By Alicia Rasley
"This is a bestseller? I write way better than this!"
You've probably thought that. You've probably said that, after you finished reading the latest not-so-great bestselling novel. And that can be an effective way to get motivated on your own writing and submitting. Let's take our inspiration wherever we get it, right?
But there is danger also in fulminating about bestsellers. I hear it all the time, from my writing friends and the commenters on my blog (and I've been known to say it myself):
• "Wait a minute. Everyone says not to start with backstory, but this book does, and it's a bestseller!"
• "This bestseller isn't fast-paced. I thought bestsellers were fast-paced!"
• "My book is written better than this bestseller."
• "I used to read this author all the time. But since he's become a bestseller, all his books are sort of formulaic."
• "It's not fair. How come he gets all the publicity and talk shows, when this book isn't as good as half the books that die on the shelves?"
• "This editor just rejected my much better book. It's not fair! I should be the bestseller, not (Insert Big Name Author)!"
Hey, it's natural to kvetch. We're writers. It's our job to observe and comment on life. But I'd like to point out some ways it's futile and some times counter-productive to spend much time worrying about the worth or lack thereof of bestselling novels. So here follows my Top Ten Reasons Not To Wonder Why This Book Won't Make You a Bestseller Like (Insert Big Name).
1. Bestsellers are bestSELLERS, not "bestbooks." That is, they don't purport to be the best books out there. They just purport to have sold a lot of copies. And quality (or your or my judgment of quality) is by no means the primary criterion for selling a lot of copies. The fact that this book over here is a bestseller and yours isn't is no commentary on your quality. So stop feeling insulted by someone else's success.
2. Publishing is not a zero-sum game. The Harry Potter series proves that (and many other important publishing points). Harry Potter brought new readers into the publishing marketplace, and once having discovered the unique pleasures of fiction, most of them kept reading. Those weaned on Harry a decade ago were very likely the buyers of the Phillip Pullman bestsellers five years ago, and they're now buying the Jonathan Safran book. (I'm telling you—if anyone could have saved this industry, her name is J.K. Rowling, and every novelist should send her flowers.) And I bet during this decade, they didn't just buy bestsellers. Reading is addictive, and she got 'em hooked.
3. Bestsellers might create "constant readers," but constant readers don't create bestsellers. Okay, if an author has over twenty years and twenty books gathered a couple hundred thousand faithful readers, she might need no more than those to achieve the lower rungs of the bestselling ladder. But to reach the highest reaches-- #1-10 on the NYTimes list, say—usually the book has to attract a whole lot of buyers who are buying books as gifts for others, a whole lot of travelers looking for a distraction in the airport, a whole lot of customers attracted by a flashy poster and an author appearance on the Today show. Bestsellers attract an additional readership (or buyership, anyway) which tends to be more affluent, less experienced in reading fiction, and especially, more male than the sorts of readers who buy three books a month and keep their library cards in weekly use. What does that mean? Well, I'm not saying sexism is an influence here, but you want a NYTimes bestseller first book first time? Don't use a female name, and don't aim for a primarily female readership. (Women will buy books by male-named authors with male protagonists, but the reverse is seldom true.) (Yes, there are bestsellers with women's names. But usually those authors have been publishing many years and released many books before getting there.) Hey, folks, I don't make the rules, or those Joanne Rowling books would be titled "Harriet Potter."
4. These days, bestsellers are usually 1) the latest book in a longstanding series by a long-published author, or 2) highly promoted by the publisher because the concept of the book happens to be "hot" at the moment. If your book is neither, it might be terrific, get well-published, get a good advance, garner terrific reviews and lot of fan mail, but it probably won't be a bestseller. Can you live with "just" great reviews, lots of fan mail, and a book you're really proud to claim? Yeah? Me too.
