Because I've mentioned this potential rant a couple of times this week, I thought I might as well go ahead and post it. Some of this may not be news to a lot of you, but I only started learning most of this stuff a few years ago, after I'd been in the business a while.
One fun little fact is that the publishing companies decide which books can be bestsellers. Of course, they can't force something to be a bestseller. That does ultimately depend on people buying books (except, perhaps, the New York Times bestseller list, which is apparently produced using some arcane formula that has more to do with the number of books a store expects to sell rather than how many have actually gone out the door. Chicken entrails and runes may also come into play). But the publisher decides which books have the potential to be bestsellers. It's all a big round of self-fulfilling prophecies. Treat a book like a bestseller, and it may become a bestseller. Don't, and it doesn't stand a chance.
The potential bestsellers are usually what they call "lead titles" (and that's lead as in ahead of everything else, not the metal, which is how my brain tried to read it just now). They get special treatment and the focus of the marketing budget and energy. When the editors present the books to the sales force, they'll spend additional time on the lead titles, talking about the appeal of the book and various selling points (I've heard they sometimes even do PowerPoint presentations). The sales force, in turn, focuses their efforts on the lead titles, giving the bookstore chain buyers all that info, giving fun presents and trinkets related to the book, and -- and this is where things really start to make a difference -- they work out co-op arrangements.
I'm sure a lot of you know this already, but all that prime space in bookstores, like the front windows, the front tables, the endcaps and pretty much everywhere else a book is really obvious in a store, is paid for by the publishers. The booksellers do get to choose which books they want to sell that space to, since there are a lot more books than there is space to show them off, but if a publisher is willing to shell out for the front table, the bookseller usually orders more books. That means a higher print run, and that's what makes it possible for the book to be a bestseller. Other things the publisher may pay the bookseller for include mention in the store's in-store customer newsletters or e-mail newsletters or prominent placement on the chain web site.
Meanwhile, the lead titles are most likely to get advertising. Publishers often claim that ads don't sell books, but they do buy plenty of ads for lead titles, whether in the NYT Book Review section, in USA Today, in People, etc., or in the genre-specific publications like Romantic Times, Locus or even convention program books. They also claim that ads only work for established authors, where they don't need to entice readers to give them a try but only remind them that the book is available, but I've seen TV ads for a few debut releases (one that ran heavily during Oprah -- gee, wonder why that book became a bestseller). So how effective publishers believe ads are depends on which authors they're talking to. If you've got one of the 85 percent of books with a marketing budget under $2000, they'll tell you ads don't work. If you're in that potential bestseller 15 percent, they're buying ads all over the place. Another thing that gets done for lead titles is having advance copies distributed widely to people who are most likely to talk about them -- in the hundreds or even thousands. You'd think that giving away books would mean fewer end up selling, but word of mouth really is the best advertising for a book, and the more people who've read it before it hits the shelves, the more people are talking about it, so the more buzz there is once the book is available. Word of mouth takes time to spread, so if you have to wait until people have bought a book and read it before they can start talking about it, the word of mouth won't have spread far before the book has lost its prime spot up front and most of its chances of hitting a bestseller list.
Other things that might happen when a book is being given a push include sending the author out to have dinners with various key people, like booksellers and librarians; sending the author to a major bookseller or library convention to sign giveaway books; sending the author on a publicity and booksigning tour, etc. Publishers might even hire an outside firm to do more focused public relations for the book or author to get more media placements.
