By Callie Oettinger | Published: October 18, 2013
What makes a bestseller?
What is the “Oprah Effect” on books?
I’ve thought about these two questions on repeat through the years—and finally have a set of answers.
Let’s start with the bestseller question.
What Makes a Bestseller?
The War of Art will debut at lucky #13 on the October 20th New York Times bestseller list for Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous titles, showing that alternate routes can lead to the list, too.
Backlist titles can make the list.
The War of Art is over 12 years old.
Titles sold almost exclusively online—without a distributor or sales force or a presence in key bookstores reporting sales to the New York Times—can make the list.
Print copies of The War of Art are sold via BlackIrishBooks.com, Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, a small handful of mostly-college bookstores that bought books at the request of various professors—and at least one person we know of who places bulk orders with BlackIrishBooks.com and then resells the books on Amazon.com at prices that undercut Amazon’s prices and still make him a profit. E-books and audio are sold via the above three online outlets, as well as KoboBooks.com, Google Play and iTunes.
Titles that rely on word-of-mouth instead of expensive campaigns can make the list.
With the exception of a Google Ad Words test last year and a few Facebook ads, Black Irish Books relies on word-of-mouth sharing to get The War of Art and its other titles “out there.”
This bring us to the second question:
What is the “Oprah Effect” on Books?
Where was The War of Art before Oprah interviewed Steve for “Super Soul Sunday” and quoted from it during the episode?
According to Bookscan, an average of 500 copies of The War of Art were sold per week over the past year. This is in addition to copies sold by BlackIrishBooks.com, which doesn’t report to Bookscan.
The week before Oprah’s interview with Steve aired, we started seeing an increase in traffic to Steve’s site and to the Black Irish Books store.
Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday team had started posting video clips from the upcoming interview and a larger-than-usual number of individuals looked Steve and The War of Art up online, which in turn led them to Steve’s site and the Black Irish Site. On its Facebook page, the Super Soul Sunday team posted quotes from Steve, which were graphically designed to be as pleasing to view as they were thought-provoking to read.
We shared the videos and the images with quotes, and started seeing more sharing online, an increase in views to Steve’s site and Black Irish’s site, as well as an increase in viewers and “likes” on Facebook.
Before an excerpt from The War of Art was posted to Oprah.com, we asked that it be linked to BlackIrishBooks.com instead of Amazon.com, so we could track referral traffic and see sales through BlackIrishBooks.com as the primary seller. After the excerpt posted, it was shared through OWN’s Huffington Post portal, too. Same links.
Before the interview with Oprah, the highest one-day referral traffic to Steve’s site came after Crossfit shared a link to Steve’s site a few years back. I wondered about the referral traffic from Oprah.com and Huffington Post. Together, would they exceed the amount we experienced with Crossfit? No. They didn’t. Now, I know it isn’t an exact comparison. Crossfit’s link had to be clicked on to read the post, so it had more of a call-to-action vibe. The War of Art excerpt was on Oprah.com and Huff Post, so readers didn’t have to leave the sites to read—unless they wanted more info. about Steve and/or the book. Still, it was interesting to see what happened and how their different readers moved within the sites.
What we did see, which happened to a lesser degree after the Crossfit link, was a spike in search engine referral traffic. As with the videos and Facebook posts, after the excerpt went up, we saw more traffic via an increase in searches for Steve’s name and for The War of Art, than via direct links from sites related to Oprah.
I’m not surprised.
Oprah encourages conversation. I had my own “ah ha” moment when I saw her audience sharing via word-of-mouth and doing more of their own searches, rather than checking things out through direct links. She and her team shared and then the audience wanted to learn more—but did it on their terms. One of my favorite examples of someone sharing after the interview came via a painting done by artist Colleen Sgroi, based on one of Steve’s quotes. She posted it to her Facebook page and we in turn shared it on Steve’s page.
During the first airing of the interview, Steve and I tweeted with Oprah and her team. Yes. Steve was on Twitter. It’s not his thing. We’ve discussed this before. I manage his account and share on it for him, though he does hop on Facebook from time to time to answer questions.
Why all the tweeting and Facebook sharing, above and beyond how we usually share? Oprah’s team.
One of Oprah’s producers contacted us a few years ago. She was—and continues to be—a champion for The War of Art and Steve’s other work. Because Steve rarely does interviews (I can count the ones he’s done in the last year on one hand), I wondered if he’d do this one—especially since it required flying to Maui while he was on deadline for his next book.
Steve met the producer in person, she shared her vision and her conversation with Oprah and the rest of their team. And… Steve flew to Maui to meet Oprah. And … We spent another few months going back and forth with her team as they edited the interview.
The time (this really was a few years in the making) and effort—and passion—the producer, Oprah, and the rest of the team put into the episode was beyond impressive. Though I should have expected it from her team, I was shocked by the kindness and consideration across the board, too. I’ve worked with a number of producers and production staffs in the past and have been met by egos and an attitude that the producers, the staff and the hosts were above everyone else. None of that nonsense with Oprah or her team—the experience was more of one working with old friends.
For all these reasons, it would have been hard NOT to share the episode. They went above and beyond everything Steve, Shawn and I have experienced when it comes to interviews.
