View Full Version : What makes a bestseller?

09-05-2007, 11:02 AM
I have been blessed with the task of helping an established journalist prepare his nonfiction book for publication. The contract is already signed, he received a nice advance, and the book is scheduled for print in 2008. I've been working with him since April 2006.

I am now in a position where I can have a significant impact on this book, both in terms of the content and the writing.

My burning desire...and my life's purpose right now...is to help make this book a bestseller...so that the journalist becomes a millionaire.

How do I do it?

What constitutes a bestselling nonfiction book?

Why do certain books flop...and others sell like hotcakes? What is it about those successful books that makes people want to read them?

What are the best nonfiction books you've ever read? Did they make you cry? Give you goose bumps? Change the way you see the world?

If you were going to *write* a bestselling book, what steps would you take? Would you use visualization exercises? Hypnosis? Subliminal messages constantly reminding you of your task? What would the process entail? (Excuse any over-simplification my questions might imply.)

Thoughts/ideas welcome...

09-05-2007, 11:06 AM
Michelle, what kind of book? Self-help, memoir, how-to...?

Congrats on the assignment!

09-05-2007, 12:14 PM
Thanks Jenna. The book is a profile of two killers...comparable to Capote's In Cold Blood. You could say it's a "non-fiction novel" about murder and its aftermath.

09-05-2007, 04:05 PM
Michelle, I think for a book to be a bestseller, it needs to have BROAD appeal and a "catchy" title doesn't hurt, either. Have you heard the statistic that the average book buyer spends about 20 seconds (don't have the exact #, but something in this range) poring over a book cover and book jacket, before deciding whether or not to buy.

Also you mentioned nonfiction novel. I am a nonfiction person and I don't buy novels, period. I think it is best to decide before hand whether or not your book is fiction or nonfiction and then apply a marketing strategy. Fiction is a much tougher sell in today's market.

By the way, the subject does sound interesting, best of luck!

09-05-2007, 04:16 PM
If fiction, look at 'The Alienist' by Caleb Carr for how they did it. If non-fiction, I think look at any of the books written about real-life homicidal maniacs and you'll get a good feel for what works.

Don;t feel under pressure because YOU won't be making your friend a millionaire: if it's anyone it'll be the marketing department of his/her publisher...:D

Lauri B
09-05-2007, 05:17 PM
From my perspective, the best nonfiction books are those that take enormous amounts of research and turn it into exciting, effortless narrative (which sounds obvious but is incredibly difficult to do). One book that does this amazingly well is Candice Millard's 2005 release, The River of Doubt. It's about Theodore Roosevelt's journey down the River Duvida in Brazil in 1914, and she manages to weave in unbelievable amounts of information about Roosevelt, exploration, Brazil, early 20th century politics, the ecology of the rainforest, native people and their customs, geology, and much more, all while keeping the adventure story going at a really great clip.

if you've never written a book before, remember to pace yourself and don't worry about getting bogged down in the middle. Everyone does. You'll come through to the end just at the moment when you think you're never going to manage it.

09-06-2007, 06:30 PM
Nomad, You have me intrigued by the title you mentioned, thanks, I'm gonna order it right now. My favorite nonfiction book is a memoir, by Rick Bragg, "Ava's Man." With his descriptions you feel as though you are right there beside his family hearing the stories for the first time. Yes, sometimes nonfiction writers take liberty with the facts adding detail that may or may not be available, but you must mention this in a disclaimer for the reader!

09-07-2007, 06:23 AM
I might be splitting hairs but are you asking how do you WRITE a book that is of literary best-seller quality or how do you market and promote the book to become a best-seller? These are slightly different objectives. Some of the most beautiful books I've read are not on the best-seller lists. Meanwhile, cr*p that should have been disposed in the slush pile can become a best-selling title and make its authors "rich." Something to think about.

09-07-2007, 07:56 AM
I might be splitting hairs but are you asking how do you WRITE a book that is of literary best-seller quality or how do you market and promote the book to become a best-seller?

I am interested in the writing process, not the marketing process. i.e., creating a piece of work that resonates with millions of people -- how does one go about doing that? What qualities would such a book have? I have my own ideas but thought I'd ask members of the forum. I wish Janet Fitch was a member. She did it quite successfully with White Oleander (although that's a different genre).

09-10-2007, 05:35 AM
My brother's and my stories seem to resonate with lots of people. The "resonating" is, I suppose, a product of both our writing skills and our publisher's editing skills.

But writing does not make a bestseller by itself. You need media exposure.

These are the factors that are most likely to place a book on the bestseller lists:
1) Broad coverage on network television. Appearances on Today, Leno, Oprah.
2) Broad coverage in mass market magazines. People, Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek, Time, etc.
3) Many reviews in major newspapers. NY Times, USA Today, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, WS Journal, etc.

Some other things that make a bestseller:
1) Placement in the front of bookstores, where everyone sees it
2) Promotion by an excited publisher sales force
3) Extensive trade promotion to give the book buzz before it reaches the public

All the things I mention above have two prerequisites. 1) You need a well written book to garner the attention and 2) You need a powerful publishing house and a well connected publicity department behind you.

Now, to the heart of the original question, how do you write such a book?