Now, as I said above, the readers still have the final say in purchasing the book, but all this stuff stacks the odds in the favor of the anointed books -- If you see a book displayed in a bookstore window, and then there are piles of that book up front as soon as you enter a store, and you've seen an ad in a magazine, then you're more likely to at least pick up the book and take a look at it. You may never see the book that's just shelved with its genre, even if it's something you would love and would buy if you knew about it. Because there are more copies of the potential bestseller available for purchase, that makes it possible for more people to buy them, which makes it more likely to be a bestseller. There have been a few cases where the bet didn't pay off in a big way, where all the push in the world couldn't overcome negative buzz, but I seem to hear more about that in the celebrity book realm than in fiction. I don't know if it doesn't happen often in fiction, or if it just doesn't get reported as widely. Publishers don't exactly talk about their failures, and the media are more likely to look into and report a celebrity book that bombed after a big push than they are some random unknown author who got a huge advance and a big push, only to have the book collect dust in stores. If a book does make a bestseller list, that tends to be self-perpetuating -- being on the list gets it more exposure (store placement, the list published in newspapers and magazines, etc.), so more people hear about it and buy it.
In contrast, a midlist book like mine generally gets a page in the sales catalog, but no special presentation to accounts and often no co-op for prime placement, which means orders will be smaller, and therefore the print run is small enough that it's mathematically impossible for it to be a bestseller (except at Amazon, where it's based on demand, not supply). Even if every copy printed of one of my books sold in the first week of sales, it probably wouldn't hit a bestseller list unless no one bought anything else that week because there are fewer copies available for purchase. Each store maybe gets three to ten copies of one of my books when it comes out, and then they have to re-order if those sell, so even if those copies sold on day one, then it might be up to a week before they got more. During that time, there would be no books available for purchase, no matter how much demand there might be, while the lead titles would have at least twice as many copies in stock to begin with, so they're still available for purchase. The way most ordering systems work, they'd get a smaller number than the initial order when they re-order (unless someone at that store figured out what was happening and manually ordered it).
Because of the limitation of the number of copies printed and available, there's really no such thing as a surprise bestseller. If enough copies are in print for it to be a bestseller, it's not a big surprise to hit a list. They expect it to make a list, which means there's a lot of pressure on the author for the book to live up to those expectations and it's considered a failure if it doesn't make it. What does happen is that often a midlist book gets an unexpected boost, and then the publisher reboots, treating it as a lead title when they reprint and go back out to the market with it. That kind of thing happens when Oprah mentions something off-hand, if a celebrity talks about it, if it gets made into a movie, it wins a major award, etc. There are some cases of a book that really takes off over time due to positive word of mouth, so the publisher has to keep going back to print as stores keep reordering it, and eventually they decide to reposition it as a major book, often for the paperback release of something that was initially hardcover. So the hardcover wasn't a bestseller, but then the paperback release becomes one because it's treated as a lead title.
I'm not sure how certain books get chosen for this exalted treatment. Chicken entrails may be involved. In some cases, it's something an author earns over time -- their books performed better than expected in midlist with no push, gradually selling more and more, so the author's next book is positioned to break out. For debut authors, sometimes it's just that an editor gets really enthusiastic about a book. Or there's something particularly commercial about the book, some element on the leading edge of a trend or something that taps into current public consciousness. Or there's something marketable about the author -- that's where we got a lot of those assistant in a glamorous profession books, where the author could go on talk shows and swear that the book is fiction, but yes, she really did work for a particular famous person who might be somewhat similar to a totally fictional character in the book. But I've also heard of cases where it was pure luck -- the book was bought as a midlist book, then a lead title fell through and the book gets chosen to go in that slot. And that shows you how quirky this system is. It's the same book by the same author, but based on that positioning, it stands to sell a lot more copies than it would have if it had stayed in its original slot.
I guess the bottom line is to not stop at those front tables when looking for a book. You may find something unexpected back in the shelves that's been released into the wild without survival gear. While I am guilty of being a table shopper, I have started trying to look for the midlist books in the back rather than the anointed books up front, just because I like undermining systems. Another fun thing is that it's possible for a book that never hits a bestseller list to end up selling more total copies than a bestseller does -- the bestseller list is about selling within a certain time period, but books often hit with a splash because they're highly anticipated, but everyone who wants them buys them right away and sales taper off dramatically. Meanwhile, another book can sell slowly but steadily over time, never in quantities during any one week to hit a bestseller list, but ultimately selling more than the "bestseller."