The Making of a Best Seller: Chris Colfer and the Glee Effect

Last Sunday, my teenage daughter stood outside the local bookstore with more than 300 fans–adults, parents, teenagers, tweens, and others–excitedly waiting for Glee television actor Chris Colfer to show up to sign their purchased copy of The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell. The book is Colfer’s first novel, and it’s a best seller.

I have to admit, my heart sank a bit. Here, I have been toiling for more than two decades to improve and refine the craft of storytelling through my young adult novels, and I’m barely able to get out amazon.com’s cellar even with excellent reviews. The vast majority of authors are lucky to sell 300 copies of their books in a year, let alone one day. Colfer comes along with his first book and becomes an instant bestselling novelist. It’s easy to get jaded.

Colfer, however, deserves every penny he earns. And it’s not because his book is awesome, paradigm shifting, innovative or any more creative than my books or any of the books written by dozens of authors I know who have probably penned much better books. In fact, even though I haven’t read The Land of Stories, I’m sure it’s pretty good. (My daughter is a voracious reader and says it’s surprisingly good.)

What does Colfer have that gets him to the top of the best seller list that I (or my peers) don’t? Quite simply: a marketing platform.

No matter how excellent my stories are, how layered my characters are, or how much action I squeeze into my young adult novels, I don’t have anywhere near the breadth or size of the marketing platform that jettisoned Colfer to bestseller status. Colfer has 1.5 million followers on twitter. I have…somewhere significantly fewer than 1.5 million.

Jealousy and envy sometimes gets the better of those of us who are less successful. Colfer may have written a good novel, some may say, but he didn’t pay his dues. He didn’t hone his craft. He parlayed his celebrity into a book deal with a major publishing house with scads of editors who can poor over his manuscript to make sure it was worthy of an international book marketing program. Hundreds of thousands of dollars will likely be spent shuttling Colfer around to book signings, launching advertising campaigns, and leveraging social networking sites.

Didn’t Colfer just luck into being a best selling author? No. In fact, emphatically no. There is nothing about Colfer’s success that is purely a result of chance. He’s paid his dues. He just paid them in a different medium: television and film.

Colfer is a golden-globe winning actor on a television show that is an international pheonomenon. He has created on the silver screen a character that is as unique, layered and interesting as any created in a novel. While some element of luck clearly has played into Colfer’s hand, the reality is that Colfer still had to play the hand. He had to have the talent, skills, commitment, tenacity, and courage to take advantage of the opportunities when they were presented. Moreover, he had to have the personal and professional wherewithal to recognize that an idea could become a book that might, if played just right, launch his career in a new direction. I know of few successful authorst that are overnight successes, and the same is true for actors.

As a result, Colfer has a marketing platform that was capable of launching his first book to bestseller status. Call it the “Glee Effect.” That’s the real reason for his commercial success in the literarary market place, not necessarily fine prose, an innovative voice or creative story telling. And that’s fine. Why shouldn’t Colfer receive the same kinds of accolades we bestow on our peers in the writing community when they become commercially successful? Like any astute professional, Colfer has tapped into the value of a marketing platform that he developed, using the resources at his disposal and seizing the opportunities that presented themselves. After all, he didn’t have to have a twitter account. He could be a recluse, the proverbial artist who hypernates between projects and eschews contact with his fans. I can’t begrudge him for using that platform or a publisher from taking advantage of it. (I might think differently if he had written a bad book, but I don’t think that is the case.)

So, even with my books falling short of New York Times best seller status–for now–I am both impressed and pleased to see his success. Hats off to Mr. Colfer, and welcome to the literary world. May we all learn from your successes. And, I will read your book. As soon as my daughter finishes it.

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