The “Sister Act II” Phenomenon

Every so often a business book comes out that surprises the publishing world by breaking out and selling millions of copies. In Search of Excellence (1982), the book that launched the business book boom revolution, was such a book. The first printing for that book was around 7,500 copies, yet it went on to sell about 8 million copies.

There is one downside to publishing such an incredibly successful book. It is impossible to match. That’s why I have called books like Excellence “phenomenon” books. Others include Reengineering the Corporation, The One-Minute Manager, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,  Good to Great—you get the idea. Whenever an author tells me he is writing “the next Good to Great” or next “In Search of Excellence” I run as fast as I can away from the project. That’s because there is no next 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Sure, the author can do The 8th Habit, but it will never come close to the sales of the original phenomenon book.

This reality—the follow-up book only sells a fraction of the original book—creates a real problem for the publisher. When an author hits one out of the park and achieves phenomenon status, the agent selling the next book always looks for a huge pay day that dwarfs the [author] advance paid for the original book. In some cases, the agent/author look for a pay-day that could be five or ten times the original advance, even though the follow-up book is doomed to sell far fewer copies. I have a name for this—“The Sister Act II”  phenomenon, named for the movie sequel of the early 1990s.nun-amusing-image2

In 1992 Disney/Touchstone released Sister Act starring Whoopi Goldberg, a movie that lit up the box office to the tune of $140 million domestically and another $90 million overseas. Whoopi Goldberg received a relatively modest fee for that role. However, for Sister Act II, released the next year, Whoopi Goldberg received something like $12 million, at the time, the richest payday for any actress up to that point. And how did the movie do? Well, it was not a flop, but only brought in about $57 million, far less than the original. Hence the term “The Sister II Act phenomenon.”

What is the moral of the story? First of all, if you ever are fortunate to have a genuine runaway hit,  reach down and find a little humility. Don’t punish the people who helped you produce that hit by holding them up for a Brink’s truck load of money. Instead work with them, not against them. Remember, these are the people who helped put you on the map in the first place.


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