..was a non-fiction essay I submitted for The Writer’s Handbook competition. I was a finalist, named on the website and got a few now very well read creative writing books as a prize. Not written as someone who can write bestsellers, but as someone who loves to read them!
Thought I would share it with you – as I am trying to devote as much time as possible to the NaNo style challenge I’m embroiled in currently.
Hope you enjoy – would love to hear your thoughts.
Have a great weekend…Nikki
Get Published Competition: What Makes a Bestseller? (Submitted as Veronique Moorcroft)
The author who can write a bestseller has a rare gift, one that should never be underestimated. The publishing world is a notoriously competitive one, so a book must be exceptional not only to make it into print in the first place, but for it to then sell enough to reach the heady heights of the bestseller list.
A bestseller can offer us magical escapism from the mad, bad or sad realities of modern life. It will enable us to be anyone, go anywhere, and do anything. We will reach for it in the morning when we first wake up; we will read it in the bath; on the train; in our lunch hour – when we will feel resentful about returning to work because we are not ready to leave that captivating world behind; on our sofa in the evening, and in bed at night, when it may be the last thing we think about before going to sleep. We will wish that we are part of the story, the hero or heroine, and we will be disappointed when we have finished it, put it away and have to return to our own world.
A bestseller will also offer pure unadulterated entertainment – it will make us laugh out loud, create a warm buzz, fill us with fear or longing, take us on a rollercoaster ride of action, or make us cry with sadness. Ultimately it will help us fill our leisure time.
Occasionally, bestsellers come along that go further, providing enlightenment and inspiration – opening our hearts and minds in a way that we, as readers, never thought possible. These books will teach us about people that will or have overcome the odds to survive, or do something extraordinary with their lives. They will teach us a lesson, whether it is about empathy and understanding others, or giving us hope and resolve to make important life decisions. They may, in some small way, enable us to be better people.
What makes a book a bestseller?
So many and varied types of books, fiction and non-fiction, have made it to the bestseller lists that it could be seen as indefinable. At present, on fiction and non-fiction paperback bestsellers lists¹ there are: teen novels, cookbooks, historical, thrillers, children’s books, crime, exposes, memoirs, literary works…
What do these books have in common? Whether Fiction or Non-Fiction, they have to be interesting, tell us something that we as the reader want to know, in a tone that keeps the reader intrigued.
Non-fiction can be a bestseller because it is by, or about, a celebrity or it’s set in a notorious place or event. If it centres on a person in the public eye, it can be someone who is loved, admired, or even sometimes, reviled (never underestimate the power of the true-life anti-hero, their foibles and fables can be addictive).
In the case of the non-fiction bestseller that’s a fairly factual affair, e.g. a recipe book which is endorsed by a celebrity, the pull of the name can be enough to make it a bestseller. For instance, are Gordon Ramsay’s recipe books so popular simply because we like the recipes and find them easy to follow? If they were written by a chef who was virtually unknown, would they sell in the same way? Doubtful. But because they have the GR brand on them, and because he is, love him or hate him, a strong willed individual who can behave badly and be contentious but who, let’s face it, is a grafter at heart, his books sell – because we know the story behind them. We know him.
The point is – the attraction that the buying public has to those celebrity biographies/endorsed bestsellers is grounded in the fascination that we have for them as a ‘real life’ character, in the same way that in bestselling fiction, readers have a fascination for the main characters or protagonists.
The most successful books have strongly drawn characters that are believable and compelling in some way, characters that will live on in our memories and hearts for years to come. How many people still remember Rupert Campbell-Black in Riders, some twenty-four years after the fact? (The ultimate anti-hero perhaps?) To how many millions of people in the world is the name Robert Langdon familiar? Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice almost two hundred years ago? Shall I rest my case?
Focusing on the fiction bestsellers, what makes one person love a book, could make another person hate it. The difficulty in writing a book that is unique enough to capture a reader’s imagination and outsell others, without alienating large proportions of a potential audience, has oft been noted.
The Da Vinci Code, one of the biggest selling novels of our time, was openly criticised and condemned by the Catholic Church (several years after release in 2003) because the idea that Jesus had a child and that one of his relatives could be walking among us, was contrary to their interpretation of the Bible. The number of people buying The Da Vinci Code could have been limited by this view and Roman Catholics, accounting for over one billion potential purchasers, might not have bought it. Instead, what it did was provide additional PR for Dan Brown and his book (perhaps proving the maxim that ‘no publicity is bad publicity’?) so that people wanted to read it to see what all the fuss was about, which resulted in a higher volume of sales. In fact what has truly made it a bestseller is that it is recognised as a smart, well written and gripping thriller with mysterious conspiracy theories contained within it, which leaves the reader thinking, ‘what if?’
