Some books, no matter how well they’re written, will never become best sellers. Why is that? Why is it that many talented writers are not living on a lovely island somewhere in the Pacific?
Bora Bora sounds nice about now, no? I can’t dance, but I think I could probably master a mean hula. Now you’re going to have an image of me hulaing in your head. You’re welcome.
What makes a bestseller?
I want to start with a DISCLAIMER. If I knew the secret to what made Harry Potter, or The Twilight Saga, or Fifty Shades of Grey so popular, I would have written one like that already. I don’t. Not many people do. I sometimes wonder if even those authors knew what they had on their hands when they started writing.
I doubt it, but you never know. There’s a lot more than persuasive writing that goes into a best-selling book. And, in the case of some novels, it’s not even that. I’m looking at you, Twilight. It’s enough to make me gag. Anyway, here’s what I think makes up a best-seller:
This one is a bitch, mainly because there is no way to control it. For an up-and-coming author without name brand recognition or Stephen King lauding your book on the cover flap, it can sometimes be a matter of being in the right place at the right time with the right book. That’s why you can’t control it.
For example, about a year ago, the Me Too movement was active. I remember being in the query trenches and seeing every other agent out there asking for a #MeToo story. If an author had a story based on that, then there was a good chance that the agency was going to be taking a long, hard look at that story.
If your book was about something way different, as mine was, then the letters which best describe you are S-O-L. Not saying that there wasn’t still an opportunity for me to sell my story, but there was nothing in the mainstream media that would have people clamoring to buy Far from Ordinary, or even my upcoming Fade to Black.
So why not just write a story based on whatever trend or movement the mainstream media is currently focused on? Well, there’s a problem with that. A book takes a LONG time to be published. I don’t mean for the author to finish writing it, although that can take years as well, I mean published, available in book stores. It can take up to two years of revisions and edits before it’s ready to shine. Realistically you’d need to have a completed manuscript in the publisher’s hands just as whatever you were writing about is gaining popularity
Like I said, timing is a bitch.
An old English teacher of mine once told me that there is no such thing as a new story. Everything has been done before. Absolutely everything. It goes back to cavemen (cave-people?) telling stories on cave walls. After that, there are two and a half thousand years of verbal tradition storytelling, if not more. Every idea, every concept has already been explored. Depending on the concept, maybe hundreds of times. None of Shakespeare’s plays were original, after all. He took old stories and breathed new life into them with his characters.
Therein lies the rub.
What editors and publishers are looking for are stories that sell. The stories that sell the most are the ones that people are familiar with. The Lion King, for example, is just Hamlet with lions. Aladdin is based on a Middle Eastern folk tale, with elements of Romeo and Juliet with magic and a happy ending.
(Oh, did I spoil Romeo and Juliet for you? Tough luck! I think I’m okay spoiling something that’s been around for a couple of centuries, no?)
I mean, maybe I shouldn’t use Disney as an example given some of the issues they’ve had, but the concept is there!
Audiences seem to love this concept of “same same, but different.” It’s the same idea, but it’s not. It’s done in a way that’s reminiscent of the original, but unique enough that it can be considered its own thing.
It’s all about the big concept story, after all. That’s what sells, bay-bay!
The Story Part Two: Electric Boogaloo
Speaking about the story, how is your plot? Is it enthralling? Does it force you to keep turning pages to get to the end, ala Dan Brown? I swear he laced the pages of his earlier books, Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, with some sort of magical dust that keeps your attention as a reader. I remember reading Angels and Demons until 5 AM because I couldn’t. put. it. down. That’s something special, isn’t it?
Are your characters interesting? Nobody wants to hear about the guy who didn’t do anything interesting because he was responsible all the time and in bed by 8:30. We want to read about larger than life characters who somehow still connect with us on a deeper level.
“Oh yeah, I know he killed all those zombies, but I can really see pieces of me in there.” Are you going to be killing zombies? Probably not. Unless you know something that I don’t.
*narrows eyes suspiciously*
Is there some aspect of the above zombie killer’s personality that you can relate to? Maybe! The best characters aren’t infallible, Mary-Sue types. They’re broken, and they bleed. It’s in that pain of the human condition that we find something special, something relatable.
Okay, okay. I started this post by talking about how a book doesn’t need excellent writing to be a best seller. And it doesn’t. But it certainly can help if you can string a few words together in a semi-cohesive and somewhat comprehensive way.
Everybody has a different idea as to what excellent writing is. For example, Stephen King and George R.R. Martin are two of the best writers alive today. Perhaps they’re among the best of all time. The way they navigate the blank page is nothing short of magical. Their writing is technically sound and incredibly entertaining.
And yet, it’s not for everyone. No matter how good you make it, not everyone is going to like it. Is that harsh? I don’t think so. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, no matter how wrong they are 😉
But that’s also what makes it tough for us up-and-comer types. I mean, if people are criticizing the King, of all people, how in the Seven Hells could I ever live up to THAT?
I consider myself reasonably ambitious, but I don’t think I can ever surpass those two in writing ability.
It doesn’t mean I’m not going to try to, though.
What did we learn this week?
- You can’t write to please everyone. Readers are like cats – erm, pardon me, Khajits. You’re not going to please them by trying to get them to like you.
- Lots of you agreed with my decision to make fun of my sister more in these blogs. I have to give the people what they want!
- Also, on that topic, I forgot that my sister was going to give me a Twinrix vaccine injection. I’m going to Cuba in the winter, and I don’t want to catch the hep. Probably should have held last week’s post until after the shot. My arm still hurts.
- This post was filled with industry secrets. I hope that the secret author’s association doesn’t come after me. Naw, I’m kidding. It’s just one author’s (probably erroneous) impressions around what maketh a best seller
- I’m back!
I think last week, I had promised that I would dive into the aftermath of New York, and I wanted to assure you all that it’s still on my mind. Once I get some real news about it, I’ll be sure to share.
Until next week,