Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Every writer can benefit from figuring out what makes for a successful book. If you understand what elements can add up to strong sales and reader interest, it can help you to forge a plan for your next book that can heighten the chances of your book succeeding.
The book we’ll examine isn’t a barn-burning best-seller, but it has stiff competition because it’s wedged onto stuffed shelves–the parenting category. When it comes to nonfiction titles, the two most crowded fields to play on are parenting and marriage. Once you pull off the shelf books written by psychologists and spokespeople, a plethora of possibilities still await the reader.
I first discovered the book we’ll examine when it was highlighted in Publishers Marketplace e-newsletter, which I subscribe to. What set it apart?
A Successful Book Has an Eye-Catching Title
The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting juxtaposes two groups of people in a surprising way with the title: game theorists and parents. That not only catches your attention, but it also startles you into taking a closer look.
Curiosity will carry you on to the subtitle: How the Science of Strategic Thinking Can Help You Deal with the Toughest Negotiators You Know–Your Kids. This subtitle speaks parenting language. And it uses words readers wold find appealing:
science. Parent thinks: Yes, science probably can help me to parent.
strategic thinking. Parent thinks: Oh, so that’s how game theory fits in. I need to be a strategic thinker as a parent–not to mention I like video games.
can help you deal with the toughest negotiators you know–your kids. Parent smiles and thinks: Yeah, my kids are cute, but they sure do know how to get what they want out of me–and my spouse, who is the type of sucker P.T. Barnum lived for.
The book could be sold solely on its title and subtitle–which is a lesson in the power of coming up with a title that has an element of “huh?” and an element of “ha!” and an element of “ah.”
A Successful Book’s Cover Design “Repeats” the Message of the Title
Okay, so the publisher had us at the title. But the design of the cover should echo that same response of “huh?” “ha!” “ah.” And this cover does simply deliver the same emotional resonance as the title.
Yup, there’s a cute, lovable, tough negotiator.
A Successful Book Explores Familiar Territory with a Fresh Approach
Having a game theorist apply his knowledge to the task of parenting ought to do the trick here. The book’s description explains how that will work: “In The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting, the award-winning journalist and father of five Paul Raeburn and the game theorist Kevin Zollman pair up to highlight tactics from the worlds of economics and business that can help parents break the endless cycle of quarrels and ineffective solutions. Raeburn and Zollman show that some of the same strategies successfully applied to big business deals and politics―such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Ultimatum Game―can be used to solve such titanic, age-old parenting problems as dividing up toys, keeping the peace on long car rides, and sticking to homework routines.”
A Successful Book Garners Good Reviews from the Pros
You, as the author, might have some connections you can use to make sure authorities in the field your book appears in offer their opinions of your book. But your publisher also should send ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) to publications’ book reviewers and to authorities as well. (When it comes to spokespeople, generally the author is more successful at obtaining these reviews than the publisher–unless that publisher also is producing books for a leading authority and the authority has the time and inclination to write a review.)
Here are a few quotes from publication reviews The Game Theorist received:
“Unlike most parenting books . . . this one is based on actual research into how humans behave . . . in the home it should increase the odds that there will be less whining for all involved.” ―Laura Vanderkam, The Wall Street Journal
“[Raeburn and Zollman] join a welcome trend of academics pairing up with writers (or comedians!) to create a true crossover offering, one that marries rigorous research and real scholarship with a compelling style and narrative arc that human beings actually want to read on purpose.” ―Rebecca Schuman, Slate
“Kids are master manipulators. They play up their charms, pit adults against one another, and engage in loud, public wailing. So it’s your job to keep up with them . . . The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting . . . explains how.” ―Chelsea Leu, Wired
“The small transactions of parenting―sharing, dividing, collaborating and compromising―are fraught with peril. Solutions that feel fair are not always just, particularly in the eyes of our children. Paul Raeburn and Kevin Zollman achieve two incredible feats in The Game Theorist’s Guide to Parenting: they helped me find a way to be fair and just in my parenting while teaching me the basics of game theory. I absolutely loved this book, both as a parent, and as a nerd.” ―Jessica Lahey, author of the New York Times bestseller The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed
A Successful Book Makes its Content Accessible and Enjoyable to Read
Now, some books are about difficult topics, but the writing can bring us through reading about the most harrowing of events and gracefully carry us on to the next scene, the next chapter, the next paragraph. Successful books are satisfying reading experiences. The reviews for The Game Theorist suggest the book accomplishes that task admirably.
At this point on my journey scrolling down the book’s Amazon page, I’m thinking this book has it all going for it. So I check out its Amazon rankings (which can be squirrely, as we know).
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #13,217 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The rankings showcase just what one would expect from the package that the authors and the publisher put together. Even in the tough category of parenting, the ranking is darn good. (By the way, the book released in April; so these rankings reflect not just the first blush of sales from a brand new release, but sales a few months into the book’s life.)
In Every Successful Book’s Life a Little Rain Must Fall
So everything looks rosy for this book, right? Well, there is a smudge on its reputation. The reviews from Amazon readers (which number at 10, which is pathetically small) aren’t all glowing. As a matter of fact, this book rates 3.7 stars out of 5. A bit on the low side.
Not that you want all 5 stars; that sort of rating suggests all your friends and family are writing rave reviews. Reviews are subjective, and not everyone will like your book, as hard as that is to embrace.
But here is a sampling from those who didn’t care for the book:
“I can summarize this book in two bullet points: 1. When you make threats, they should be credible. 2. The I cut/you choose strategy for dividing things is handy.
Most of the book is variations on these themes, padded out with advice your game-theory-oblivious grandmother could have given you. There’s some interesting discussion of auction theory, if you’re into that, but the author doesn’t make a good case for its utility in childrearing.” –2 stars
“This is a superficial guide to game theory and parenting. The examples used are simplistic. The relevance to game theory is not well explained. I would not recommend this book.” –2 stars
“The book’s big problem is that most of the examples are either contrived or would yield to simpler solutions. There’s an example of two kids fighting over who gets to play a new video game system first. The answer seems pretty obvious: make them bid with time (i.e., whoever plays first would play for less time), but the book ignores that and uses this example to go into Solomon’s adjudication of the two mothers claiming the same baby.
“Similarly, later on there’s an example about a boy who persuades his parents to get a cat, but of course ends up leaving the cat care and training to his parents within a short period of time. The solution should be obvious: getting a cat is an ongoing contract, so extracting a promise up front is useless. You have to design systems where by cat care is incentivized through ongoing penalties. The authors ignore that and get into the Nash equilibrium without ever coming up with a good solution.
“Having said that, the book is so short that it’s still worth a read and who knows, maybe the ideas presented will eventually be useful. Mildly recommended.” –3 stars
So there you have it: the anatomy of a successful book–and a reminder that not everyone will love it, regardless how successful it is.
What other elements make for a successful book?
What book that you’ve read lately added up to meeting the criteria for a successful book?
The anatomy of a successful book. Click to tweet.
What elements make a book successful? Click to tweet.