The day after the episode aired, The War of Art paperback was ranked #6 on Amazon.com and we witnessed an increase in traffic on BlackIrishBooks.com and on Steve’s site. As I type this, almost two weeks later, the paperback is ranked #73 on Amazon.com.
Publishers have not shared their bestseller numbers with me in the past, so I didn’t know what the #6 would equate to in sales, and as I write this, I don’t know what #73 equates to today.
Amazon has been tight-lipped about its ranking system, not sharing the how behind the numbers. What we do know is that a specific ranking number doesn’t relate to a specific number of sales.
In the past year, The War of Art has ranked between #300 and #1,000 on Amazon.com. According to Bookscan, during that period, the title sold between 300 and 700 copies a week. A ranking of #300 one week doesn’t equate to the same number of books sold at #300 during another week.
I’ve never read anything from Amazon stating this, but from a look at the numbers… It’s a bell curve. This, of course, holds true for the bestseller list, too.
Not all best-sellers are created equal. Some come out during slow times of the year, when there isn’t as much competition. Some get the jump on the holiday season, beating out the rush. There’s a reason why you don’t see large groups of big authors or films being released the same week. They avoid each other. The competition mucks with the numbers.
We checked out Bookscan’s numbers for The War of Art, for the week following Oprah’s interview with Steve. The interview aired September 29th. According to Bookscan, between September 30th and October 6th, The War of Art sold 3,276 copies.
Because Black Irish doesn’t have a distributor or sales force placing the books in stores nationwide, we know that the Bookspan numbers, with perhaps an exception or two, came from Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com, which are the main sellers of print books outside of Black Irish. The New York Times’ methodology, r.e. the “Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous” list, supports this assumption:
“E-book sales for advice & how-to books, children’s books and graphic books will be tracked at a future date.”
Translation: e-book sales aren’t being tracked today. This narrows the bookstores reporting to the New York Times to the few outlets selling the print version (a.k.a. Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com).
We witnessed an upswing in Steve’s other titles, too.
It’s nice to say your book hit the best-seller list upon its release.
It’s even nicer to say your book is still in print 12 years later, that it has consistently sold more books almost every year since it was published, and that it hit the best-seller list a decade-something out.
A while ago I wrote the post “Give It A Minute,” inspired by an interview I read with Louis C.K. Within the interview, Dave Itzkoff comments, “You have the platform. You have the level of recognition,” to which Louis C.K. replies, “So why do I have the platform and the recognition?
Itzkoff answered, “At this point you’ve put in the time.”
“There you go,” replied Louis C.K.
“There’s no way around that. There’s people that say: ‘It’s not fair. You have all that stuff.’ I wasn’t born with it. It was a horrible process to get to this. It took me my whole life. If you’re new at this—and by ‘new at it,’ I mean 15 years in, or even 20—you’re just starting to get traction. Young musicians believe they should be able to throw a band together and be famous, and anything that’s in their way is unfair and evil. What are you, in your 20s, you picked up a guitar? Give it a minute.”
My advice for authors today? Push for the long-term. Yes, go after the bestseller list upon release, but consider the goal of writing and sharing something that will be in print decades down the road. It’s the difference between a one-hit wonder and a life-long favorite.
And, when you do hit that success point, you get to do it on your own terms. Louis C.K. did it by setting up his own tour and selling his own tickets. The equivalent in publishing is printing and selling your own books. It can’t be done overnight, but it can be done.
How? Community, sticking with it—and then there’s that “Oprah Effect”, which I now recognize as the “Oprah Team Effect”—how can you NOT have amazing things happen when you have an equally amazing team of individuals working with you?
And, yes, I know there are people who are reading this and thinking that the “Oprah Team Effect” isn’t something every author will experience. So what should they do?
Up until a few months ago, it wasn’t something Steve had experienced either, yet his books continue to sell consistently year after year, with many seeing stronger sales as the years have progressed. That comes down to good writing and community.
You could say the same of Oprah herself. Her success didn’t come overnight. She spent years growing herself. Along with her work, she nurtured a community, which trusts her and, based on that trust, is open to checking out projects and individuals she shares with them.
Through this experience, I can see how her team is working with her to nurture that community. And from working with Steve and other authors, I know it takes time. (Check out Steve’s recent “Writing Wednesday” post, in which he wrote, “I started writing in 1966; I didn’t get my first check till 1984.”)
While the “Oprah Team Effect” isn’t something every author will experience, that bestseller list is a possibility. Takes work—and most likely more than a few minutes.
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UPDATE: For those interested, the following are the Bookscan-reported sales and the corresponding New York Times Bestseller list rank for The War of Art, in the weeks since this article was first written:
Sept. 30-Oct. 6: 3,280 copies sold
Oct. 20, 2013: New York Times “Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous” Bestseller list: #13
Oct 7-Oct 13: 2,952 copies sold
Oct. 27: New York Times “Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous” Bestseller list: #17
Oct. 14-20: 2,120 copies sold
Nov. 3, 2013, New York Times “Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous” Bestseller list: #18
Oct. 21-27: 1,956 copies sold
Nov. 10, 2013, New York Times “Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous” Bestseller list: Not on the list
Oct. 28-Nov. 3: 1,825 copies sold
Nov. 17, 2013, New York Times “Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous” Bestseller list: Not on the list
Nov. 4-10: 2,145 copies sold
Nov. 24, 2013, New York Times “Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous” Bestseller list: Not on the list