Friday, November 30, 2012


by Peg Brantley

Out of the fifteen books on the New York Times Best Seller List for June 4, 1961, eleven of them had been on the list for ten weeks or more. One had been on the list for forty-four weeks, another for eight-one weeks, and a third for ninety-five weeks.

-->Fast-forward--> to the list for January 1, 2012. Out of the fifteen books, only two of them had been on the list for ten weeks or more. One for ten weeks and one for twenty-two.

Seth Godin wrote on his blog recently, It's not unusual for a movie or a book or even a TV series to come and go before most people notice it. Neophilia has fundamentally changed our culture. He goes on to say, The result is that there's an increasing desire, almost a panic, for something new. Yesterday was a million years ago, and tomorrow is already here. The rush for new continues to increase, and it is now surpassing our ability to satisfy it.

In 1961 both novels and their authors could actually have a run. Runs that could last for months and even years. Today? Not so much.

Seth concluded his post with this: The real opportunity, I think, is in trying to build longer arcs. Now that the cycle of new is eating itself in a race to ever-faster, there's a bigger chance to make long term change by consistently focusing on what works (and what's important), not what's new and merely shiny….What's important, what's always important, is useful change.

The application of this interesting observation is the trick. How can we extend whatever arc we have?

I see two things for authors today. One is to reflect social issues or difficult topics in our books. Not necessarily in a direct or preachy way, but in a way that matters to people. In a way that gets them to nod their head and consider their reaction. The second is to consistently deliver quality stories. An author who made the best seller list in 1961 may have been able to wait three or four years between books because their name wouldn't have been lost and forgotten after a couple of months.

What do you think would build a longer arc?

(And for those of you who are curious, the books in 1961 I highlighted above were at forty-four weeks, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee in the number 2 slot; at eighty-one weeks, Hawaii by James Michener as number 5; and at a whopping ninety-five weeks, Advise and Consent by Allen Drury as number 11. The 2012 snapshot in time had The Best of Me by Nicholas Sparks in the number 6 position after being on the list for ten weeks, and A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin as number 14 having been on the list for twenty-two weeks.)


  1. This is the most challenging thing for authors right now. The sheer volume of books being released combined with the more-level playing field for authors makes it an incredibly competitive market. The good news is that it's a very juicy/inexpensive market for readers.

    I agree with you about relevant topics and do my best to give readers something to think about (no evil for the sake of evil), but I'm also pushing myself to write two or three books a year and to stay constantly present online and in the market. It's exhausting.

  2. The increasingly shorter attention span of readers and viewers is a growing concern, I think. Will important, even critical messages and really worthwhile films or books get overlooked or glossed over in favor of the glitzier, sexier, more crowd-pleasing fare? To me, it's worrisome.

    I like your approach, Peg. Keep at it! LJ, too!

  3. The market is crazy. That's the bad news. The good news, I think, is that competition breeds quality control. I have a theory: I think all this intensity will eventually create an evening out effect, pushing the cream to the top and causing lower quality work to fall away more. If you look at things from a historical perspective, for the most part, this is the trend. I'm not saying when it will happen; I'm just saying.

  4. Let me see if I get this… attention spans have diminished in direct proportion to choices? That makes sense, but I don't see choices going away. Which means attention spans will continue to be short, even for bestselling authors who write incredible books. Other than relevance and consistency, I'm trying to figure out what other ideas are out there for extending attention, if any.

  5. I'm not nearly as knowledgeable about the industry as most of you are, but...

    Seems to me that the current mayhem should consolidate to a market in which readers come to rely on a large-but-manageable array of trustworthy Indie publishers. (Sorry, that was a mouthful.)

    I'm already at the point where I will only download books referred to me by trusted sources (like all of you). I've been burned once on the low-price/freebie Kindle promotions -- by basing my choice on some good cover art.

    Won't happen again. Regardless, I believe that great writing will always win in the end, even if superb novels by non-superstar writers are no longer able to hold long runs on national bestseller lists.

    I'm new here. Did I mention I love your site? (Thanks, Andrew)


  6. Hi, Jim. Thanks for taking the time to comment here.

    To be honest, I'm not sure what "consolidation" might look like in the future. My hope would be that some kind of tier element might be established for Indie authors based on the quality of the books they produce. New authors need to be given a chance, with the ability to climb to the next tier based on their work. And, in a way, maybe we've already achieved some of that. I like to think I'm slowly moving up.

    Good thoughts. Thanks again.

  7. I think Andrew may have it right in that there might be an evening out effect coming. The sheer explosion of titles has led to a market where chaos reigned, but the reader infatuation with freebies may be getting tempered a bit by a realization that quantity does not equal quality.

    And Jim, you comment about freebies is actually the second time today I've heard exactly that same statement. I suspect that the infatuation with free, at least for some readers, may be coming to an end. Personally, I don't have enough time to read bad books, no matter what they cost.

  8. I agree with you, Peg, that weaving serious social issues into stories can result in a longer arc. Perhaps because social issues have deep roots and can be applied to any genre.

    For example: child sexual abuse. This is the topic of my novel, Vagilantes, which is written current-time, reality. CSA can apply to history, romance (barrier to love?), mystery, fantasy, and stories of creatures who scare all of us. A good writer can twist this topic to fit their style.

    There's no lack of other serious topics. I've read humorous novels about global warming – a twist which can become a cult book used as a reference for generations who live through the changes.

    Writing with a social purpose is a better use of our time and talent. Perhaps it encourages a longer arc. Certainly, it can make difficult issues easier to consider.

    Another way to plan for a longer arc is to write a series of books about characters who age. There are common challenges for different age-ranges. If a younger reader connects with a young character, they will want to follow and compare their lives, or glimpse of how a life can be affected by age and adventure.

    Thanks Peg, for this topic. I hope commenters post more suggestions for creating a longer arc. Anyone have a secret, for sure method?

  9. Yes, everything is speedier these days, and I'm the same way. I don't have as much patience anymore. If I'm reading a book and it drags, I'll go on to another. In the old days, I'd wait for the good part to happen.

    As far as who is on top in book sales, the good thing about that these days is it might not last long, but it can come back again if you play your strategy right!

    Morgan Mandel
    @MorganMandel - Twitter

  10. Terry, I completely agree. Even if a book is free, there is a cost involved, and boy-howdy, my time is pretty darned valuable.

    Thanks, Julie. I first recognized the value of social issues by reading LJ's books. There's some kind of moral anchor there that makes everything stronger.

    I think even humorous books can help shine a light on tough areas of our lives. Maybe esxpecially humorous books.

    Aging characters are good. Especially if they've made a connection with readers. Great idea.

    Morgan, you are the eternal optimist. Thanks.


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