Bestsellers and Goodsellers: One-Month Retrospective

by admin on June 15, 2018

I think it’s likely that every author who has ever published a book has wondered if it has what it takes to be a bestseller. There was even a day or two last month when I thought The Book of Why might have a serious chance to make a bestseller list. But it didn’t, and the experience has taught me something valuable about bestsellers versus goodsellers.

In chess terms, it’s like the difference between a player who is good enough to be invited to the U.S. Championship (i.e., one of the best 10 or 20 players in the country) and a National Master (which means roughly being in the top thousand in the country). Except that in book-land, the playing field is much less level than in chess. If you notice, the bestseller lists, especially in nonfiction, are crowded with books by celebrity authors, or people who are famous for something other than book writing. Also, in book-land, there is an incredible variety of outstanding books. You could write the best book ever about fungi, and it will have no hope of making the bestseller lists — but you can be sure that it will reach an audience who love that book.

In short, the landscape of book success is much more varied and nuanced than the landscape of chess success. And chess success, too, is more varied and nuanced than we sometimes think it is. Making grandmaster is hardly the only way to succeed. You can be a great organizer, or a great teacher, or run a great chess website. All of these are ways of making a mark upon the game.

Anyway, one month into its run, The Book of Why is looking like a really strong goodseller but not a bestseller. My editor just sent me sales figures today, and he was extremely happy with them. My book is in its 32nd consecutive day in Amazon’s top 1000, although it is just barely hanging on:

First Month

To put this into perspective, there are tons of great books that aren’t in the top 1000. My first book, The Big Splat, never came anywhere close; as far as I know, the highest it got was #5230 (although back then I did not pay as close attention to the Amazon rankings, so I don’t know for sure). So for me, it was an incredible thrill when The Book of Why reached #915 in its very first day on the market. Having a three-digit number for a ranking almost looked like a misprint, like seeing a six-digit phone number!

Another thing that’s cool about this graph is that you can see numerically how key events affected the book’s sales. We hit a trifecta of big publicity coups in the first month. Two of them hit on the same day: our Wall Street Journal article and the interview of Judea Pearl (my co-author) in The Atlantic. When you look at the graph, you can kind of see the book maybe starting to level off around #400 until those two articles hit, and then it shot up from #412 to #90 in one day. That was extremely exciting, because when you’re in the top hundred your book starts to appear on Amazon’s “Top 100” page.

I think that Amazon’s Top 100 is a rough line of demarcation between the goodsellers and the bestsellers. For a few hours, The Book of Why was rubbing elbows with some true bestsellers. The 17th Suspect by James Patterson (the bestselling writer in the English language after J.K. Rowling). War on Peace by Ronan Farrow (son of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow). But here’s the catch. Those books were in the top 100 for a whole week (or a lot longer). My book burst into the top 100 for less than 24 hours, and then it was gone. Judea and I would have made the bestseller lists only if we could have arranged to have publicity nonstop for an entire week. That was never realistic.

But we did have one more publicity coup, the extremely favorable review in the New York Times on June 1. Again the effect on the Amazon rankings was electric. Our book had been sagging down below #500, and suddenly it shot up again to #147. I think that this second surge was quite a bit more unexpected, in Amazon’s mathematical models, than the first one. They completely ran out of stock; the book went from “In Stock” to “Ships in 1-2 days” to “Ships in 2-3 days” to “Usually ships in 1 week” to “Usually ships in 2-5 weeks.” That last one worried me a bit, because if I were a book buyer, I might be turned off by the idea of having to wait for two weeks. Fortunately, that message was soon replaced by “Will be in stock on June 14,” and indeed The Book of Why is now back in stock.

Looking at the graph, I think you can predict with some confidence that The Book of Why will drop out of the top 1000 very soon — either today or tomorrow — unless and until another unexpected event occurs. But I’m not too upset at that prospect. As I said, there are many flavors of success, and being in the top 1000 is only one of them. And also, there is the delicious suspense of wondering whether there might be another surprise in the book’s future that might send its ranking back up again. Who knows? We’ll have to wait and see! Anyway, as long as the editor is happy, and the readers I’ve heard from are happy, then I’m happy too.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

paul B. June 15, 2018 at 4:10 pm

Dana, here’s your next book – a collaboration on a chess book with Jay Bonin, latest rating 2261. He wrote a book called “Active Pieces – Practical Advice from America’s Most Relentless Tournament Player”

Jay’s USCF records show that he played 13,122 tournament games since 1991 when record keeping started, but he played tournaments sine 1972 so his game totals are much greater.

