The Secret of Stealth Bestsellers
Every author’s fantasy is a huge advance, a big marketing budget, and a review in the New York Times. That’s how your book becomes a bestseller.
It’d be nice, sure. But rare to the point of being fantasy.
And it’s not the only way to go big.
True story: Paul Harding wrote an elegant, slim novel, Tinkers, and a very small press, Bellevue Literary Press, printed a modest number of copies. BL Press felt it was the kind of book that needed to find its readers.
Skip forward: A friend tells another friend that he’s read a fabulous book. Not knowing that that year, his friend is head of the Pulitzer Prize fiction committee (a secret society of sorts). His friend reads it, loves it, and has BL Press send copies for all the other judges. And that’s now Tinkers became the 2010 Pulitzer Prize.
But wait. Here’s an even more incredible story.
Terry Kay is a Georgia writer of uncommon talent as a storyteller and writer. He’d had several novels published by the time he wrote To Dance with the White Dog, a hauntingly beautiful story. His agent sent it around to New York publishers. It was unanimously rejected. So Key sent it to a small press in Atlanta. They liked it – and published it. But Kay got no advance. No budget. He was essentially given a box of books to go sell. Not exactly the road to stardom.
Then a distant friend reads it, loves it, and gives it to his friend. His friend happens to be Paul Harvey, the late, great heartland radio host with a huge national following. Harvey reads it, likes it, and talks it up on air. The book takes off. It gets made into a fetching Hallmark movie, starring the late Jessica Tandy and the late Hume Cronyn, two great, classic American actors. (Husband and wife, they starred together in numerous movies, and on stage.) To Dance with the White Dog turns out to be the last film that the two of them made together.
“And now the rest of the story” (Paul Harvey’s signature on-air line).
To Dance with the White Dog gets translated, one version into Japanese. It does modestly. And then one Japanese store clerk reads it – and goes wild over it. He begins telling everyone who comes in that they have to read the book. They do. And they tell their friends. And their friends tell theirs. And before you know it, To Dance with the White Dog becomes a gigantic Japanese bestseller – more than 2 million copies going out the door.
In the bookstore trade, this is known as “hand selling.” If you don’t get picked by Oprah, there’s always the hope that legions of bookstore people reading it will love it – and fervently tell customers they’ve got to buy.
Call it the “power of the hand.” The most intimate connection a writer can hope for. It is the essence of the potential power of books to move us. As readers, we want to be entertained, but we hunger to be moved.
So kudos to all readers. Telling your friends about books you love is tribal. It builds an intimate, organic “community.”
So read those books – but don’t forget the power you hold in your hand. It’s more powerful – and tremendously more meaningful to writers – then getting a mammoth advance and a treasure in marketing dollars.
Go out and hand sell! Please.
Dream Singer, by Frank O Smith, has just been published by Artisan Island Press, a small literary press dedicated to “curating books worth publishing.” Dream Singer was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist, Barbara Kingsolver, “in support of a literature of social change.” Order a copy – and start talking.