Bestseller Formula: heart, mind, and guts

Becoming a bestseller would be many an author’s greatest fantasy. But, is there a formula?

Some would argue that focusing on becoming a bestseller is like shooting yourself in the foot–you’re not going to become something you’re chasing after by focusing exclusively on that object you’re chasing. That is, focusing on writing a bestseller means you’ll be too concerned when writing on how to make that book a bestseller that you’d ultimately fail because you’re focusing on the wrong things.

Others argue that there are distinct features of bestsellers, characteristics that make it “easy” to understand what makes the book and readers tick, and lands that book on a bestseller list.

In doing some research on what makes books bestsellers, and reading up on expert opinions, I found an NPR article that seemed to distill bestseller features into a 12-item list. Here are some features of that list:

  1. The book focuses on some major issue of its time, e.g. race in Gone with the Wind, or politics in The Hunt for Red October. 
  2. Broken or fractured families and relationships
  3. Protagonists who are outsiders to whatever society they live in or what to become part of.
  4. The American Dream, whether praised or condemned, is a motif of the books.
  5. Secret societies, e.g. The Da Vinci Code, and even Twilight, with its secret vampire societies.
  6. Wishful thinking, a la Fifty Shades of Grey.
  7. Power to connect with readers through mind, heart, and gut. That is, you have to appeal to the intellect, the emotions, and the senses of readers. This, I’d say is the key.

Doing some more research, I found an article listing out what John Baldwin discovered of bestsellers. He was struggling, but was determined to write a bestseller, and took to studying books that had already made the list. What he found was that bestsellers tended to have these characteristics in common:

  1. The hero is an expert. It could be magic, weapons, love, whatever the book centers on.
  2. The villain is also an expert.
  3. The villainous parts of the book have to be seen from the villain’s POV.
  4. The hero has to be backed up by experts of other fields. This makes me think of the show, Arrow, where the main character, Oliver, has a team made of up Felicity Smoak, John Diggle, and others that come on as the show proceeds.
  5. Those on the team must fall in love with each other, at least one couple.
  6. At least two of those on the team must die.
  7. The villain has to turn his attention to the team, away from his original intentions.
  8. Both the hero and the villain have to be alive to battle each other in the sequel.
  9. Any deaths have to progress from individuals to groups. You can’t say that xxx amount of people died in the plane crash; you must start out with “Jack and Jill died as the plane exploded,” and then move on to the group as necessary.
  10. When the plot begins to stale or hit a block, kill somebody off.

However, this list can be applied to both bestsellers and selling failures. At the end of the day, it is creativity, uniqueness, and a melding of genres into a mix that make the best books. I think the more human the book, the better. Human can mean different things to different people, but the more relatable, the more emotional, the more depth, and the more expression a book contains, the better it will be enjoyed for generations to come.

*Note: This article was originally published on January 12, 2016.

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