An Anatomy of a Bestseller

by Sam Eades, Senior Commissioning Editor at Orion Publishers

Sales of Paula Hawkins’s novel THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN have now hit the 2 million mark, with the paperback riding high at number one on the Sunday Times bestseller lists. With thousands of new books out each year, what makes one book stand out and become the book that everyone is reading, while others languish on the shelves and on kindles? Publishers jump on trends such as the psychological thriller genre with its unreliable narrators and toxic relationships, however spotting and making a book the Next Big Thing is an art form. A Hollywood movie adaptation, foreign rights frenzy, an award-winning PR campaign (congrats THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN publicist Alison Barrow who triumphed at the Bookseller Industry Awards) or a celeb photographed holding a copy of a book will certainly help. Examining the campaigns behind some recent monster hits, here is an anatomy of a bestseller. Keep an eye out and who knows, you might spot next year’s THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN…

Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival
Europe’s largest crime writing festival is held in Harrogate each year, allowing writers and readers alike to see their heroes at over 30 events. With such a dedicated audience of crime fiction fans, the festival has become a testing ground for publishers. In goodie bags and on seats at the events you will find ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) of books not published until the following year. Readers are invited to share what they think on sites such as GoodReads and on social media, and when a book gets positive reviews publishers mobilise publicity and marketing support behind a book to help it find more readers. Ben Willis, Head of Digital Publicity at Transworld said the festival was “the very start of the campaign for THE WIDOW, and indeed has become a launch spot for many of Transworld’s most exciting debut crime thrillers, including THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN… there’s nowhere better the unleash a fantastic debut on a book-hungry public looking for the next big thing in crime fiction.” At this year’s festival I urge you to get your hands on early reading copies of RAGDOLL by Daniel Cole, which after a foreign rights frenzy at the London Book Fair has now sold in thirty countries and hits the shelves in 2017.

What does Val McDermid think?
If you want to predict a bestseller, you’d be wise to see who Val McDermid has programmed for the New Blood Panel at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. The award-winning author and bestseller in her own right has an amazing eye for spotting future talent. Authors she has selected before their books have even come out have included SJ Watson, whose novel BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP sold over one million copies, the winner of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award 2015 Sarah Hilary and Belinda Bauer, winner of the highest accolade in crime writing, the CWA Gold Dagger.

If Agatha Christie was writing today her new book would almost certainly have its own hashtag, Publishers invest time and energy into promoting new titles on social networks, sending out early copies to influencers such as journalists, bloggers, booksellers and celebrities in the hope they read and share about how much they love a book. Watching people talking about a book they are enjoying makes potential readers want to join the club. As a reader I experienced this with Clare Mackintosh’s debut novel I LET YOU GO which everyone was talking about back ahead of its release.  Social media can accelerate word of mouth when readers genuinely want to talk about a book, such as the huge gasp-out-loud twist in I LET YOU GO. Buzz is already starting on social media for her follow-up I SEE YOU.

The might of the big retail chains and an independent with the Golden Touch
If a book is selected for the WHSMITH Richard and Judy Book Club or as a Waterstones Thriller of the Month, you will likely have a bestseller on your hands supported by store promotions and marketing. But did you know that a small independent bookshop in London has a great track record for predicting publishing phenomena? David Headley and his team at Goldsboro Books in Cecil Court selected GIRL ON THE TRAIN, THE WIDOW and BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP for their coveted Book of the Month slot months before they hit the bestseller lists and are key to launching new talent. Marketing and Communications Manager Harry Illingsworth said: “At Goldsboro Books we have an eye for a bestseller. We receive manuscripts up to 6 months in advance of publication and select a title that we believe is both enjoyable to read, and that has the possibility of becoming collectible. Recently we have chosen titles such as THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, which has gone on to huge commercial and critical success. Titles are chosen solely on their merit and it delights us to be able to help launch a debut author and give them the start that they so deserve.”

Read All About It
Newspaper circulations might be on the decline, but a rave review in print can light the touchpaper for a bestseller. In 2015 Orion published AFTER THE CRASH by Michael Bussi, a thriller which was a number one bestseller in France. UK sales were given a huge boost after Sunday Times reviewer Joan Smith said that it was “a novel so extraordinary that it reminded me of reading Stieg Larsson for the very first time.” This review was quickly added to the front cover design and combined with support from bookselling chain Waterstones became one of the bestselling books of 2015.

Would my mum like it?
There is no doubt that a high concept premise or a shocking twist will make a book stand out from the competition, and these are the books every publisher wants to publish. However when I’m looking to acquire a book, I’m searching for an author who combines great storytelling with a message that will communicate to a wide readership (and yes, that includes my Mum). In the grip of a financial depression, readers could emphasise with Nick and Amy’s American Dream Gone Bad in GONE GIRL. Similarly, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN resonated with the voyeur in all of us who wonders what happens behind the net curtains. There is something that is both universal and unique in the DNA of these books that is impossible to replicate. The best books surprise us, and take on a life of their own with readers.

Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, 21-24 July at the Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate features Special Guests: Linwood Barclay, Martina Cole, Neil Cross, Jeffery Deaver, Tess Gerritsen, Peter James, Val McDermid and Gerald Seymour.

For full programme or to book visit: Box office: 01423 562 303.