Jay holds a weekly session at the Marshall Chess Club where members bring him their games to analyze. He’s a feisty player; he likes to reach endgames where he has a knight. For me, it’s a thrill to be able to sit and watch him analyze. He’s such a great guy.

I’d love to see a book in which you and Jay play by sending each other text messages for each move, while recording verbal notes on your cell that explain your thinking for each move. The notes and the games would make up the book. Think about it. If not with Jay Bonin, then why not with your friend Mike whom you often mention.

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admin June 16, 2018 at 3:28 pm

He’s an interesting guy and I’ve written a couple of blog posts about him, but it’s hard for me to believe that non-chessplayers would get excited about such a book.

For a mass market book I think one would first need to omit any formal chess analysis, and one would need someone with a great story that would interest non-chessplayers. (This would also ensure that chessplayers would buy the book, even though it has no chess analysis in it.)

For example, Fabiano Caruana, *if* he wins his match with Carlsen.

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Mike Splane June 15, 2018 at 10:23 pm

Hi Paul,

Thanks for the suggestion of collaborating with Dana on a book. I consider it quite a compliment. Howiever, we have very different styles, so a combination of our notes might be more confusing than useful. I prefer quiet moves, he prefers forcing lines and looks more deeply into variations that I do, I like to win material and avoid risks. He likes to sacrifice material and play sharply. I am much stronger in quiet maneuvering, he is much better at sharp positions. I believe in playing for a permanent endgame advantage and don’t mind defending, He believes in the power of the initiative and often wins in the middle game. I wouldn’t claim either style to be better, but it would be hard for us to find common ground.

If you are interested, I have a decade of annotated games from 2005-2014 posted in my chess web page
http://bus91l.altervista.org/Chess/Stats/ChessPage.htm

Dana, feel free to correct me if you think any of my characterizations are inaccurate or unfair.

Mike Splane

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paul B. June 16, 2018 at 4:45 pm

Dana and Mike Splane, I believe that you both misunderstood my concept so I need to do a better job of presenting it.

First, Dana. I did not intend for the book to be sold to non-chess players. Of course, only chess players would buy it.

Mike, this concept is about understanding your thinking in real time as you play and has nothing to do with playing style. Every chess move involves making a choice; every move is like a fork in a road with many possible paths. My concept would expose your thought process as you make your choice of which path to take. Castle long or short? That’s a choice. Attack the king? That’s a choice. Sacrifice a piece for the initiative? That’s a choice. Minority attack? That’s a choice. The thought processes of strong players like yourselves are a mystery to us patzers and this concept would illuminate the algorithms that your minds use to evaluate a position.

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admin June 16, 2018 at 3:21 pm

I’m a lousy forecaster! I wrote that I thought “The Book of Why” would drop out of Amazon’s top 1000 “today or tomorrow.” But it not only hasn’t dropped below 1000, it’s actually risen back over 800. I think that the reason may be that Amazon hiked the price significantly earlier in the week (I don’t know why) but then dropped it back to the previous level. Let’s hope they don’t try that experiment again.

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Hal Bogner June 17, 2018 at 12:05 am

It looks like the Aptos library is the key.

Congratulations!

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admin June 17, 2018 at 5:35 pm

My secret weapon!

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Mike Splane June 17, 2018 at 10:57 am

Paul, all of my annotated games include just what you are describing – the moves and plans I was considering and rejected, explanations of why I rejected them, evaluations of the correctness of the decisions, and explanations of what I would do differently and why,

The notes were written within a day or two of playing the games so I could easily reconstruct exactly what I was thinking during the games. Then they were edited (to correct the evaluations of the moves) after I had time to study the positions that were too complex to work out over the board. Often I would learn that my decisions were wrong and I would be able to explain why.

The notes are written for the average player (1500-1600+) to learn from

I tried to be as honest as possible. so my future opponents could book up against me and find weaknesses to exploit. I am almost always willing to lose games if I learn something from them. In essence my opponents act as my coaches.

At one time I had vague notions of turning this into a book one day, but never did anything to pursue the idea.

Here’s a sample of one of my favorite games
http://bus91l.altervista.org/Chess/Wheeler.htm

If you want to continue this discussion, my email is mike.splane@sjsu.edu

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