What It Takes

What It Takes

The Metrics of a Bestseller and the “Oprah Effect”

By Callie Oettinger | Published: October 18, 2013

New York Times “Advice, How-To & Miscellaneous” Bestseller list, October 20, 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.

The Takeaway

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.

* * *

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

Posted in What It Takes

21 Responses to “The Metrics of a Bestseller and the “Oprah Effect””

  1. October 18, 2013 at 6:46 am

    Seth Godin says much the same thing about ‘community,’ ‘tribe,’ etc. I have a friend who’s been in the comic book/graphic novel business for years, and we talk about fandom – long before the conventions were big – and how the ‘genre ghetto’ (I think I coined that term just now), had (has) that organic growth that makes for the long term you’re talking about.

    Fandom lives! (So does Frodo, but that’s another story.)

    In ‘literary’ circles the talk about ‘canon’ and ‘classic’ centered around that very question: What is popular now? What endures? Many best-sellers from yesterday have no staying power, while many classics of today were ignored in their time. It took a while for Jane Austen to catch on!

    Fortunately, now, community depends more on perseverance and good writing and connecting than ever before – writers still need editors and a web of professionals, of course. Word-of-mouth, or word-by-keyboard, is still the best marketing.

    Maybe we need some new definitions. If a book sells 1,000 copies a year for ten years, and another sells 5,000 for one year – which is the best-seller?

    Thanks!!

    • Callie Oettinger
      October 18, 2013 at 8:34 am

      David,

      Thanks for this:

      “In ‘literary’ circles the talk about ‘canon’ and ‘classic’ centered around that very question: What is popular now? What endures? Many best-sellers from yesterday have no staying power, while many classics of today were ignored in their time. It took a while for Jane Austen to catch on!”

      What’s popular changes. What’s good endures.

      Callie

  2. October 18, 2013 at 7:21 am

    There is no such thing as overnight success. Thank you so much for your insight Callie. Really appreciate it!

  3. Mary
    October 18, 2013 at 7:27 am

    Over 3,000 copies in six days – so deserved! But the other part of the equation is all of those new readers who will benefit from The War of Art and will move on to read Steve’s other books. It’s a win/win for everyone – thanks for sharing.

  4. October 18, 2013 at 7:29 am

    This is breathtaking, Callie, as well as inspiring. As an exact contemporary of Steve’s — plus or minus 40 days — whose life was literally changed by “The War of Art,” I can attest to his (and your, and Louis CK’s) observations. If one just goes on doing the work, not for the outcome but out of the need, one can just keep getting incrementally better. We won’t all find Oprah, but we will find (without authorities or intermediaries) our audience. Thanks for this great post.

    • October 18, 2013 at 1:28 pm

      Yes, Nick, but we know that YOU have the super-duper biz model … and you ain’t sharing it with nobody.

      Go, Brooklyn Nets!

  5. October 18, 2013 at 7:37 am

    Awesome stuff. I just started working on a book and i an fighting resistance with every drop of blood in me. some days it wins but many days i kick its sorry butt. This was good to read because i believe i have something special in that book (self help) but i was starting to be afraid that the “institution” (publishers, distributors, agents etc) will not like me. Now i am reminded that while thats a possibility, it doesnt affect good writing, and it doesnt affect my own ability to build a community around it and create something that will have impact year from now.Awesome

  6. October 18, 2013 at 7:54 am

    Oprah’s power is the power of women. After countless recommendations from me on Steve’s works, my wife never thought of them as something for her. The day I told her he was to be interviewed by her, BOOM, she was in. And she’s not an Oprah devotee; she’s just a woman, and there is no one with more cred with women than Oprah.
    If you could break down the demographics by gender of your book sales before and after Oprah, I bet you’d see a large uptick in women buyers.
    I still remember the day she endorsed fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama, before he was the juggernaut that he became (with her help) and Hillary was the prohibitive favorite. I told everyone who would listen: “Oprah has just anointed our next President.” And I’m a Republican!
    I’m glad you all got to see her team behind the scenes, and to learn that they try to use their powers for good and not evil.

    • Callie Oettinger
      October 18, 2013 at 8:18 am

      Tom,

      Good to hear your wife checked out some of the books!

      I don’t have a breakdown on the readers, but on Facebook, the breakdown is 59% male “like”, with most of the “likers” in the 25-34 and 35-44 age ranges. I’m interested to see if there are any changes. Even though I try not to pay too much attention to the numbers, I’m still very interested in how they change, what moves them…

      And, yeah… Oprah’s team is GOOD. NICE, normal, down-to-earth, void of all the ego nonsense. I imagine that’s one of the reasons the perform at such a high level. Toxic personalities/people are creative killers.

