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Bestseller Status: It takes a Hell of a Lot of Work …

This weekend I’ll be a speaker at The Next Bestseller Workshop in New York City, or should I say, Virtual New York City, where I’ll be talking about some of my bestselling books, and how they came to be. I’ll also be talking about books that didn’t reach bestseller status but that nonetheless sell steadily day in and day out. I’ll even mention the dogs that hardly sell at all (in other words, not even my mother will buy them). Full transparency here.

At one point, I will be asked, what are two things that can potentially keep at least some of my books, or future books, in bestseller status. I’ve given this some thought, so here goes:

1). Perseverance, Proliferation, Publication

As a writer, you must always be playing the long game. This is not a get rich quick scheme, anymore than it’s an overnight success story. Sure the success comes overnight, but after many nights spent without success. You also need to write a lot, depending on your genre. As a hard-boiled mystery writer for the most part, I write a lot of words everyday and I put out a lot of books and stories with a lot of different publishers, big and small. I also publish independently. This is on top of my journalistic and freelance writing endeavors.

Each book is another chance at topping the bestseller lists and also making it to the movies or TV. The publishers you use (or don’t use) can have a lot to do with bestseller status. Like I already mentioned, the Amazon Imprints virtually guarantee big sales, but that’s not always the case. Many of their authors don’t see a lot of sales right off the bat and they are usually shown the door. At one point I had 9 books with the Amazon Imprint, Thomas & Mercer, the largest seller of which was The Remains. 

But I’ve also had publishers who have literally screwed my books up. Back in 1999 I signed with a major for $250K for my novel, The Innocent, but the editor changed the title to As Catch Can, which was a big mistake. The hardcover art was botched too. In the end, the book sold very little. After I got my rights back, I changed the title back to The Innocent. It was republished by a smaller publisher who did a terrific job with new cover art, and the book sold 100K units in a single month. It stayed on the Amazon Overall Bestseller list in Kindle Books for weeks, second only to The Lincoln Lawyer which was a major movie at the time.

I’ve had other publishers, one in particular whom I won’t name, but who for some reason gets great press in PW and elsewhere. Said publisher not only botched the editing process to several of my titles, but provided almost no marketing. The owner then gets himself his own book deal, so now his main focus is on selling his own books. And did I mention they never send out statements or royalty checks when they are legally obligated? I naturally fired them. But at the same time, a publisher like that can damage your career for a while.

2). Luck

While you might be over the moon when you finally get your first book deal, you must keep in mind that success depends not only on the amount of marketing and advertising you do, it also depends an awful lot on luck. There has always been a certain amount of luck involved in the books that have done the best for me. In other words, the books that did the best were in the right place at the right time. It’s an inexplicable thing, when you think about it. The books that didn’t sell as well, and that should have sold well, based on the sales of similar books, can’t be explained either, other than they just didn’t enjoy the same luck the bestseller did.

The point is to hang in there, keep writing like your life depends upon it, and choose your publishers carefully. It takes a hell of a lot of work, but it’s better than having a real job.

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