The Sovereignty of Readers

I am endlessly surprised by what works and what doesn’t, especially when it comes to publishing. I experience this first-hand when it comes to my blog.

Man with glasses reading a book. Sepia toned.

Sometimes I write a post and think, This is going to get huge traffic. Then I post it and watch in disbelief as people collectively shrug their shoulders and ignore it.Then I can throw something together on a whim, post it within minutes, and—bam!—my traffic goes through the roof.

For example, on Saturday, my daughter, Megan, told me about a great quote from P. J. O’Rourke on how easy it is to get distracted when you are writing. I Googled it and finally found the quote:

Usually, writers will do anything to avoid writing. For instance, the previous sentence was written at one o’clock this afternoon. It is now a quarter to four. I have spent the past two hours and forty-five minutes sorting my neckties by width, looking up the word “paisly” in three dictionaries, attempting to find the town of that name on The New York Times Atlas of the World map of Scotland, sorting my reference books by width, trying to get the bookcase to stop wobbling by stuffing a matchbook cover under its corner, dialing the telephone number on the matchbook cover to see if I should take computer courses at night, looking at the computer ads in the newspaper and deciding to buy a computer because writing seems to be so difficult on my old Remington, reading an interesting article on sorghum farming in Uruguay that was in the newspaper next to the computer ads, cutting that and other interesting articles out of the newspaper, sorting—by width—all the interesting articles I’ve cut out of newspapers recently, fastening them neatly together with paper clips and making a very attractive paper clip necklace and bracelet set, which I will present to my girlfriend as soon as she comes home from the three-hour low-impact aerobic workout that I made her go to so I could have some time alone to write.”

I read it aloud to Gail, and we both were laughing so hard we could barely get through the whole thing. It so perfectly expressed the week I had had and the challenge of writing.

So, I thought, Great. This is worth sharing this with other writers. I decided to post it in the Resources section of my blog. This took me about three minutes. Then I tweeted about it, so people could find it. (Posts in my Resource section don’t appear in my usual RSS feed.)

Little did I know how popular it would be. On Saturday, 3,053 people read that little post. On Sunday, 4,345 people read it. Conversely, some of the posts I spend the most time on have the poorest readership. I don’t get it.

The bottom line is that there is no necessary correlation between what I think will be popular and what actually is popular. The only way you can tell is by experimenting. (This, by the way, is why every author should have a blog. It is a sort of lab where authors can figure out what works and what doesn’t.)

That’s also true with book publishing. So often, the books that we think will be big bestsellers (and pay big royalty advances on) aren’t. They tank—or at least don’t achieve what we hope they will. Why? Because people just aren’t interested, no matter how much we hype the book or spend on promotion.

Similarly, some books that we anticipate will have modest sales completely blow us away. The Traveler’s Gift by Andy Andrews, Wild at Heart by John Eldredge, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, and Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore were all surprise hits—and continue to sell well to this day.

The moral of the story? Knowing what the public will respond to is still shrouded in mystery. If we could reduce it to a simple algorithm, we would. Then we could only publish the bestsellers. But, alas, this is not possible.

So instead, we try to learn from the past, listen to our gut, and publish the best content we can. In the end, publishing is a humbling reminder that none of us can determine with absolute certainty what will work and what won’t. Relatively speaking, the readers are still sovereign and we would do well to respect that fact.

Question: What are some other examples of books that shouldn’t have become bestsellers but did?
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  • http://karenrobbins.blogspot.com/ Karen Robbins

    I love your honesty. At the last writers' conference, there were vastly differing opinions on what was going to sell and what wasn't. I guess the best advice I got was to write what I want to write and make it the very best I can.

    Loved and laughed at the quote too. So true!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      If any publisher really knew, they would be far more successful than they are!

  • http://karenrobbins.blogspot.com Karen Robbins

    I love your honesty. At the last writers' conference, there were vastly differing opinions on what was going to sell and what wasn't. I guess the best advice I got was to write what I want to write and make it the very best I can.

    Loved and laughed at the quote too. So true!

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      If any publisher really knew, they would be far more successful than they are!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/MaurilioAmorim MaurilioAmorim

    Mike,
    Oh, so true. I've poured my heart out on blogs only to have mediocre traffic. However, every time I write something goofy about twitter readership goes through the roof.

