13th February, 2011: The New York Times Best Sellers list

Interesting news came a few days ago that the New York Times would start including ebooks in their famous bestseller lists for the first time, and indeed starting with the list for February 13th, two new lists appeared: “Combined print and e-book fiction”, and “Combined print and e-book non-fiction”. These are in addition to the standard lists. As the newspaper explains, ebooks are an emerging market and calculation and analysis of metrics are still under development, hence the combined, separate lists. I think it’s an interesting move and a logical one. Afterall, music charts now include downloaded music and now more accurately reflect purchasing statistics. However, music is somewhat different to books, as a very large proportion of music sales are now downloads. Ebooks still have a long way to go.

I often look at the NYT best-seller list. I find it fascinating, seeing what is selling (and what isn’t), and over the last couple of years I’ve actually known a couple of people whose work has made it into the list which has given me a vicarious thrill. The NYT list is the granddaddy of them all – although it only represents the US market, the US market is the biggest English-speaking/reading one there is. Cracking that market is quite an achievement.

I also find the NYT best-seller list aspirational. Not that I have any particular desire to write truly mainstream or commercial fiction, or that I even have the ability to do it or to ever write anything that might sell enough to make the list. Having said that, the list isn’t just supermarket/airport schlock – speculative fiction regularly rides high on it. Stephen King tops it with every new release, of course. Brandon Sanderson’s continuation of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time fantasy epic was another notable appearance. Even looking further down the list, James Lovegrove hit the mass-market list recently with Age of Odin from Solaris, and Gail Carriger hit it with her second novel, Changeless. While a lot of books on the list are, shall we say, perhaps not so good (sometimes the NYT will have free samples available from books on the list, which I make a point to read), there’s a lot of good stuff there too.

The NYT best-seller list is aspirational for me not because it represents fame and fortune, but because it shows that an awful lot of people are buying and reading a title, and if that title is fiction, hopefully they’re being entertained and (as Sir Terry Pratchett said at the SFX Weekender) being made happy, if you’ll pardon that awkward phrase. I write fiction to entertain people and to make people happy. If a lot of people read it, and enjoy it and are entertained, then that’s my job done.

Maybe aspirational is the wrong word. Inspirational, perhaps. Reading the NYT best-seller list inspires me to write more fiction, and to write better fiction. If I want to entertain people and make people happy, the writing has got to be good. That’s the key to the list as well, I think. Stephen King and Gail Carriger and James Patterson didn’t sit down with the intention of becoming best-selling authors and making a lot of money. They sat down with the intention to write a good story. If the story is good, people will like it. If people like it, they’ll buy more of it from you, and so on. Success cannot be planned or predicted, but I think it can be worked for.

The commerciality of fiction is an interesting aspect to the list. As I’ve said, while a lot of titles that appear on it are genuinely good or even great, a lot of them are also… well, not so much. But with these writers there is something else going on in their prose. Gail Carriger called it the X-factor, the something indefinable that lurks between the lines that makes you want to read and keep reading. The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol might be awful books, but there is something about Dan Brown’s writing that people like and that makes people read (and keep reading) books that, technically, are not so good. Stephanie Meyer has it, James Patterson has it, Stephen King has it. To bitch about bad books being best-sellers is perhaps missing the point. The most wonderfully constructed story and plot and characters can mean nothing if the book doesn’t have “it”, whatever “it” is. While I think it is possible to deliberate write a commercial book – one that is clear on genre (and the placement of that genre from a marketing perspective) and steers clear of anything wildly experimental or unusual that may put your average reader off – I don’t think you can deliberately write a book with commerciality unless you naturally have that talent. That’s what separates writers like Stephen King from the rest of us.

Reading the NYT best-seller list has another function too, one slightly more practical than staring misty-eyed at your computer monitor. The first sixteen titles on each list, online anyway, are represented by single-sentence summaries which tell you everything you need to know about the book. Here’s some examples from the list for 20th February (the online list appears a week ahead of the print version):

1. TICK TOCK, by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge. (Little, Brown, $27.99.)

The New York detective Michael Bennett enlists the help of a former colleague to solve a rash of horrifying crimes that are throwing the city into chaos.

3. THE INNER CIRCLE, by Brad Meltzer. (Grand Central, $26.99.)

An archivist discovers a book that once belonged to George Washington and conceals a deadly secret.

6. SHADOWFEVER, by Karen Marie Moning. (Delacorte, $26.)

Hunting for her sister’s murderer, MacKayla Lane is caught up in the struggle between humans and the Fae.

11. WHAT THE NIGHT KNOWS, by Dean Koontz. (Bantam, $28.)

Someone is murdering entire families, recreating in detail a crime spree that took place two decades earlier.

These single-line synopses are not the elevator pitch, which runs along the lines of “Harry Potter meets Ocean’s Eleven”, etc. The NYT lines are an accurate, super-short summary of the plot. They look pretty straight forward and the ones I selected above (and indeed any from the list) make sense and tell me enough about each of the books whether I might be interested or not.

Writing these kind of single-line synopses can actually be very hard. Being able to craft them is a skill that all writers should have, as sooner or later you’ll be asked to come up with something similar. My advice, such as it is, is to read the NYT list regularly, pay attention to the summaries, and then either try some single-line summaries of your own work, or try and write them for some of your favourite books by other authors.

Stats! I have stats, glorious stats! I’m hoping that post-con lull and post-con cold dispatched, I’m back in the saddle. And what better to, erm, re-saddling with than a bit of horror Western.
Project: Godless (horror Western novel, formerly The Gospel of the Godless Stars)
Words today: 2,056
Words total: 17,250/100,000 (17%)
Total words for 2011: 47,757 (behind for the year by a long way, but I’ll take a tally on that later this week)

Firestarter is starting to pick up, although I’m still not reading it as fast as I expected. I ploughed through The Dead Zone in a couple of weeks, but The Dead Zone was a remarkable book. Firestarter is less remarkable, although still excellent. However already in the first 100 pages things have started to accelerate, and I’m enjoying it, which is the main thing.

Books: some pages of Firestarter by Stephen King.
Comics: None yesterday.