5. Envy is ugly. Turns you green.
6. Don't use bestsellers as the excuse for slacking off. Never learn negative lessons from other books, like "John Grisham gets away with XYZ, so I can too!" Your aim should never be "getting away with something". Read the bestseller to find out what it did right, not wrong. What did it do that captured the reader's attention? If there's a hot premise or high concept, how was it unveiled? How long are the scenes and chapters? How do the scenes end, and how does that keep the reader reading? You'll learn more about bestsellers by assuming they're doing something really right, than from scouting out what they're doing wrong.
7. Bestsellers are, to some extent, a genre of their own, with its own expectations and conventions and genre voice. So even if a bestseller is nominally in another genre, you don't learn much about how to write a bestseller from reading non-bestsellers in the genre. To learn more about how to create a romance bestseller, read Nora Roberts, not Anne McAllister. Both are very good, but only one of them is a bestseller.
Remember what I said about the unusual readership? If you're writing for a less-experienced reader, you might highlight rather than conceal clues, ramp up the emotion, overwrite rather than underwrite. There's nothing wrong with this—you should indeed consider your audience—but there's no shame in saying that this kind of writing isn't what you want to do. If you want to write subtle, underplayed novels for a sensitive, even jaded, veteran reader, don't expect the publisher to give you the sort of promotion that leads to a bestseller.
8. There are, actually, some bestsellers that are subtle, underplayed, and aimed at the experienced reader. They're what we call "surprise bestsellers," and if you want that surprise, study those—Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, Frasier's Cold Mountain, the first Harry Potter. Notice that surprise bestsellers often come from much smaller publishers that decide that this is the book they're going to push this year. I wouldn't suggest kissing up to an editor, certainly not! But let me just say an aggressive agent and an editor senior enough to have a say in promotion will make a bigger difference in a smaller press. And they're more likely to make the push if you make known very early how willing you are to do publicity for the book.
You probably need a powerful agent who believes in you and the book—before you submit the book to publishers. The agent is the one who gets the publisher to make that big investment in you, so if you really want to be a bestseller, choose the agent wisely.
9. Bestselling novels don't necessarily make you rich. I know, good old JK is the richest woman in the world, but generally, your first bestselling novel can be traded for one late-model high-end Mercedes. The money and sales number differences between #20 and #4 on the NYT list can be extreme. Staying on the list for more than a week or two is where the money is. So if that's your aim, look at the top of the list, not the bottom. It's entirely possible to make more money with less stress in the midlist.
10. Bestsellerdom isn't as glamorous as you might wish. The expectations of the publisher increase a great deal when they've given you a big advance and promotion budget. You might have to attend many booksignings and library bookclubs, and be baffled at how you can make a bestseller by selling only two copies here, driving 100 miles, and selling four copies there. But the purpose is not selling so much as showing a willingness to promote and meet the people (booksellers and reviewers) who can start that all-important word-of-mouth promo going. No one thinks this is fun. A bestseller I know said that you shouldn't aim for bestsellerdom unless you're happy to get up at 3 am and drive to an interview with a Kokomo, Indiana, radio show, and it can't bother you that the interviewer hasn't read your book (except the sex scenes, which he reads aloud). Then again, her British publisher (don't you wish you could say that? "My British publisher.") put her up at the Ritz-London, so it's not all bad.
Don't just assume you want to be a bestseller and are a failure if you never make the Big List. There are other routes to big sales and big advances than quick bestsellerdom, and those might be more compatible with your career and life plans. Sit down and think through what your vision of success is, and what achieving that will really take, and whether that works with who you are and how you live. It comes down to this: Know yourself, and know your writing, and know what you really want.
Alicia Rasley has never made a bestseller list, but she has high hopes for The Richest Girls in Town, to be released by Bell Bridge Books, February 2011.
She has a bunch of typical writer jobs (high prestige, low pay), teaches at a community college and in an MFA program, and gives workshops online and throughout North America. Her writing articles are archived at The Writer's Corner, and she blogs about editing and writing at Edittorrent. Check out her writing books, The Power of Point of View, and The Story Within Plot Guide.
Roberta: thank you Alicia for all your words of wisdom! Questions? Comments? Alicia is happy to answer them...