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Writers: The Secret to Writing a Bestseller


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The only thing you can do to ensure

you come at all close to writing a bestseller is:

Write your book!

After that? I hate to disappoint you, but there is no secret.

There is information you should consider, however, like acting on the things you can affect (factors) and refraining from making yourself crazy trying to change things that have a negative effect on you (variables.) 

Don’t focus on variables.

Focus on factors you can control:

1. Write the best book you can.

2. Build your audience (Teach, review, tweet, blog, network, learn, connect etc.,…)

3. Get your book to market (trad or indie publishing—that’s a different post.)

4. Do it again.

You’re going to want to come back to and act on 1 – 4 again and again.

The rest is explication.

I can already hear howls of protest about the title of this post. However, if you get an email from someone claiming they have insider secrets to making your book an instant bestseller, you can safely move on. There are some wacky claims out there, so let’s unpack and debunk.

First off, there are far too many variables that are out of your hands for any one person to direct you to bestsellerdom. In the publishing process there are a lot of variables. All of them have to fall into place for your book to be sold, but even if that were to happen, there are no guarantees your book will climb the charts…even if it’s good.

There are a lot of good books. Sadly, that doesn’t mean we’ve heard of them.

Consider Chuck Palahniuk‘s Fight Club and Choke. They both became movies, but just before it was announced Brad Pitt was going to do the Fight Club movie, I saw it in the remainder bin. They got whipped out of there when his book got the movie deal and the newest hire had to peel off all those stickers that read: Marked Down. The author wrote a great book in Fight Club, but he was headed back to anonymity before the lucky break. (He’s proved his worth since over and over, too; he’s prolific and, weirdly, I even saw a major review that didn’t even mention Fight Club.)

His case is a perfect example of something falling into place that was totally out of the author’s control. If Antonio Sabato Junior had played the role instead of Tyler Durden and Lindsay Lohan had played Marla instead of Helena Bonham-Carter, you would never have heard of Palahniuk’s books (because that’s a lot of stink to overcome.) Antonio was good in the few minutes he was in The Big Hit, but generally, if you see a movie poster with Lindsay and Antonio, you don’t think,  “Ooh, gotta see that!”

The most important reason you can’t just follow set rules and write a bestseller is that what William Goldman said about Hollywood also applies to publishing. “Nobody knows anything.”

That’s why there are sleeper hits. I wandered into Fargo and Highlander, didn’t know what to expect, and was blown away. Margaret Atwood snuck up and surprised me with The Year of the Flood—okay, maybe other people expected great things from Atwood every time, but that’s the book that turned me around on that author. (Can’t wait for the third in the series!)

When manuscripts go up for auction to big publishing houses, acquiring editors bid because they want a hit. Even when books go for big money, that’s no guarantee of great success. In fact, if the author doesn’t earn out that big advance, it’s a very public failure. That blemish on their record hurts authors when they try to sell their next book.

It’s a subjective business. If agents and acquiring editors really knew much beyond their own taste, then every book they bought would sell very well. Look at the bestseller lists. There are only so many spots in the top ten lists. Then look at the book store shelves packed with midlist titles. That’s a lot of books, and those are just the books the stores stock. There are many more books published than ever make it to bookshelves, yet somebody thought each book would earn out its advance.

Nobody’s betting on losers on purpose. The bestsellers are the frontlist. The books that aren’t expected to do as well are the midlist. Midlist authors are still generally expected to earn out their advance, however. Remember: it’s business, not charity.

Hm. Somebody’s going to object that there are exceptions (and, of course, there always are. Can we say much at all without some generalizing?) So I must admit I did know a publisher who bet on losers pretty much exclusively. Maybe he was noble and doing it only for the art (and government grants) or maybe his judgement was just galactically poor. He’s out of business now so no more art. (Last parenthetical, I promise: And if you publish poetry, nothing is frontlist or midlist because no one pubishes poetry expecting to make money.)

Back to the book store: See all those dogs in the remainder bin? Somewhere, someone bet a lot that each one of those books would sell really well.

Some books aren’t a surprise when they do well, but for those books, that’s not the game anymore. When a publisher buys a Sarah Palin book, they aren’t so concerned whether it will sell. Their concern with a book like that is, how much and how fast will it meet higher expectations and sell more? When a book succeeds, the publisher has to time the next printing right and gauge how much promotional money should go into the publicity campaign to push it as far as it can profitably burn.

Publishers concentrate their limited resources on the few books they think will have a shot at bestsellerdom because they will take a loss on most of their catalogue. Some don’t believe it and authors lament it, but publishing is a business. And it’s a business with very small margins.  

Even when publishers get books on the shelf, it’s not even over then. The sell-through is what’s important. Unlike any other business, publishing’s tradition—blame Simon & Schuster—is that books that don’t sell may be returned for credit. It’s a tradition that may eventually be dropped, especially when there are fewer book stores around.

I’m dying here! Give me some good news, Chazz!

Okay. The good news is that when you get rejected, you can take comfort in the knowledge that nobody knows anything. Maybe the guy who rejected you also rejected JK Rowling, so what do they really know anyway? Maybe you are destined to be a sleeper hit.

Do better than that, Chazz! I said I’m dying!

Sorry. How about this? Contests, bestseller lists, critics and reviews might help an unknown author, but it’s really word of mouth that makes a book popular. (Or a big movie deal.) The antidote to your angst is to keep writing and pitching. Find your audience and put yourself out there to be found.


Go back to Factors 1 -4 at the top of this post.

Better? Now go write.

Filed under: authors, Books, Editors, getting it done, links, Poetry, publishing, Rant, Rejection, rules of writing, Writers, writing tips, , , , ,

2 Responses

  1. […] Writers: The Secret to Writing a Bestseller (chazzwrites.wordpress.com) […]

  2. […] Writers: The Secret to Writing a Bestseller (chazzwrites.wordpress.com) […]

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