Bestsellers And The Publishing Lottery Conception

The closest I've ever come (and ever plan to come) to a national bestseller list is a "Thank You" in the introduction of Chris Anderson's "The Long Tail." But I've made a living in publishing for the last ten years, first as a trade author, then as a self publisher. Thanks to some of my articles about Amazon, book sales, and this blog, I've enjoyed a large correspondence with literally thousands of authors and publishers. Or maybe it would be fairer to say I've conducted a large correspondence, it's not 100% enjoyable. Putting aside the loons and the authors who have the time to write multiple books but don't have the time to read a single article about publishing to the end, the most painful part of corresponding with unpublished authors is having to interpret their dreams. The most common dream, often hidden in a gauzy wrapping of serving mankind and changing the world, is to write a bestseller.

While I certainly encourage everybody to write the best book they can, writing the best book doesn't equate to winning a publishing lottery. Bestsellers share one common attribute that excludes most titles from even aspiring to a bestselling status, namely, they appeal to a heck of a lot of readers. I'm not going to pretend that I know how to create bestsellers, if I did, I'd have better things to to with my time than writing this crazy blog. But I think I have a pretty good feel for what books don't stand a chance of becoming bestsellers, unless they become the novelty title of the year that everybody buys and nobody reads. In eight years of corresponding with authors, the majority of titles I've heard described as potential bestsellers barely had a chance of selling beyond the author's immediate family.

Publishing is not a lottery. Unfortunately, the lottery conception has developed quite a following in the world as a sort of an equalizer, a chance for the little guy to compete with the big guy. In reality, lotteries are about a lot of little guys competing with a lot of other little guys with the proceeds going to create some upper middle-class jobs for relatives of politicians. But the conception of taking a chance and coming out trumps seems to dominate the dreams of unpublished authors in a destructive way. The belief that publishing is a lottery and a bestseller is the winning ticket leads authors to ignore the realities of the business and to excuse their own failures. I've also heard my share of conspiracy theories from authors who believe the world is suppressing their masterpiece for socio/political reasons. Trust me on this one. If a publisher thought they could make a profit on your book, they'd publish it.

I think the attraction of the bestseller lottery philosophy is that it absolves the author of all responsibility. Writing the book becomes the whole job, after which, success is supposed to be determined by a bunch of numbered ping-pong balls coming up in the right sequence. If writing books is your hobby or your quality time activity, more power to you, but if you're trying to start a self publishing company so you can earn a living, you're not going to make it. The big trade publishers employ acquisitions editors for a reason, and that reason is to pick out the commercial books. If you can't do that for yourself, your dreams are going to remain dreams.

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