Channel funnel

The words on the front cover of this week’s issue are not uncontroversial: “how to build a bestseller”. There is no single factor that moves the dial when a book is published: the trade is full of examples of books that worked despite almost everything—Harry Potter being perhaps the most famous. Equally, if there really was a template for hit-making then 200,000 books (each equally hopeful) would not have been published last year.

That said, something in the air has changed. Publishers are becoming increasingly confident about what books work where, and how to maximise their chances. As our Lead Story shows, publishers are using a variety of tricks and feints to give titles a channel uplift—from exclusive editions, to special formats, to e-book originals. And there is good evidence that when such arrangements are made—in partnership with retailers — they work. 

Simon & Schuster highlighted its exclusive supermarket editions of Santa Montefiore’s backlist that have laid a trail for her new titles; Penguin the trade edition of Sally Green’s Half-Bad (taken up by Waterstones and indies); Headline its e-book-first release of Harriet Evans’ A Place for Us; and Picador its strong relationship with Waterstones, which helped propel The Miniaturist. Other publishers have pointed to the smart purchasing of The Works, National Trust and Urban Outfitters, who buy books tailored for their markets (in terms of both content and format). Meanwhile, many publishers are nurturing a growing D2C relationship, creating merchandising opportunities for first editions and even pre-release copies.

Surer-footed

The shift here is not so much that anything new is happening (some of this is decidedly old school), but that it appears to be working better. I’ve previously written about how, following the digital head-rush of the past few years, publishers have become surer-footed about which channels make the best funnels for their books. Consumer insight is helping them understand these channels, but it also means their partnerships with retailers are more evenly balanced. A publisher who can road test a cover in advance of a retailer presentation is in a strong position to stand their ground—especially so if they have a swell of reader approval garnered ahead of publication. Consumer data can help publishers work out which books to publish, but it can equally be used to publish more effectively. While there remains suspicion about the former, the latter is gold-dust. 

The breadth of this activity is something to behold, as evidenced at the Publishers Publicity Circle’s annual awards and those of the Book Marketing Society. The book trade is often criticised for publishing too many books with too few resources. But not every bestseller happens by chance. Some are built.