Thursday, June 13, 2024

What Makes a Bestseller?

I’ve written about bestsellers before and I’m not here today to go over the same ground; I’m going over the ground right next to it, so you may have to look closely to see the difference in terrain.


I don’t read a lot of bestsellers and I sure as hell have never written one, so sour grapes is the obvious motive for these posts. I also make a concerted effort to continue to learn and today I’m primarily concerned with what makes a bestseller, or doesn’t. (Yes, my name on the cover places it into the “doesn’t” category. I’m talking about more general things.)


First, and most important, a bestseller has to have a good story. It doesn’t much matter what the story is about. Could be boy wizards, vampires, hobbits, doctors, war, childhood, parenthood, anything. Whatever the story is, it must make it easy for the average reader to continuously suspend disbelief, allowing them to reside in a place where they can imagine themselves somehow involved in the story. To use John Gardner’s phrase, to create a “vivid and continuous dream.”


This is aided greatly by having relatable characters. Not necessarily likeable characters, though those are best for large volumes of sales. The characters need to be people – or animals or aliens – the average reader can relate to in some way so they will care what happens to them. How the author does this is far less important – if important at all – than being successful at it.


Another thing most bestsellers have in common is they were written by people who have published other bestsellers. The single most important determining factor as to which book a reader will buy is author name recognition, especially if they have read this author in the past and liked the book.


I hate to bring up this next one because publishers try to do everything they can to avoid it, but good marketing certainly helps. Authors are more responsible for this all the time, and those with existing platforms are the most likely to get the big advances, but it’s safe to say a book cannot sell a hundred thousand copies if fewer than a hundred thousand people know about it.


Last, and far from least, is luck. Any bestselling author who tells you luck did not play a significant role in her or his success is lying to at least one of you. No less an authority than Dennis Lehane makes no bones about the fact his career took off when a clip of Bill Clinton carrying a copy of Mystic River was shown repeatedly as part of an ad for 60 Minutes.


Capturing the zeitgeist is part of this. Some books, and authors, barely miss blowing up because they’re either a year too early, a year too late; or the timing is right but the mix of ingredients is half a bubble off the sweet spot. No one can predict this. Hitting that sweet spot is akin to winning the lottery. Yes, you have to buy the ticket, but a lot of people bought tickets. The author’s unique and unmatched talent is not likely to be the determining factor.


What a bestseller does not need is to be particularly well written. We’ve all read bestsellers where the dialog is wooden, the similes are execrable, the description overflows with adjectives and adverbs, and the plot has more holes than St. Andrews. How does this happen?


Because the average reader doesn’t care about that shit.


Notice how I’ve been talking about the “average reader?” That’s because they are who buys books in sufficient quantities to create a bestseller. I venture a guess that at least 90% of those who read this blog are writers. Make peace with this right now: writers are, by definition, outliers. What we look for and care about in a book makes as much difference to the average reader as the weather in Poland does to a raccoon in North Carolina. These people don’t give a shit what we think of a book; they know what they like.


And they’re right to do so.


Life is short, and too many things compete to see which can make us the unhappiest. Everyone chooses books based on the qualities they enjoy most when reading. Writers may care more about the writing than the story; that’s okay. It’s also okay for someone who has worked an eight-to-ten-hour day, taken care of urgent household chores, and helped the kids with their homework before getting them off to bed to pick up a book solely to escape for half an hour before falling asleep.


I still don’t read many bestsellers for all the reasons I have expressed over the years. I have also learned that I am an outlier and take pains not to ruin anyone else’s enjoyment of any book, no matter what I might think of it. Entertainment is subjective and I can read with no one’s eyes except my own. Whatever you read, enjoy it. Life is too short not to.


seana graham said...

It's an odd coincidence, but what you say in your last paragraph is almost exactly what I was saying to friends in my reading group yesterday. We were talking about a recent bestseller, which some of them were looking forward to, and another had said she had read about forty pages and returned it to the library. I said that I had read it and agreed with her but was reluctant to say more, because I didn't want to influence other people who might not care about the reason I had been disappointed. And being pressed, I all but shouted, Reading is subjective and I don't want to ruin something you might actually enjoy!

Which I believe and in the case of this book, more than usually so.

Dana King said...

Thanks, Seana. I learned years ago to keep my criticisms to myself when dealing with others who might not look for the same things as I when walking out of a symphony concert years ago. The people in front of me clearly loved the performance, but their “friend” ran it down all the way up the aisle. I could see their enthusiasm lag as she went on. She ruined what had been an entertaining experience for them. Since then I never have anything too critical to say outside of my circle of friends who will understand where I’m coming from.