  • http://www.maurilioamorim.com MaurilioAmorim

    Mike,
    Oh, so true. I've poured my heart out on blogs only to have mediocre traffic. However, every time I write something goofy about twitter readership goes through the roof.

  • Colleen Coble

    This is sooo true! It's one of the frustrating things about writing novels as well. Good sales don't even reflect quality writing most of the time. I can't tell you how many times I've picked up a NY Times bestseller only to toss it aside when there is too much headhopping or the thing is written in a way that doesn't appeal to me personally. The whole process is so mysterious. I often tell aspiring writers it's usually the premise that sells a story. A great story will trump mediocre craft every time. That doesn't mean we don't keep working on craft, but it can sure get discouraging! :-)

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I agree. I would bet on a great story or premise every time.

  • Colleen Coble

    This is sooo true! It's one of the frustrating things about writing novels as well. Good sales don't even reflect quality writing most of the time. I can't tell you how many times I've picked up a NY Times bestseller only to toss it aside when there is too much headhopping or the thing is written in a way that doesn't appeal to me personally. The whole process is so mysterious. I often tell aspiring writers it's usually the premise that sells a story. A great story will trump mediocre craft every time. That doesn't mean we don't keep working on craft, but it can sure get discouraging! :-)

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I agree. I would bet on a great story or premise every time.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/RStuhlmiller RStuhlmiller

    Whew! Yay! The pressure is off. On July 6 I'll be writing my three sample chapters then shipping the proposal off to a great agent who will forward it to at least six publishers who said "yes." Your article has defniitely encouraged me to "just do it" and let it be.

  • http://amykiane.typepad.com/ Amy

    Same Kind of Different as Me is an incredible book. My best friend who is not much of a reader read it and tells me "you have to read this". So I read it. It touches you on a such a level and a bit uncomfortable level at that. It makes you realize if we all did just one small thing like the author did, what an impact that could have.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      The fascinating thing about that book is that virtually every publisher turned it down. My company, Thomas Nelson, turned it down (I think) twice, before we reluctantly agreed to publish it.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/RStuhlmiller RStuhlmiller

    Whew! Yay! The pressure is off. On July 6 I'll be writing my three sample chapters then shipping the proposal off to a great agent who will forward it to at least six publishers who said "yes." Your article has defniitely encouraged me to "just do it" and let it be.

  • http://amykiane.typepad.com/ Amy

    Same Kind of Different as Me is an incredible book. My best friend who is not much of a reader read it and tells me "you have to read this". So I read it. It touches you on a such a level and a bit uncomfortable level at that. It makes you realize if we all did just one small thing like the author did, what an impact that could have.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      The fascinating thing about that book is that virtually every publisher turned it down. My company, Thomas Nelson, turned it down (I think) twice, before we reluctantly agreed to publish it.

  • http://halhunter.blogspot.com/ Hal Hunter

    This is true not only in the publishing world, but in just about any area of commerce- or society for that matter. There is little to no rational explanation (at least in advance) for some tastes or trends. That is one reason why "experts" continue to be confounded, and visionaries continue to exist.

  • http://halhunter.blogspot.com/ Hal Hunter

    This is true not only in the publishing world, but in just about any area of commerce- or society for that matter. There is little to no rational explanation (at least in advance) for some tastes or trends. That is one reason why "experts" continue to be confounded, and visionaries continue to exist.

  • http://blurthelines.typepad.com/ plake777

    As an aspiring author, this helps provide some context….i think. ;)

  • http://blurthelines.typepad.com/ plake777

    As an aspiring author, this helps provide some context….i think. ;)

  • http://jimfilm.blogspot.com/ Jim Ramsbottom

    Isn't it interesting how the two main themes of this post (distractions and what makes a bestseller) are inter-related? If you spend your time looking to the left or right along your way down the writer's trail (what's hot? what's not? what is everyone else doing?), you veer off your objective and produce "common" mediocre work.

    However, if you simply and honestly pursue your story and its characters and continue headlong down the road ahead of you, you create a powerful, genuine, heartfelt story – and one that is your own.

    As Thoreau put it, "If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours."

  • http://jimfilm.blogspot.com Jim Ramsbottom

    Isn't it interesting how the two main themes of this post (distractions and what makes a bestseller) are inter-related? If you spend your time looking to the left or right along your way down the writer's trail (what's hot? what's not? what is everyone else doing?), you veer off your objective and produce "common" mediocre work.

