How to Make a Bestselling Book

And why the publishing industry still matters

Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Are publishers still relevant? Do they have any role to play in the process of bringing a book to market?

There’s been a lot of talk about this lately, brought about by the much-publicized dispute between Hachette and Amazon. As a nonfiction literary agent, I wouldn't hesitate to agree that this industry has serious problems, and I think most of my colleagues would agree. Publishers are indistinguishable from one another. Contracts and payments sometimes take months to get processed. Editors jump from house to house, leaving authors—and their books—in the lurch. (I’ve had to deal with four editor changes for four clients this year.)

Let’s be clear, though. As imperfect as our business is, anyone who wants to write a book of lasting value, a book that can change the way people think about the world, a book that can get national and possibly global distribution in real hard copies, knows that the traditional publishing path is still the best path to take.

Let me share you the story of two books I've recently worked on to illustrate the point.

Dan Schulman, an editor at Mother Jones, came to me in 2011 with a pair of book ideas. We met at a bar and narrowed down the possibilities over beers. In the coming months he and I worked together on a book proposal about the Koch brothers that told the family saga, not the political story that gets covered in the news every day. “You have to be fair and even-handed,” I told him. “If it’s a hit job, the critics will roast you and so will your readers.”

I submitted his proposal to publishers in September of 2011. After a trip to New York to meet with editors, I held an auction and sold the book to John Brodie at Grand Central. We believed John's vision for the book and the publisher’s business list would give us the best chance of success over the long term.

Around this same time, I got a book proposal from a smart young education reporter, Dana Goldstein, who was friends with one of my clients. (Most of my clients come through personal referrals.) I believed in her abilities as a writer, but not in her vision for the book. It was a mashup of education reform, teaching history, and profiles of personalities like Michelle Rhee. We agreed to simplify the narrative arc by having her trace the evolution of teaching in America, from the 1840s to present day.

After many months of work and three full revisions of a 100+ page proposal, I felt confident enough to send her project to publishers. As with Dan’s book, we had interest from multiple publishers and ended up with a terrific editor, Kris Puopolo, at Doubleday. She shared Dana’s vision and enthusiasm for the book.

Both authors received good book deals, but no matter how much money an author receives, that money gets spread out in payments over three to four years. After commissions (literary agents take 15 percent) and taxes, many authors end up breaking even at best.

Dan spent the next 18 months researching and writing. Dana spent 17 months. Dan’s editor then spent the next three months working closely with Dan on tightening first 100 pages and smoothing out the rest of the manuscript. He also sent Dan on a final reporting assignment to cover David Koch’s appearance at the premiere of The Tempest at the Lincoln Center.

Dana, likewise, worked closely with her editor. She also sent her manuscript to colleagues and education experts to fine-tune the book’s details.

Authors frequently complain about the shortcomings of publisher’s publicity departments. Less discussed is the author’s role in that process: You have to write a really great manuscript so that your publisher can get great publicity.

Dan and Dana ended up with strong final manuscripts that inspired the publicity and marketing departments and also their sales staff. In Dan’s case, because he was writing about a litigious billionaire family, his publisher hired a top libel lawyer to review the book, a process that took about six weeks and must have cost many thousands of dollars at Grand Central’s expense. Meanwhile, Dan and I began to have strategic planning meetings with his editor, his publicist, the digital publicist, and the associate publisher about the rollout of the book, many months in advance of the release date. We targeted article ideas Dan could write and that Amanda, our publicist, could pitch to specific outlets. We talked about core markets for this book and how to reach them.

When Dan’s book, Sons of Wichita, came out in May, he received a flood of good press, from Vanity Fair to the Financial Times. The Washington Post called it a “riveting biography… fair-minded and inquisitive.” The New York Times ran a positive review and then selected it as an “editor’s choice.” Dan was asked to come on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, one of the most important media bookings in publishing, and then showed up on various TV and radio shows. Then after all of the good media, he got invited to the show that most authors dream of getting on: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Dan’s book debuted at number 16 on the New York Times bestseller nonfiction hardcover list, not bad considering his book was released at exactly the same time Hachette and Amazon began their battle with each other. Amazon refused to discount Dan’s book from its $30 list price and told customers on his book page that it would take three to four weeks for delivery, even though there were thousands of books available in the warehouse. Amazon made sure its customers knew that the Kindle version of the book was available for immediate download for only $14.99. (Dan’s royalty rate for an ebook book is nearly half the royalty rate for his hardcover.) Luckily, there were plenty of physical books available at Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores around the country, thanks to Hachette’s sales and distribution network.

Months later, Dana’s book, The Teacher Wars, came out just in time for the back-to-school market. She, too, was able to get an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, but the real game-changer for her success was a glowing Sunday New York Times book review right before book release and then, the very next day, an equally glowing review in the New York Times' Monday edition. After the opening week, Dana’s book hit number eight on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, behind celebrity books like Phil Robertson's unPHILtered and a memoir by Joan Rivers, who’d passed away that week.

Dan and Dana: Two New York Times bestselling authors who needed the skills of an entire team of publishing professionals to help them on their publishing journey. Today Dana’s book is in its fifth printing. And Dan’s book continues to sell well despite Hachette’s continued fight with Amazon.

* * *

People always seem surprised when I tell them the publishing business is doing just fine. They expect me to share tales of woe and misery—and incompetence. I remain optimistic. For every forgettable snarky Facebook rant, for every counterintuitive, impermanent let-me-explain-the-world-to-you thought piece, for every formulaic superhero movie or sitcom, there grows a place in the hearts of thoughtful readers out there for works by writers like Dan and Dana.

Our culture will continue to churn out ephemera online (including, ironically, this piece), and we old schoolers in publishing will continue to chug along at our own slow pace. That’s because we know that no matter what else is out there, readers still want deep, meaningful work that can take years to produce. Isn’t it telling that two of the most successful novels this year, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Goldfinch, and the National Book Award Finalist All the Light We Cannot See, took ten years for the authors to finish?

For the Amazon proselytizers, the publishing revolution is here. In the meantime, Dan and I will continue to meet for beers or whiskey to talk about his next book idea. And I’ll have lunch with Dana when the time is right to talk about hers. Maybe it’ll be in a month. Maybe it’ll take another year. We’ll be around.