Recently, when I was a guest on a podcast, the host asked me why my book wasn’t more popular. She thought it belonged in the same class as mega-bestsellers like Atomic Habits or Deep Work, and was surprised it wasn’t in the same league for popularity.
While it’s deeply flattering to be told your work is underrated, I think some people’s surprise that a moderately-popular thing isn’t super popular stems from a cognitive illusion.
Why Bestsellers Seem Common
Try to imagine every book you’ve ever read, seen or heard about. How many books would that be?
It’s probably not more than 10,000 unless you’re an avid bibliophile or work in publishing.
Now try to guess how many books are actually written. For published books, estimates range from 500,000 to one million books are published every year. Including self-published books, and it’s closer to four million. The Library of Congress has 32 million cataloged books, which is an undercount of every book ever written.
That means every book you’ve heard about, let alone read, makes up less than 0.00003% of all the books that exist!
Furthermore, the books you’ve heard about are not a randomly-selected sample. The likelihood you’ve heard of a book corresponds fairly closely with its popularity in the general marketplace. The average traditionally-published book typically sells a few thousand copies in its lifetime. In contrast, mega-bestsellers sell tens of millions.
Thus the picture the average reader gets of the market looks like this:
But the reality of publishing is actually this:
The handful of people who (ever-so-kindly) think I’m underrated are probably thinking of a dozen or so popular books of the same genre. Owing to the biases mentioned above, these examples are disproportionately drawn from the pool of enormously successful books. They notice that my book is less successful than that elite cohort and find it surprising.
These people are missing the hundreds of thousands of books similar to mine in quality (or better!) that they’ve never heard of because they aren’t bestsellers!
This analysis applies to any kind of creative work. We watch famous YouTubers with millions of subscribers and ignore the vast majority who have less than a thousand. We hear about research done by elite scientists from Harvard and MIT, but not work by ordinary academics. Music, movies, journalism, athletics and countless other fields suffer from the same distortion.
I’m intensely grateful to have achieved a place where people buy my book and I get invited to be on podcasts. Most people don’t get this much, even those whose work deserves it.
What About Quality? Don’t Better Books Sell More?
Of course, books that become bestsellers aren’t entirely random. I’ve been envious of James Clear’s writing ability since before he wrote Atomic Habits, so it wasn’t surprising to me when his book became a major hit. He’s a thoughtful and engaging writer.
While there are snobs who argue that a book’s popularity is a sign of low quality, I think this take reflects particular tastes rather than describing a general feature of the mass market.1
However, even if you try to argue that popularity is perfectly correlated with underlying writing quality, the two scales differ by orders of magnitude.
If writing quality exists on a scale from 1 to 100, book sales range from zero to tens of millions.2Thus, even in a world where writing quality perfectly predicts sales, it is still unfair. Those who are ever-so-slightly better can reap hundreds or thousands of times the rewards.
Almost no one believes that a book’s quality is perfectly predictive of its success. Books succeed in part because of quality, but also because of random factors that neither the author nor an outside observer could easily predict. Those who become phenomenal bestsellers are often just as surprised as anyone that their book has taken off.
What Level of Success Should You Expect?
At its heart, this suggests a rather pessimistic downgrading of our ability to succeed in fields like book publishing. If we’re greatly exaggerating the proportion of books that become bestsellers, we’re implicitly overestimating our odds of success.
I think there is some truth to this.
Success at an extreme level is usually the overlap of many competing factors, only some of which are in your control. If your personal definition of success or happiness depends on being in a rarefied elite, this analysis should chasten you to the reality of that goal.
Even if you’re pursuing more modest success, however, thinking this way can help you do better. When success is much rarer than you think, you need to pay close attention to what works, work hard to master the fundamental skills of your craft, and ensure you’re committed to making it work.
Having achieved modest popularity, I’m thankful for everyone who enjoys my work. Whether you think my work is underrated or overrated, I’m endlessly grateful for the opportunity to write about things I find interesting for a living.
- For instance, despite the stereotype, many academic books are well-written and fascinating. They also require a much more serious and informed reader to appreciate, which limits the potential audience. A similar argument could be made about the popularity James Patterson’s novels vs. highbrow literature.
- The test of this would be to ask people to rate books on a scale before knowing whether they are mega-bestsellers. As a thought experiment, it seems obvious to me that the best-selling books would generally rank a bit higher on average. Still, there would probably be substantial overlap in the ratings of mega-bestsellers and good-but-not-famous books.