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Podcast: The Alchemy Behind Book Publishing

“I think a lot about what’s going on on [an author’s] Facebook page, what’s happening on Twitter. How are you doing on Instagram? Can we see seeds that would grow because they happen to be quite funny on Twitter?” — Miriam Parker, deputy marketing director for Little, Brown and Co.

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Before you cracked open that book (or fired up your e-reader), a slew of decisions had already been made about whether, when and how to publish the work. Many of those decisions are now driven by data. Does it matter how many Twitter followers an author has? Why are books more popular as gifts on Father’s Day than Mother’s Day? What kind of data advantage does Amazon have? And can a publisher predict sales?

In this episode of our podcast What’s The Point, we talk to Reagan Arthur, senior vice president and publisher of Little, Brown and Co., and her colleague Miriam Parker, deputy marketing director. Over the years, Little, Brown has published celebrated and popular authors like Emily Dickinson, Henry Kissinger, David Foster Wallace, Stephenie Meyer, J.D. Salinger and Malala Yousafzai.

Stream or download the full episode above, and find a video excerpt along with a partial transcript below.


Video: Judging An Author’s Platform


When to publish your book (tips from the pros)

  • Mother’s Day is not a book holiday.
  • Father’s Day is huge. (Arthur says that’s probably because people don’t know what to get fathers.)
  • Even sports books won’t sell on Super Bowl Sunday.
  • Beach novels come out in the summer — go figure.
  • Big commercial books come out in the fall so they can be given as holiday gifts.

On measuring a book’s success

AVIRGAN: The book goes out into the world. What are the signals that you start to get back about how it’s doing?

PARKER: We just published Kate Mulgrew’s memoir, called “Born With Teeth,” and we put out a call on social media and said, “Take a picture of your book as you bought it.” So many people sent pictures back. I know this is sort of a goofy thing, but we’d never really done it before. People do it organically, but we’d never quite asked for it. In seeing that come back, we thought, “I think a lot of people are buying this book!” We do get daily numbers, but for some reason, people were really responding to this book.

AVIRGAN: How do you trust something like that? It’s easy to build a silo for yourself and become convinced this book is huge.

PARKER: Maybe it’s an echo chamber. These people are her existing fans. They love her because they watched her in “Orange Is the New Black.” Something about that one felt really authentic. People were really excited to read the book. When you start to get really passionate messages back, it feels good.

ARTHUR: I think right before publication is interesting because you can see signs on Amazon. You see a book that was ranked 30,000 in the days and weeks leading up to publication, but when something starts to bubble up, that’s a good indicator.

AVIRGAN: Pre-publication sales are really important, right?

ARTHUR: They’re huge.

PARKER: I think also having a lot of books out in the first week might mean that some people would actually read it and talk about it. One of the things that we pride ourselves on is that the books that we publish are really good. Once people read them, that word of mouth starts to happen.

AVIRGAN: This is happening in the movie industry, right? It used to be that you waited for the first weekend sales to come back, and now they talk about how a movie’s fate is sealed after the first people to see it on Friday night walk out and tweet about it. That’s what sets the momentum. Is it happening that fast in the book industry?

ARTHUR: No, not that fast. I think there’s plenty of opportunity in the book world for books to grow more organically.

On measuring an author’s influence

AVIRGAN: What counts as influential, if you can put it in numbers, for an author?

PARKER: I really think it’s about quality over quantity. An author could have half a million Twitter followers, but those people might not be paying attention to them. We actually can look at who people’s followers are and say, “These are the influential ones.” And they might not be the ones at the top. I mean if Whole Foods follows you — that’s fine, but Whole Foods isn’t going to retweet you. If there’s a mommy-blogger that has ten thousand fans, and they recommend a book that’s about parenting, the quality of those fans is much higher. There’s some alchemy to it.


If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on iTunes, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.

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