“I believe every book I acquire will be a bestseller,” Cindy Spiegel, co-CEO of Spiegel & Grau, said to a room full of literary agents at the U.S. Book Show in New York City on Tuesday, May 23. “I go for that with every book.”

The passion for the work was evident—and just what all literary agents want to hear from an editor working with their clients. Spiegel was speaking as part of a panel discussion called “Anatomy of a Bestseller,” featured as part of a daylong industry track at the U.S. Book Show curated by the Association of American Literary Agents and copresented with Publishers Weekly. And while several panels throughout the day focused on the pragmatic—the utility of data in making acquisitions, navigating book auctions, the mechanics of marketing—a common thread through nearly every discussion was the human factor behind the book business, underscoring how the devotion and drive of the people in publishing is key to making books successful.

At that same panel, Spiegel noted that her publishing house has only published a handful of titles, but already has two bestsellers, including Fox and I by Catherine Raven. “That book would have been considered a small, quiet book were it at Penguin Random House,” Spiegel said. “This book was important to me, and I was able to focus all my energy on it,” she said, adding that “there is something special about hitting the list.”

Spiegel's fellow panelists, Harper Wave publisher and senior v-p Karen Rinaldi and Levine Querido CEO Arthur Levine, agreed that a book doesn’t have to immediately hit the bestseller list to be considered a success. “I would rather have a book sell for years and decades than just hit the list for a week,” said Rinaldi. Levine added that many retailers no longer feature displays of bestselling book lists and questioned their utility as a marketing device.

Sally Kim, publisher and senior v-p of Putnam, noted that customers and consumers have different expectations for a book. “They don’t know what a publisher’s colophon is or what a reviewer says" she said of most consumers. “Every book publication is different, and you cannot predict a path for a book. You need to be optimistic.”

Cherise Fischer, a literary agent with Wendy Sherman Associates who moderated the panel, summarized the general sentiment neatly “The center of this industry is love, is passion, and so much is luck.”

Digging Into Acquisition Data

A panel called “Acquisition by Data,” on the other hand, traded discussions of love and luck for data and detail. Panelists noted that only 20% of Americans are “book people,” as Peter Hildick-Smith, president of Codex Group, put it. “That comes out to about 50 million people. We have found through our research that you only need to reach about 1% of those people—or 500,000 people—to be a consistent bestseller.”

Among other fact-based nuggets the panel dug up: a person must typically read three books, Hildick-Smith asserted, before they become a loyal fan of an author. While the panel was reluctant to assert with 100% confidence that working with data provided reliable guidance, Hildick-Smith and David Walter, executive director of Circana BookScan, said they believe data is as strong a tool for analyzing past performance for a given title as any. “Data can see the past and predict trends,” said Walter.

Richard Rhorer, publisher of Simon Element, called himself a “data guy,” but also argued “in favor of instinct.” He added that during his career, the best editors he knew “had a sixth sense” about what books would work in the marketplace.

Christa Desir, editorial director of the Bloom Books imprint at Sourcebooks, cited several tools that can be helpful in acquisitions, such as Helium 10 and K-lytics, subscription tools that analyze Amazon sales data. Bloom Books, she added, focuses on offering books that cater directly to market niches and are delivered at a significantly faster rate—say, three to four months—than typical for traditional publishing. Publishing to market “doesn’t work as well if you are on a traditional yearly publishing schedule,” Desir said.

Bidding on Books

In an afternoon breakout panel, "All About Auctions," a group of literary agents and editors walked through a few common scenarios that occur during the book bidding process, including preemptive offers and buyer's remorse, and tried to explain why some books sell for a higher price than others.

Sometimes, the panelists noted, the prices are surprising—some books sell for millions when others in the same category don't, which can be hard to parse if you're an industry outsider or new to the auction process. But the panel agreed that the final price tag often comes down to a word thrown around all too often in this industry: buzz.

Still, panelists said that it's difficult to sum up what, exactly, makes a bestseller. "I don't know that any of us can really answer that," said literary agent Heather Jackson of the Heather Jackson Literary Agency. Other panelists noted that often, people falsely conflate the amount of money paid for a book with its chances for success—a point addressed memorably last year in the capital during the trial that ultimately blocked the proposed Penguin Random House–Simon & Schuster merger.

Harper executive editor Eric Nelson concurred. "I've seen this done, where they ran our regression analysis of advances to first publications, and there is no correlation between what they get and how the books turn out," he said, adding: "If you are just throwing a dice at it, you would get the same."

The panel agreed that excitement for an author can quickly wane post-auction. On the agent side, McKinnon Literary founder Tanya McKinnon stressed that a bigger advance number isn't always better for the handling of the author's book and long-term livelihood, and that there are other factors that matter just as much when deciding which offer to accept. (Such as, for instance, who's making the offer.) And getting to that magic number—the one that works for everyone—comes down to human relationships.

"When you know people, you can have these more stable conversations about what a project is worth," McKinnon said. "Also, what if it's your client's first choice editor [bidding]? What if they love their house? As agents, we are also managing the expectations of this. What's the number that lets the author live well, that makes the publisher feel like they've invested the right number, and not have buyers remorse? Which we have all seen."

McKinnon added that when traction around a book builds and becomes "just about the money" at auction, she gets nervous, because "we lose the book." She continued: "There is a book, and it's going to take the writer a year or more to write, and they are going to have to make a lot of important decisions to get that writing done. And when they are finished, that book needs to land in the hands of a house that loves them. Because all that work has to become worthwhile."

Correction: This article initially misattributed a quote to Heather Jackson, and has been updated for clarity. We regret the error.