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Image: Archi Banal
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BooksOctober 22, 2023

How to publish a bestseller

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

In this chapter from the new anthology Everything I know about books, the publishing director at Allen & Unwin NZ reveals the tools of the trade.

As far as I know, there is no formula for creating a bestseller. And nor should there be. That would take all the fun out of it.

People often think that being a publisher means lying around, reading lots of manuscripts and saying whether you like them or not. Sounds like a dream, but it’s not the case, sadly. Sure, sometimes you have the luxury of reading text that arrives fully thought through and beautifully written. But more often than not, non-fiction publishing is about hunting out people, writers and/or topics that might, just might, make good books that people want to read.

It’s all a gamble. It’s about taking risks, hustling and making educated guesses. Publishers may look like demure, bookish, nerdy types, but they are also risk-takers who aren’t afraid to step up and take a punt. And that’s where the fun comes in!

There’s real excitement in watching the book you published zip to the top of the bookselling charts and seeing your author achieve success.

There are quite a few theories floating around about what sells, but if it were predictable, every book would be a bestseller. Here are a few of the theories:

  • Follow the zeitgeist: Easy. But which zeitgeist and for which demographic? The South Island farming zeitgeist, the Wellington literati zeitgeist, the Herne Bay fashionista zeitgeist – there are so many to choose from. How do you know if it’s still the zeitgeist? It takes about a year at least from book idea to publication – will anyone still care by then?
  • Find a hot influencer: there are plenty of them on Instagram and TikTok. Surely any one of them could write a book. Maybe. Surely if they have huge numbers of followers, you can sell thousands of copies of their books. Maybe.
  • Publish what’s worked before: there’s a lot of that happening. But like everything, book fashions change continuously, and what might have sold strongly one year can bomb the next.
  • Stick to what interests you: if you are the average Kiwi book buyer, that might work. If you’re not, you could be in trouble.
  • Sign up someone who’s passionate about their subject: definitely a good idea as long as many other people are also passionate about this subject.

Every one of these bestseller theories has succeeded and every one of them has failed.

The truth is that there’s a bit of magic to it, a lot of gut instinct, perfect timing, a great sales and marketing team, and a fair dose of good luck. And, of course, a talented author with a great story to tell.

But something that is true for most bestsellers (not all, though) is that the book as a kaupapa or project needs to be nurtured and tended with care and love if it is to come to its full potential. This starts right at the beginning of the process and continues through editing, design, selling and promotion. Love and care lavished on a book reap rewards.

And often the bestsellers take you by surprise, blindside you and delight you.

Ruth Shaw’s book The Bookseller at the End of the World broke a lot of rules. She is a 75-year-old living in small-town Aotearoa who is not famous. But she is a very special person and people love her and her story. Her book has become a runaway bestseller here and in Australia and has sold into six international territories. Ruth’s story is heart-breaking, joyous, adventurous, generous and funny, and it’s a wonderful read. Although she’s an “ordinary” person her life has seen way more drama, tragedy and excitement than most people’s. She is an absolute charmer, and the media and audiences love her.

A backlist book that was ahead of its time was The Forager’s Treasury by Johanna KnoxIt was published in 2013 and sold moderately well at first, but sales started growing in 2020—maybe a lockdown trend? We published a second edition in 2021, updated by Johanna and with a more accessible design. It’s turned into a brilliant bestseller with consistently strong sales.

Sometimes an author has charisma in spades, and this takes their book to new levels. Abbas Nazari, the author of After the Tampa, turned out to be exceptional in every way, telling his story beautifully and then speaking powerfully and movingly at many events and festivals in Aotearoa and Australia. His book has outsold all expectations and is an ongoing bestseller in both countries, with a rights sale into Norway.

And sometimes, timing is all. Ruby Tui’s book Straight Up is a phenomenal bestseller against the odds. In the past, women’s sports bios haven’t sold well. But with her book out for the Rugby World Cup, culminating in an amazing win for Aotearoa combined with Ruby’s extraordinary personality, her book sales escalated in a way we’ve never seen before.


Everything I know about books, edited by Odessa Owens and Theresa Crewdson ($35, Whitireia Publishing) can be purchased at Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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