      Callie

  7. October 18, 2013 at 7:59 am

    Oh ya — We all have it in us.

  8. October 18, 2013 at 8:01 am

    “Give it a minute.”

    Been saying that for a long time. I seriously love that TWoA is *picking up speed* at an age other books are already in geriatric mode.

    I’m thinking of tearing mine apart and rebinding it as a hard cover. Leather, maybe. I’d love the exterior to be the meaningful work of art the interior already is.

    (Also, transparency? Oh yeah. Y’all win the Transparency Makes Me Love You Award.)

    • Callie Oettinger
      October 18, 2013 at 8:29 am

      Thanks, Joel!

      Felt a bit of a hypocrite focusing on the numbers and encouraging readers/writers to go for the list, since I spend so much time telling authors NOT to focus on the list, but… It’s interesting to see the numbers at play.

      Yes 3,000+ books sold in one week and making the list because of that is nice, but… Imagine doing that a few weeks in a row and then that’s it and your book is out of print in a few years… The numbers for THE WAR OF ART show, in terms of earnings, that a backlist bestseller is a better focus. And, in terms of writing, it is fulfilling to see a book going and going and going, reaching new audiences every year.

      R.e. transparency… If it rambles, let us know. If you want more… Let us know.

      My best to you and the Rice Lake crew!

      Callie

  9. October 18, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Good post Callie and good insight into publishing and writing for the longterm…

    By the way, I loved The Authentic Swing. So insightful on a lot of levels. Look for a note from me in your mailbox.

  10. October 18, 2013 at 9:31 am

    A wonderful post, Callie – very thoughtful and inspiring. It’s always good to take a look at the business side of the writing business and you positioned the “long term” message perfectly. It does take time to build community but if you take care of your readers, they’ll stick with you for life.

    Great stuff – thank you!

  11. October 18, 2013 at 7:42 pm

    There is something here that can be described, but not taught. It’s because the essence of this evolved, and wasn’t grown. Steve’s character and life experiences as expressed in his work, as expressed in the gathering to him people like Callie and Shawn, Oprah, too, as she gathered Steve to her — these are effects of causes too numerous and contingent to teach, or learn. The evolution of a rose.

    The metrics, too—we appreciate Steve’s success, know it is deserved, but can’t replicate it. To try to do so (Profile, anyone?) is a failure at the outset.

    Always be ready, give it your all, and never, ever give up. Trust your art. Do it for the right reasons, accept that as your reward. Maybe we’ll find the end of a rainbow, maybe not, but there really are no other choices.

  12. October 19, 2013 at 9:44 am

    Now, having read the book last night and this morning, I feel like an idiot.

    What I was trying to say above is, no one can learn Steven Pressfield’s Authentic Swing.

    duh.

  13. Basilis
    October 21, 2013 at 8:30 am

    Great post Callie!

  14. gs
    October 22, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    Congratulations to Steve and his associates for this overnight success that was years (or decades!) in the making. A Well done! to Oprah and her team for bringing Steve’s work to people who will benefit from, and would otherwise not have seen, it.

    And, like the readers who kept Tolkien’s work alive when it was out of print, I have the satisfaction of knowing I started using War of Art years before it became a bestseller.

  15. October 24, 2013 at 9:34 am

    Thanks Steve for reminding us of how things really are and can be. I recently returned from a trip to Bryce Canyon which inspired me to write a reminder to myself and others about how beautiful things take time. We live in an ‘instant gratification’ world. We want things easy and we want things now. What we really need is focus, tenacity, tranquility and the ability to trust in ourselves, our dreams, our life’s work.
    http://lifestorywriting.wordpress.com/2013/10/22/beauty-takes-time/

  16. October 29, 2013 at 11:23 am

    Congratulations Steve not only for the recognition that TWoA is now receiving but for simply continuing to do your thing in the world regardless! I wrote and self published my first book (Stop Worrying & Start Living – a guide for the spiritual worrier/warrior)a year ago. I was beginning to think it was old before its time – your story has inspired me to keep going – keep showing up – keep sticking with it – writing / promoting / The outcome is not important but the effort is. I wish you the very best for the future

  17. October 29, 2013 at 11:35 am

    Thank you Callie for this very interesting ‘Effect”. And for mentioning me and my art in your story. Blessings to all….I even sold the painting to a man in Indiana because of this “effect”!
    Love and light to each of you!
    Colleen