Send the appropriate packages (you'll know EXACTLY what they want, since you've done the meticulous research required in step 4) to all five. In this case, five is NOT 'right out.'
7) In the many months you will wait to hear back from any of those fine, but beleaguered souls, repeat steps 1 through 6. Several times, if possible.
8) When the perfect agent calls, telling you that s/he's already shopped your manuscript around and has competing offers from a couple of different publishing houses, make sure to call your lawyer to ensure you get the very best deal you can. If you don't have one, you may use mine. He's spendy, but worth every penny. Drop those lawyer prejudices. Lawyers exist to promote and defend the rights of their clients. In this case, that means you.
9) Be willing to do your part in marketing your book. Visit your cousins in Kansas or your aunt in New Hampshire and set up signings and/or readings at the local bookstores there. Set up a professional-looking website and a cre8Buzz page so that your fans can have access to more of you. Make sure that you display to your agent the requisite enthusiasm for these chores; it will go a long way towards helping him/her convince the editor (who must then convince the publishing house's sales force) that you mean business. If you're on board, they'll be on board. Then get out there and work it, baby, work it. And hopefully the sales force will, too.
10) Be gracious in your success; be as kind and as generous as you can to fans, other writers, publishing staff, and reviewers (even if they trash your work). Acknowledge the help and support of family, friends, editors, agents, and anyone else who has helped you along the way. Do what you can to give back to the wonderful community that has gotten you this far. And savor the moment; you have earned it!
Back to NaNoWriMo I go, in search of my own best-seller....