    However, if you simply and honestly pursue your story and its characters and continue headlong down the road ahead of you, you create a powerful, genuine, heartfelt story – and one that is your own.

    As Thoreau put it, "If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours."

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    I think we as writers sometimes don't understand how many people do not like to read. (I have had seniors in high school refuse to read a novel for a project.) The English language, with almost a million words and tons of inconsistent rules, is one of the hardest languages to learn and to read fluently. I would be willing to bet that most best sellers are easy to understand even if we writers consider them poorly written. Recently, while I was at a writers' conference, God convicted that I was trying to be Michelanglo painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling when all He wanted me to be is a laborer painting a public wall. If we want to write and publish bestsellers, we need to understand and write for readers who don't like to read.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/MonikaM MonikaM

      wow, this is good Patricia…indeed I must put my imagination to work in order to see how it would be possible to not like to read. Refreshing, straight forward thoughts.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/Peter_P Peter_P

      Great advice Patricia!

    • http://www.lightherlamp.com Jaycee (E.A)

      I like this statement, "God convicted that I was trying to be Michelanglo painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling when all He wanted me to be is a laborer painting a public wall."

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    I think we as writers sometimes don't understand how many people do not like to read. (I have had seniors in high school refuse to read a novel for a project.) The English language, with almost a million words and tons of inconsistent rules, is one of the hardest languages to learn and to read fluently. I would be willing to bet that most best sellers are easy to understand even if we writers consider them poorly written. Recently, while I was at a writers' conference, God convicted that I was trying to be Michelanglo painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling when all He wanted me to be is a laborer painting a public wall. If we want to write and publish bestsellers, we need to understand and write for readers who don't like to read.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/MonikaM MonikaM

      wow, this is good Patricia…indeed I must put my imagination to work in order to see how it would be possible to not like to read. Refreshing, straight forward thoughts.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/Peter_P Peter_P

      Great advice Patricia!

  • http://wwwpenandpalette-susancushman.blogspot.com/ Susan Cushman

    Oh, the yin and yang of writing and publishing… Of course I want my book to be published and sell lots of copies some day, but I also want to stay true to the art of writing, and to myself, while it's in progress. I doubt the best literary works were written with the market trends in mind. Maybe it depends upon your goals as a writer?

  • http://wwwpenandpalette-susancushman.blogspot.com/ Susan Cushman

    Oh, the yin and yang of writing and publishing… Of course I want my book to be published and sell lots of copies some day, but I also want to stay true to the art of writing, and to myself, while it's in progress. I doubt the best literary works were written with the market trends in mind. Maybe it depends upon your goals as a writer?

  • http://www.rachelhauck.com/ Rachel Hauck

    I relate to this post at every level!

  • http://www.rachelhauck.com/ Rachel Hauck

    I relate to this post at every level!

  • http://kccopywriter.wordpress.com/ KCwriter

    This is totally me. I make my living from writing but suddenly the free items on Craigslist become much more interesting than the deadline. I posted this on my FB for my other creative friends to poke fun at themselves.

  • http://kccopywriter.wordpress.com/ KCwriter

    This is totally me. I make my living from writing but suddenly the free items on Craigslist become much more interesting than the deadline. I posted this on my FB for my other creative friends to poke fun at themselves.

  • http://www.godmessedmeup.blogspot.com/ Pam Hogeweide

    The Shack totally should not be a best selling book. Ordinary writing by an unknown writer who who portrays God the Father as a Black Woman named Papa. This little ordinary book has now sold over 7 million copies worldwide. And the author? Paul Young, someone I've become acquainted with here in our city of Portland, keeps saying over and over, "I'm an accidental best-selling author."

    Totally random, just like life, and I guess that's why it's so dang intriguing and suspenseful with highs and lows and lots of flatline days.

    (thanks for this post!)

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      The Shack is another great reminder of how unpredictable this industry is.

  • http://www.godmessedmeup.blogspot.com Pam Hogeweide

    The Shack totally should not be a best selling book. Ordinary writing by an unknown writer who who portrays God the Father as a Black Woman named Papa. This little ordinary book has now sold over 7 million copies worldwide. And the author? Paul Young, someone I've become acquainted with here in our city of Portland, keeps saying over and over, "I'm an accidental best-selling author."

    Totally random, just like life, and I guess that's why it's so dang intriguing and suspenseful with highs and lows and lots of flatline days.

    (thanks for this post!)