You must develop or be born with a storytelling voice. You must be articulate, well spoken, and polished. You have to tell stories that make listeners laugh or cry or feel something strong, and you must be able to translate those stories into written words that maintain the same power.

For an example, go to my blog and play the clip from my audio book. It's on the right side of the page.

aka eraser
09-10-2007, 05:56 PM
It's simple. Just write a book that keeps people turning pages until well past their bedtimes. They'll tell their friends. And those folks will tell others.

And so on.

You're very welcome. ;)

09-10-2007, 06:41 PM
I think when it comes to non-fiction, it's really about tapping the cultural undercurrent of the time. Look at the subjects of the story and think about what a reader will learn about them, and themselves, through the reading of the book. Was the killing a huge media circus? Was it a shocking crime in small town America? Were they driven to do it by an addiction to Play Station? What's going on right now that makes this story relevant?

There are many ways to capitalize on the quality of the original story (most were mentioned above), but if the concept underlying the whole thing doesn't resonate with the current cultural climate, it won't ever be a best seller.

Just my 2.

09-11-2007, 06:09 AM
Pete is right . . . the concept must resonate, but media support is critical, too

09-11-2007, 06:19 PM
Hoooo boy. I think those of us at smaller houses are hoping we can compensate somewhat on the marketing budget side of things with a great story and compelling narrative style!

I've got a marketing team behind me, but my chances of being on Oprah or Leno -- or covered in Time or Newsweek -- are probably slim to none, though I'd like to be nicely surprised. And placement in bookstores is a bit of a racket. We'd all like to be on that front table, but smaller houses have a bit of an uphill battle (not saying it doesn't happen, but it IS a bit of a struggle for smaller budgets). Still, we're all for uphill struggles!

Anyway, getting back to the basic question of what makes a bestseller, I tend to lean toward Nomad's position: densely researched, but told in a compelling narrative style. Davd McCullough does it well, and Robert Caro's Master of the Senate, IMHO, does it about as well as it can be done for such a dense topic. He also picked a good underlying conflict to set his narrative against -- the passage of a voting rights bill -- that provided an underlying tension and excitement, which also gave the reader "characters" to root for and against. It's so well done you hardly realize you're being completely immersed in dense Senate procedure.

The worse biography I've read was one by a biographer I enjoy -- Antonia Fraser -- but I found her biography of Oliver Cromwell to be incredibly turgid, almost in the vein of, "on this day he woke up and did this, and on the next day he did that." Didn't work for me. If I want that, I'll read his diary.

Just my two cents (four cents Canadian).

09-11-2007, 07:01 PM
Sunnyside, I didn't mean to disparage small houses. It's just that the top 8 houses print more than 90% of the books on the bestseller lists in America, every year. So the 2,000+ small presses do fight for a tiny fraction of the market, but some superstars always emerge.

While Nomad's description applies to some bestsellers, a look at the list will reveal that there more variety. The suggestion that a bestseller needs immediate cultural relevance is supported by the lists.

09-11-2007, 07:44 PM
Cultural relevance is, I suppose, part of it (and I'd be interested in knowing how we in this group might gloss that term). But that's a tough row to hoe, because what might be culturally relevant today may not be by next week. And one man's cultural relevance might not be my cup of tea, even if it is considered relevant (I don't want to read about drunken heiresses, or lip-synching burnt out poptarts. Now, a closeted Congressman, though...I might read that...) But then taste is always a funny thing.

I still think quality of the writing counts, regardless. I mean, who would normally want to read a book about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge? All that engineering and math! But McCullough's The Great Bridge is just so darn engaging that you can't help but get caught up in it. And it was a bestseller -- a moderate one, but still...

I guess where we all might be splitting hairs is in the difference between writing a "best selling nonfiction book" (which is the question at hand) and writing a "great non-fiction book," which was not the question. In that case, I would certainly agree that cultural relevance can help make a non-fiction book a best seller, as can a powerhouse publisher. But a great non-fiction book (that isn't "culturally relevant") can also be a bestseller -- the two are NOT mutually exclusive.

Maybe that's really the only place where I'm disagreeing with you, John -- because for the most part, I do think you're right, in that cultural relevance can translate into "best selling." It's like the debate you often see among movie fans about why some movies -- even junk -- become blockbusters, while smaller, independent films might receive critical acclaim, but never quite break through. (That can turn into a rant against "studio mentality," and I'm actually not one to fall into that. But the debate is similar.)

I think the point I was trying to make is that cultural relevance + media support might equal bestselling non-fiction book . . . but there really is, and should be, more to it than that. I'd like to think a great book (even sans cultural relevance) + media support (yes, I'll always grant you that one!) also equals bestseller. Doesn't always happen, but then a culturally relevant book with media support doesn't always equal bestseller, either. As in everything in this game, it's a matter of taste, a matter of talent, and no small matter of luck.

But then, whatta I know? I haven't had coffee yet.

09-12-2007, 07:06 AM
Great books can sell steadily for decades. Relevant books can sell huge numbers, as long as they are relevant, which is usually a few years. On rare occasions, you get a book that is both.

09-12-2007, 04:13 PM
Well put. Now that I'll agree with!