So, ultimately a bestseller must have some kind of mass appeal. Bestsellers can be a normal story told in an unusual way, an unusual story told in a normal way, or occasionally an unusual story told in an unusual way! There are however some common denominators:
What every bestseller must have is bullet-proof plotting; the story within it must make sense and captivate us or we are more likely to hurl it against the nearest wall than tell our friends and family that they must go out and buy it immediately. If the plot is too contrived, that is, so unbelievable that we cannot immerse ourselves in it even when we suspend our disbelief, or if the plot is not contrived enough and too thin, then we will not be convinced or involved. We will not be able to either embark on the journey of escapism, or be enjoyably entertained for the period of time that we hold the book in our hands. A bestseller is the finely tuned balance and weaving through of reality versus fantasy. And the story cannot be a series of stand alone events; everything that happens must be linked, must flow on seamlessly, as if the author has sat down and written it all in one go. A well plotted novel will grip us so that we find it hard to put down and for as long as we read it, we are always wondering, what happens next?
A great sense of pace is also an absolute essential. The action/emotion needs to be maintained but not rushed as if the author couldn’t wait to finish writing the book because they’d had enough of it. If that’s how they feel about it, how can they expect us as readers to feel differently, and love it?
If the pace is too slow, then we are likely to grow bored, causing us to feel as if we are wading through treacle as we read, and turning what should be a pleasure into a pain. We will skip ahead, hoping to get to the ‘good bits’ or we may abandon the book altogether. Not a recipe for a bestseller.
If the pace is too fast, then it can confuse and perplex the reader, leaving us feeling uncomfortable and anxious. Everyone likes a thrill and to feel as if a book has us gripped, however we do not want to feel as if we are about to plunge off the edge of a sharp embankment backwards without knowing why.
Great characterisation is probably the most important element of a bestseller. We need to be fascinated by all characters, whether primary or secondary, though the primary characters are the most vital. The main characters must be well rounded and we must be able to see them as real people, individuals, not caricatures or stereotypes. The heroes or heroines in bestsellers take us on an emotional journey with them, so they must be believable, they must, like real people, have strengths and weaknesses, so that they are three dimensional. We must want to be their friends and hang out with them; we may even feel that we want to live with them, or that they have become a part of us.
They will have something about them that draws us to them, whether it is because they are similar to us in some way, so that we identify with them easily and understand their actions, or because they are so different to us that we can learn from, and with, them.
Even if sometimes what a hero/heroine does can anger, shock or revile us, the bestselling author will find some way to justify their action, so that they do not alienate us. It can be delicious and dramatic to read about the exploits of the anti-hero/heroine, but what will make the character and book work in the end is that the anti-hero/heroine will have something redeeming about them. This will be either something that has been hidden from us throughout the story so that we have questioned their actions and motives with every turn of the page, but makes sense when all is revealed, or it will be what they have learned during the course of the story that has changed them profoundly and causes them to ultimately act in a way that we will be sympathetic to. We will genuinely like, love or hate these people and treasure our experience of sharing their story.
Finally, author ‘voice’ is an important but understated part of what makes a novel a bestseller. The author must impart information to us in their own unique way, without lecturing or smothering us with their own intellectual or moral views. They will impart that information through the characters and settings. They will use captivating language that will convey the right amount of emotional or physical intensity. A good author voice will subtly but surely let the characters and the plot develop or finely craft them so that the story feels organic; it will provide their characters with action/emotion and sharp dialogue that helps move the story along, it will draw for us places and environments that we might not be familiar with but will be vividly described in such a way that we can feel as if we are really there. As well as the plot, pace and characters drawing us into their thoughts and their world, it is the author voice that is responsible for creating a comfortable and safe setting in which we can free ourselves to get ‘lost in a good book.’
So, what makes a bestseller?
A successful mixture of plot, pace, characterisation and author voice. No one can know what the vagaries of the book buying public will be at any time, and a bestseller may become so almost immediately, with lots of fanfare, or slowly but surely over the passage of time.
One thing is certain – with what a bestseller can offer to a reader, be it the magical escapism and the yearning for a different life; or astounding entertainment, laughter or tears, fear or hope; or a discovery about love, life or death, a bestseller is what is truly deserves to be. A book that is most loved.