If you’re like most writers, it’s probably not actually your goal to linger in obscurity for the rest of your life. Yes, writing for the sake of writing is its own reward, and many of us will probably continue writing whether we hit the big time or not. The odds, of course, are on not. But most of us would like to be the next big thing. We’d like our books to be read and loved by millions, have movie deals, and become household names. The odds of this happening are small, but we want it. Of course it’s not the ultimate goal of writing, and our reasons for actually writing are usually complex and layered, but most of us certainly wouldn’t turn our nose up at being on the NYT Bestseller list.
So, how do you write a bestseller? Certainly, you need to be good at writing and capable of telling a story that people want to read. But that’s almost the easy part. There are plenty of good writers who have never gotten very far. There’s more to it than your writing ability, unfortunately. A lot more. So, if you want to write the next great classic beloved the world over, you’re going to have to pay attention to the external forces that blow you around like a sailboat in a hurricane.
How to Achieve Bestseller Status:
- Write something trendy. The book business goes through trends. You’ve seen this happen–when a subject is hot, a thousand books about it pop up. When one writer hits the big time, a hundred books in the same vein as theirs will follow. That’s because readers suddenly want to see the same subject matter and devour as much of it as they can. The problem is, most of what’s hot right now was in the hands of editors a year or more ago. You have to be in on the trend before it’s trendy. If you can write fast enough (without sacrificing quality) and find the right publisher with the right turnaround time, you might still get in on what’s hot. You might also end up on the tail end of what’s hot when the market is oversaturated and readers are sick of it. It’s a gamble. How on earth can you predict what’s going to be hot, though? Publishers are not asking for what’s hot right now, they’re asking for what they think will be hot when your book is published. If they can predict it, so can you, to an extent. Pay attention to what’s on the fringes right now and looks like it’s about to jump into the spotlight. Keep an eye on the world of pop culture, and try to note the direction of the tide. You might be wrong, but you might get lucky, too.
- Write something tried and true. Some subjects hold pretty steady in popularity. Readers tend to devour mystery and suspense. Medical and legal thrillers still fly off the shelves. Romance continues to have a huge market share. YA never goes out of style. If you’re lucky enough to write in a genre with staying power, you have a better chance of getting to the top of the food chain, instead of writing something that plunges into obscurity the second you send off your manuscript. Of course, many genres have sub-genres that go in and out of popularity, so you need to keep your fingers on that pulse too. Aiming for a staple, rather than a trend, may get you better results. It’s less of a moving target, anyway.
- Create your own trend. If you write something innovative and unique, something that transcends and starts its own wave of popularity, that’s great. The problem is that a breakthrough subject is always uncertain, because it could be viewed as either brilliant or too off-the-wall to consider. There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are many unique ways of telling the same old stories that might capture someone’s attention. One thing I’ve noticed about books that start their own bandwagon is that the authors strongly and unapologetically believe in them. Even when the subject matter is handled in a way we’ve never seen before, the author tells the story with confidence and doesn’t back down from their vision. If you’re going to be unique, you have to have the guts to own it. Owning it sometimes makes a strange story more appealing than anyone could ever expect.
- Market yourself. This is a huge thing. Even if you write a brilliant, unique book in a subject that’s hot right now, it won’t sell if no one knows it exists. The unfortunate news here is that marketing yourself hugely and successfully means both knowing where and how to market to almost a supernatural extent, and it usually takes money. Sometimes a lot of money. You can’t get your book in front of the masses unless you pay to be in the place where the masses hang out. If you’re fortunate you’ll have a publisher with this kind of money, but maybe you won’t and it’ll come out of your own pocket. Think about everything in the world that becomes popular: books, TV shows, movies, the latest gadget or electronic. All of them were delivered to the public on the hype train, and tickets for the hype train are expensive. The bad news is you might spend a bunch of money, do a thousand cartwheels, and scream until you’re hoarse–and it still might not work.
- Get lucky. A while back, I wrote a blog post about the role of luck in author success. Make no mistake, luck plays a much bigger role than we want to give it credit for. Being in the right place at the right time with the right product is woefully underestimated. Everyone who ever got hugely successful did so with a nice heaping spoonful of luck. Sometimes the stars align, and what we wrote really resonates and hits the zeitgeist on the nose. If luck decides to tap you on the shoulder, that’s wonderful. If it doesn’t, well, you’re in vast and good company. Though we may be unlucky, we are many, and we have strong and broad shoulders for you to cry on.
Write what you love, and the rest will follow. Or, it won’t. But still keep writing what you love. Pray for luck, but don’t expect it, and keep an eye on what’s going on out there in the world. Fame and fortune is definitely wonderful, but the lack of it has hardly ever stopped anyone from writing. Good luck! Or, good marketing.