In this new TAI blog series, we interview professionals from across the world of books—authors and publishers, agents and booksellers—asking them each the same question: “What makes a book work?”

For this article, we spoke with Elizabeth Moore, a publishing associate in the Knopf Doubleday division of Penguin Random House. Day to day, she helps strategize the publication of paperback editions of her division’s hardcovers, managing many of the nitty gritty details that go into making a book launch successful. Our conversation ranged from the future of data in publishing to what books Moore thinks that people should be reading right now (Answers:
Bewilderment by Richard Powers, Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad, and The Crane Wife by CJ Hauser), but it always circled back to the central question:

What makes a book work?

“It’s when all the stars align,” Moore answered. “And those stars are timing and zeitgeist, matched with a really compelling cover and copy, in the right marketing and publicity channels—that’s how a book builds and launches.”

Getting those stars to align is easier said than done. The hard truth is that a handful of published books sell well, while the vast majority fail to earn out their advance. Working with paperback releases, much of Moore’s job involves analyzing what worked or didn’t work with a book’s initial hardcover release, and then changing variables for the paperback edition to set it up for success on its second run at the market.

“If we have a hardcover that was supposed to be a really big book for us and just didn’t get sales, that signals to us that it didn’t really reach its key reader,” she said. “We’re going to give it a new cover, introduce it to some different types of readers, try some new marketing and publicity outlets. It’s kind of an opportunity to reinvent a book.”

The first star that often needs re-alignment is Timing. While there are tried and true rules of thumb for when to release books of various genres, sometimes things don’t go as planned.

“Let’s say your hardcover romcom novel was published in May or June—beach read season,” Moore explained. “But maybe there were just a lot of romcoms published this year, and this book got lost in the mix. [For the paperback publication,] we have to decide whether we want to try another June launch or take the opportunity to find a quieter time, like maybe a sleepy, joyful winter release.”

By “Zeitgeist,” Moore means that elusive something that readers are looking for in books at a particular moment in time. Current events, consumer interests, and societal attitudes are always shifting, and matching books’ subject and tone to a particular cultural moment requires careful listening to market trends and reader feedback.

“Right now, everybody is running out to buy books about Russia,” Moore said. “When we were planning our February 2022 season two years ago, obviously we didn’t know what was going to be happening in the world, [but] our consumer insights teams are constantly doing temperature
checks [to try and figure out what people want.] How are people feeling about COVID? Politics? Are we into Valentine’s Day this year? Galentine’s Day? Is Christmas canceled? Is it tone deaf to talk about this thing right now? Do readers want something joyful? Is this book too sad?”

By the time a book lands on Moore’s desk, there’s not much she can do about the Copy, which has long since been finalized by authors and editors. The Cover, however, is a different story. Here too, there are multiple variables at play. The cover art, title, stepback, and back-of-the- book description are all split-second difference-makers that can determine whether a reader decides to pick up this book or that. Still, according to a survey of publishing decision makers conducted by Target Audience Insights in 2021, only around 14% of publishers report frequently getting cover design feedback from target readers.

“We do market research on what recent comparable titles have been selling well, and we try to figure out what elements of their covers seem to be working with readers [and do something similar for a paperback release],” Moore said. “We do so many cover iterations, but I would say [choosing a book cover] is still pretty gut driven. … You just kind of train your eye to know [what will work].”

The final piece of the puzzle is Marketing and Publicity.

In Moore’s world, marketing typically includes everything from social media to paid advertising, and shifting a book’s marketing approach can involve focusing those efforts on new or different audiences and channels—essentially putting the book in front of the right readership. Publicity
is all about media attention: getting the word out about a new book release, having it featured on late night or morning television, getting reviewed by NPR, or securing favorable writeups in national publications. Together, solid marketing to the right audiences combined with a robust
publicity effort can cultivate the context readers need to discover and get excited about a book.

“When you get all that happening at one time, when a book is everywhere for two weeks straight—that’s what you want,” Moore explained. “But the real hope is that once you’ve built this intentional campaign so that its visible for a week or two, readers have found it and from there it’s carried by word of mouth. If they love the book and talk about it, then it starts to organically sell itself. That’s the hope.”

When one pulls back to look at the big picture, it quickly becomes clear that there are a lot of extremely complex factors that authors, editors, and publishers need to get right in order for a book to resonate with readers and sell successfully. Figuring out what parts of a book work and which don’t before it launches in paperback, learning what readers want at a particular moment in time, and getting all these stars to align is no easy task, but Moore and her team are up to the challenge. After all, books have the power to change hearts and minds, to speak to the human soul in a way that no other medium can. “Making a book work” is well worth the effort.