Towards the end of this year’s San Francisco Writers Conference, a first-time author cornered me over coffee. “So what exactly makes a book a bestseller?”
He was asking the million-dollar question. It comes up somewhere along the line at most writers’ events, and I wish I could give a straightforward answer. Then again, if I could, I probably wouldn’t be sharing the key to that particular goldmine.
I can say there’s an ‘X factor’ that makes people respond to a particular idea at a particular time. That quality is easiest to define by what it’s not: it’s not jumping on the bandwagon of recent bestselling books, it’s not a ‘formula book’ created to meet the market. So if you’re asking the ‘bestseller’ question, most likely you’re looking in the wrong place.
I work in non-fiction, particularly life stories and ‘ideas books’ with a strong storyline. In that area, here is as close as I can get to the five ingredients that make – if not a bestseller, certainly a great book.
- Passion – the difference between the casual idea ‘that would make a great book’ and ‘this is the thing that makes the blood flow through my body’.
- Clarity – a vision for what this book is, what it does for the reader.
- Story – even if you’re writing a business book or the history of your company, think of it as telling a story – where are the turning points, the defining moments, the highs and lows? Where are you taking the reader?
- Commitment – once the book is written, your job is done, right? Wrong. You need to ‘own’ that book long term, being ready to talk about it, write about it, at the drop of a hat.
- Voice – the ability to capture a breathtaking ‘voice’ on the page. Cormac McCarthy has it, Geraldine Brooks has it. It takes work and some writers never get it.
When all five of those factors come together, it’s a beautiful thing. On top of that you need the complete package of a well-produced book (be it print or digital) with a standout cover and knockout marketing.
One thing that jumps out from this bunch of five is that a great book has as much to do with the author and their temperament, determination and motivation as with what they write.
The kind of work I do these days is about injecting ingredients 2, 3 and 5. If someone is struggling to pinpoint their vision for the book, or figure out where their story is going, or lacks the literary chops to come up with the goods, that’s where someone like me can add value. Sometimes – most times, really – a bestseller is a team effort rather than a solo achievement.