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      The Shack is another great reminder of how unpredictable this industry is.

  • http://www.karenjordan.net/ Karen Jordan

    I laughed out loud when I read the quote by P. J. O’Rourke–I lived a similar experience this morning (like right now on FB). Someone once told me about a famous writer of the past who tied himself to his chair to write. [I wish I could remember his name--sorry.]

  • http://www.karenjordan.net/ Karen Jordan

    I laughed out loud when I read the quote by P. J. O’Rourke–I lived a similar experience this morning (like right now on FB). Someone once told me about a famous writer of the past who tied himself to his chair to write. [I wish I could remember his name--sorry.]

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/MonikaM MonikaM

    Other books that should not have become best sellers but did? For some reason I am always surprised when health related books soar. Yes, I know an increasing number of people are taking a great interest in their health, but it seems to be somewhat repetitious info sometimes and if I buy one such book and put in practice what I learned thereby achieving results, I would not invest my time in reading a different version. We already know what to do. Reading another book won't help us. Doing the thing will. A very personal opinion, I know:)

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/MonikaM MonikaM

    Other books that should not have become best sellers but did? For some reason I am always surprised when health related books soar. Yes, I know an increasing number of people are taking a great interest in their health, but it seems to be somewhat repetitious info sometimes and if I buy one such book and put in practice what I learned thereby achieving results, I would not invest my time in reading a different version. We already know what to do. Reading another book won't help us. Doing the thing will. A very personal opinion, I know:)

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Peter_P Peter_P

    Lord of the Rings.

    How did a book(s) that long and that fantastical, bloody and evil become such a hit?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

      Perhaps because it provides an escape from reality and because it may make reality seem less vile?

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/Peter_P Peter_P

        Hmm, good thought.

        Interestingly I blogged about escaping reality this weekend but didn't consider that we sometimes escape reality to make reality seem less vile.

        Thank you. Much to think about.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Personally, I think because it so closely parallels the one true story: The Gospel.

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/Peter_P Peter_P

        Ooo, that was deep Michael!

        :-)

      • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/Peter_P Peter_P

        Ooo, that was deep, Michael!

        :-)

  • http://blog.hafchurch.org/peter Peter_P

    Lord of the Rings.

    How did a book(s) that long and that fantastical, bloody and evil become such a hit?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

      Perhaps because it provides an escape from reality and because it may make reality seem less vile?

      • http://blog.hafchurch.org/peter Peter_P

        Hmm, good thought.

        Interestingly I blogged about escaping reality this weekend but didn't consider that we sometimes escape reality to make reality seem less vile.

        Thank you. Much to think about.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      Personally, I think because it so closely parallels the one true story: The Gospel.

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/Peter_P Peter_P

        Ooo, that was deep Michael!

        :-)

      • http://blog.hafchurch.org/peter Peter_P

        Ooo, that was deep, Michael!

        :-)

  • http://twitter.com/sherisaid sheri

    oh my…I'm supposed to be writing articles, but I saw your tweet and got distracted..

  • http://twitter.com/sherisaid sheri

    oh my…I'm supposed to be writing articles, but I saw your tweet and got distracted..

  • http://lynnrush.wordpress.com/ LynnRush

    So true. It's all very subjective.

    I've just always been told to write what you write because God's in control….And I thoroughly believe that.

    So, write on… :-)

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      That's a good formula. Follow your heart and let the rest take care of itself.

  • http://lynnrush.wordpress.com/ LynnRush

    So true. It's all very subjective.

    I've just always been told to write what you write because God's in control….And I thoroughly believe that.

    So, write on… :-)

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      That's a good formula. Follow your heart and let the rest take care of itself.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Peter_P Peter_P

    Books that should have sold really, really, really well but didn't necessarily:

    1) Everything that Stephen Lawhead has ever written (even the Empyrion series).

    2) 'If God were real' by John Avant. It's going to be released soon and probably won't sell well because it will make people uncomfortable – which is exactly why it SHOULD sell well!

    3) The Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy by Douglas Adams. Oh, scratch that, that one did sell well!

  • http://blog.hafchurch.org/peter Peter_P

    Books that should have sold really, really, really well but didn't necessarily:

    1) Everything that Stephen Lawhead has ever written (even the Empyrion series).

    2) 'If God were real' by John Avant. It's going to be released soon and probably won't sell well because it will make people uncomfortable – which is exactly why it SHOULD sell well!

