How does a novel become a best seller? It seems to me there are three basic ways. At times they may overlap or intersect, while at other times one of them is the prime mover. Assuming the book is effectively written–for a relatively wide audience, or at least a receptive audience–its potential readership must first be made aware of it. Unless you’re already a best seller, I happen to think that bookstore signings are mostly useless. A more realistic hope for genuinely productive exposure is *hotly enthusiastic* reviews in high places–major print publications, like New York Times Book Review, or the online equivalent; even better, positive reviews on, say, National Public Radio or on television, or online sites with *very* high traffic by book buyers. A corollary is author interviews on television or radio, which can happen before the book is hot *only if* there is something unusual and entertaining or madly timely about its concept–likely pointed out to the venue by effective and connected publicists.
Second factor: widespread and expensive advertising based on the reviews or the hotness of the subject matter. This requires an improbable and expensive outlay by the publisher. The publisher may pay for ads–and they have to be in the right places–if the novel got giddy and well placed reviews or if the publisher had to bid for a novel because it got hot even before publication (usually requiring a really damned good, strategically placed literary agent). In for a hundred thousand, in for three hundred thousand.
Third, word of mouth, readers simply telling other readers, online or in person, about a novel that flashed past their defenses and got them worked up enough that they rapturously recommend it . . .Word of mouth is like lightning striking (John Brunner said in an interview, “Lightning never struck for me”) and persistent reader chatter can occasionally make an obscure book into a roaring success. It has even happened with some ebooks. Word of mouth that launches a best seller, or turns a fairly effective seller into a top seller, is almost invariably based on an *unusually high* level of enthusiasm–the readers truly enjoyed the *hell* out of that book. But on some occasions extensive word of mouth is primed by timing, by the book’s relevance to current trends, eg, when Zombie Apocalypse fiction was first getting hot; it can be stoked, too, by a subject simmering in the national collective mind, perhaps the tragedies associated with Hurricane Katrina. If you have a *good* Hurricane Katrina novel at the right moment to catch the wave…you can surf that wave. The writer of course has to be sharp, or a good storyteller–and the material has to seem reasonably fresh even if it’s part of a sub-genre.
Of course there are all sorts of ponderable and imponderable factors–editorial acumen and book-selling canniness, intelligent marketing personnel, book cover imagery, sexual trends in the reading public.
A publishing phenomenon that surprised a good many people was the success of Fifty Shades of Grey… but certainly word of mouth, social lightning striking, was instrumental in its emergence.
And a word of mouth that reaches that sort of “lightning striking” level usually arises with startling mysteriousness…