Best-Sellers: Two Writers Weigh In

Michelle Ule

Blogger: Michelle Ule

Location: Home Office, Santa Rosa, CA

We’ve already talked about a nefarious way to break onto The New York Times best-seller list by buying copies of your own book, but what about writing a best-selling book. Is there a trick to that?

I asked two Books & Such writers to talk about their experience, starting with the first question—did you know you were writing a best-selling book?

Like everyone, Diane Stortz wanted to produce a successful book. From her experience as both a writer and editor, she knew Bible storybooks need a “fresh, strong, clearly recognized focus and need to offer parents a good value.” She thought long and hard about how to put together the manuscript that ultimately became The Sweetest Story Bible. Released by Zonderkidz in February 2010, it’s in its sixth printing and appeared on the Christian best-seller list for several months.

“The focus of this book is who God is and how sweet his words and our relationship with him are. Zonderkidz gets the credit for suggesting a book for little girls. My original idea for the ‘sweet’ look was a candy motif,” Diane said with a laugh.

Two-time Christy Award-winning author Dale Cramer gave careful thought to his recent best-seller, Paradise Valley (Bethany, 2010). “In one sense I was aiming for a larger market because for the first time I was planning to write an Amish series that featured romance and a woman’s point of view . . . I felt sure it would appeal to a larger segment of the market.”

He planned well. Paradise Valley has sold nearly twice as many copies as his last published book.

Both Dale and Diane felt their projects received big boosts from the marketing departments of their publishing houses.  The Sweetest Story Bible “got noticed early on,” Diane said. “Zonderkidz price-promoted it too, and that definitely helped.”

Early and pre-sales can make a difference in a book’s chances of becoming a best-seller. “Bethany House worked very hard to promote Paradise Valley,” Dale said. “They also planned and vigorously supported a signing tour I did in Ohio around the time the book released.” As Paradise Valley was the first of three books, Dale thought Bethany put “extra muscle behind the marketing,” to give the whole series a strong start.

Diane said there are no secret formulas for making the best-seller list. “You have to know what’s selling, what people want, and provide a new spin, but that’s not infallible.For children’s books, after the content focus, the illustrations and overall look matter quite a lot,and Zonderkidz definitely got the cover and design right.”

The real key, of course, is the quality of the book itself. “Good writing is hard,” Dale said. “To me it’s just common sense that the writer has far more control over the quality of the writing and the strength of the story.

“When people ask me how to get published I always tell them, write a good book; editors are looking for good books. How do you make the best-seller list? The same way: Readers are looking for good books.”

What do you think a writer can do to increase the odds of selling a lot of books? What have you tried? What makes you want to purchase a book?

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6 Comments

  • Michelle, I couldn’t wait for your post this morning! Thank you for sharing about Dale and Diane! Writers draw encouragement from other writers’ success stories. They obviously did all the “write” things!

    I think to increase the odds of our books doing well, we need to write a great story, analyze marketing techniques/audience, and network, network, network!

    I loved how you blogged about A Log Cabin Christmas before it was even released. You shared little tidbits, and then, whammo! You did the vlog post about making the cabin with the licorice. A cute demonstration that packed a powerful punch! That stayed with me, and I bet it did with others, too. I enjoyed hearing your sweet voice and it gave me a sense of who you were.

    Continued congrats!

  • What wonderful stories. Thanks for sharing them. I love the covers on both of these, and it appears substantial thought went into them.

    Cynthia, I feel you’re right about Michelle’s decisions on blogging and vlogging. Finding unique ways to promote your book sticks with people.

    One thing I believe is very important is knowing your audience. I’m working on how to do that. I’m around kids a lot and read a variety of children’s books. I’ve also spent some time at the library trying to find books comparable to mine. I don’t know if that’s enough, but it’s a start.

    Thanks for another great post, Michelle.

  • Larry Carney says:

    Thanks for sharing your writing experiences. It’s good to hear there are publishers like Bethany Hose who still help writers sell their books :)

    What makes me want to buy a book? Interesting cover, nice title, and the first page in the book. If I’m reading a book in the store and find that after the first page I’m still engaged, I’ll flip to a random chapter and start reading: if the writing is good enough that I’m still enjoying the act of reading without fully knowing the plot, then I’ll buy the book.

  • I’ve never been on the NYTimes list, but I have had titles on the CBA list, and it always amazes me. Truly. Why? Because I work just as hard on every single book, and I’ve been blessed to have publishers who I feel have done stellar marketing. IMHO, there is also a factor in what hits “the list” that writers can’t write to and that publishers can’t achieve with marketing. It is that “something” that resonates with a reading audience because of where they are in their lives, what is going on in the world at large, and the message of the book. Sometimes those things just “fit” in a way that makes a book fill a niche. I say that writers can write to it because by the time a writer would plan and sell a book and get it scheduled … the “niche” might be something else. So I suppose I would call it the “God-factor” in writing. This isn’t to say that we don’t try to think ahead. But there is also a “spark” that just sometimes happens. A serendipity that the Lord causes … because … He does.

  • Jill Kemerer says:

    It’s wonderful to walk into a Christian book store and find fantastic books to share with our kids. The Sweetest Story Bible is something I would have picked up when my kids were younger.

    I think word-of-mouth helps a lot to sell books. I’ve read several books friends have recommended, and I wouldn’t have known to look for them otherwise.

    Congrats to both writers!

  • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

    You’re ahead of me, Stephanie. I address those topics on Thursday and Friday, though not the God-factor which we have no idea how to count except as a blessing.

    I agree with Cheryl, one reason to pay attention to best selling lists is to better understand the audience and try to draw conclusions about felt-needs from what is purchased.

    You can’t just be a writer, you have to be a student of many different things–marketing, selling, history, joy. Which is why writing is not a typical day job.

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