    3) The Hitchhikers guide to the galaxy by Douglas Adams. Oh, scratch that, that one did sell well!

  • http://debratwardowski.com/ Deb

    Ahem… I too "avoid" writing. I turn on court TV, "just for the noise," then end up watching it. I read emails and write longer ones back. I check to see the specials on QVC, then I end up looking at everything on the site. Can I have too many purses? I totally waste precious moments that could be used writing to do nothing

  • http://debratwardowski.com/ Deb

    Ahem… I too "avoid" writing. I turn on court TV, "just for the noise," then end up watching it. I read emails and write longer ones back. I check to see the specials on QVC, then I end up looking at everything on the site. Can I have too many purses? I totally waste precious moments that could be used writing to do nothing

  • Christine

    But why does it have to be a surprise which books sell well and which do not? Why can't the publishing industry emulate the example of many other industries and have focus groups read drafts and get their feedback or do market studies about why people like/dislike certain books. Surely there can be some predictability to it?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      A lot of study is done about categories, but it is impractical to do research on specific books. The ROI is just too low. So instead, we publish books we think will work as a sort of research and learn from the experience.

      • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

        I imagine that is also expensive. Do publishers obtain feedback on bestsellers? Even though formula writing may be anathema to writers, we may want to use formats that readers feel comfortable with, especially when content is the driving force of a book. To use an analogy, I teach my students how to write a five-paragraph essay which has a definite formula. Even my students who hate to write are confident in writing the five paragraphs. In the same way, if we give readers formats they are comfortable with, perhaps they will be more confident in their reading. (I'm pushing this because in order to have bestsellers, we have to reach those who do not like to read.)

        • Mary

          As an avid reader, I can tell you that it is content, not format, that hooks me.

  • Christine

    But why does it have to be a surprise which books sell well and which do not? Why can't the publishing industry emulate the example of many other industries and have focus groups read drafts and get their feedback or do market studies about why people like/dislike certain books. Surely there can be some predictability to it?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      A lot of study is done about categories, but it is impractical to do research on specific books. The ROI is just too low. So instead, we publish books we think will work as a sort of research and learn from the experience.

      • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

        I imagine that is also expensive. Do publishers obtain feedback on bestsellers? Even though formula writing may be anathema to writers, we may want to use formats that readers feel comfortable with, especially when content is the driving force of a book. To use an analogy, I teach my students how to write a five-paragraph essay which has a definite formula. Even my students who hate to write are confident in writing the five paragraphs. In the same way, if we give readers formats they are comfortable with, perhaps they will be more confident in their reading. (I'm pushing this because in order to have bestsellers, we have to reach those who do not like to read.)

        • Mary

          As an avid reader, I can tell you that it is content, not format, that hooks me.

  • http://tonychung.ca/ Tony Chung

    Another smash hit that nobody expected was The Shack by Wm. Paul Young. The writing is so raw compared to seasoned authors like Donald Miller, but the story impacts all of our relationships and generated a lot of discussion. Who would have thought that a self-published work would take the world by storm?

  • http://tonychung.ca Tony Chung

    Another smash hit that nobody expected was The Shack by Wm. Paul Young. The writing is so raw compared to seasoned authors like Donald Miller, but the story impacts all of our relationships and generated a lot of discussion. Who would have thought that a self-published work would take the world by storm?

  • http://www.markgilroy.blogspot.com/ Mark Gilroy

    Mike, couldn't agree more with this blog. But, I do wonder how you harmonize this with what you post about WOW. Wouldn't this seem to indicate that WOW is descriptive rather than prescriptive?

  • http://www.markgilroy.blogspot.com/ Mark Gilroy

    Mike, couldn't agree more with this blog. But, I do wonder how you harmonize this with what you post about WOW. Wouldn't this seem to indicate that WOW is descriptive rather than prescriptive?

  • http://www.lightherlamp.com Jaycee (E.A)

    This happens in blogging everytime. People get inspired by the things the author thinks is least. Sort of like a "the first shall be last" kind of principle. Nice post.

  • http://www.therextras.com Barbara

    Not having a formula for decision making is a test of faith – perhaps intentional from the Almighty. True for many decisions in life.

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  • http://www.christopherscottblog.typepad.com/ Christopher Scott

    A book that should have been a best-seller but isn’t is, Choosing to Cheat by Andy Stanley. It has marked my life as much as any other book I have ever read.