What makes a bestseller? The Authors Collection

Rails to a River Cover 400

SO WHAT ELSE MAKES A BESTSELLER? What makes one book sell millions of copies while others languish?

I think most would say that best-sellers are written well, are interesting, and have a hook—the languishers, not so much. Makes sense, right?

Standard advice: Want to sell a lot of copies? Write a great book. Well, thank you very much. Who knew? Certainly, every author wants to write a great book. Most of us, when we put the final period on the final page of the final edit, feel we have written at least a good, if not great, book. Of course, we’re often wrong, but sometimes, both logic and odds say, we will be right.

Do best-sellers really break away from the pack because they’re great? Are books that rack up low sales poorly written or boring? Not necessarily. History is replete with instances of well-written, fascinating books that few people read. How can that be proven? Many achieved their deserved fame years after publication when 1) their authors died, 2) the right person with the right connections decided to say something good about the books (Oprah, for example), 3) when certain national or world events or trends ignited interest in the books.

Jim H. Ainsworth
Jim H. Ainsworth

The previously ignored books were either excellent from the start or they were not. Logic tells us that at least some of them were good all along. They just didn’t get the attention they deserved.

Most critics also tell us many best-sellers are not very good. Some are really terrible. How can that be? Why would hundreds of thousands of people buy and read a terrible book? I don’t know, but there could be several reasons.

A very famous person might have endorsed the book in a much-watched TV show or written about it in a much-read column or blog. The author could be married to a very famous person. The book could have such an outrageous plot and premise or characters that it arouses people’s prurient curiosity.

A publisher once seriously suggested to me that I follow the marketing example set by a former president who had written a book. After I stopped laughing, I agreed to do that if the publisher would come up with an advance and book tour like the former president had. To my astonishment, this publisher did not seem to realize that the man’s books sold well because he had been president—not because of a marketing strategy—or even the quality of the book.

I knew some of this when I sat down to write my first book. It’s all very unfair, of course, but life is unfair. Nobody is making us unknowns keep writing books that don’t sell well. Most of us are truly not in it for the money. My financial books outsold anything I’ve written since. If I was in it for the money, I would have continued to write in that genre. But I write what I am guided to write.

If we were in it for the money, we would do something that has a much better chance of making money, wouldn’t we? We could play roulette or the slots at a casino or go to the track and bet on the horses. John Steinbeck said, “Writing and publishing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.”

Still, I don’t know any writers who do not want their work to be read—and we want it to be read by a lot of people. Many of us would give away our books or sell them below cost if only they would be read. I do give away many books, but only for good reasons and when I believe they will be read. Otherwise, what would I say to the folks who paid for theirs?

So who will read what you write? In my book, A River of Stories, I quote from Charles Handy’s book, Myself and Other Important Matters. “Few took notice when John Jerome died, though he was the author of eleven books. Jerome’s brother-in-law wrote for the New Yorker magazine. He said that Jerome had once been bothered by his lack of financial and critical success, until he realized that the purpose of his writing was the pleasure he derived from the act itself.”

Alexander McCall Smith said, “The whole world is a process that is slipping away from us. Writing is often an attempt to respond to that, to capture the moment, to help to heal that sense of separation and loss.”

So what form should our writing take to garner more readers? Next time.

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