What makes a book become a best seller?

Voodoo dollMost people (by people I mean non-authors) think a best seller achieved that status because of its excellent writing and intriguing, complex plot. Most people would be wrong. Ask pretty much any author and they’ll tell you success is about who you know. Or Voodoo. Or it’s a cross between quality and luck. Or Voodoo. With the bulk of the likelihood coming from luck. Or Voodoo.

Anyone who reads a lot of contemporary books can attest that some of those at the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list would have better off served as bird cage liner, while other books stumbled upon in Amazon are true undiscovered gems. I’ve read books that should not only be on the Best Sellers list, they should be plated in gold and saved for future civilizations to admire and respect. And yet they flounder in obscurity near the bottom of Amazon’s ranking. (Note: it is flounder, not founder, but I had to look it up to be sure.)

Some may read this blog and say I’m just jealous. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t at least a little bit true. Every author’s dream is to have their books make it into the sales stratosphere. But it really isn’t about envy. I, and the other authors I know, are puzzled more than anything. How does a poorly-written book become the Next Big Thing, while authors with books that are superb remain undiscovered? Where IS that gravy train, and where do we buy tickets?

We know it isn’t about the difference between self-published vs traditionally published books. Fifty Shades of Grey started out as a self-published ebook. It took off and was subsequently snapped up by a division of Random House. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone languished in the slush pile of a publishing house, awaiting return with a rejection letter. According to an anecdote by J.K. Rowling, her book was randomly saved from doom when a scheduled book deal fell through, and a substitute needed to be chosen without delay. She was, quite literally, snatched from obscurity.

I see what you did there birdSuccess isn’t about the marketing money machine of a traditional publisher, either. Unless you’re a Stephen King, Michael Crichton, or J.K. Rowling, traditionally published authors have to do their own marketing almost to the same degree as those who self-published. All ambitious authors attend shows and do book singings at book stores and libraries. We promote our books online wherever we can — such as my including a link to The Case of a Cold Trail and a Hot Musket in my blog. We promote each other – I cannot thank author Larry Brill enough for recommending me to blogger Corina Carrasco. I am her featured author this month on her blog, Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.

I’ve recently participated in conversations in two different Facebook writers’ groups about this subject. The initial post in both cases was made by an author who ran across what is currently considered one of the worst lines in one of the worst books on the market. The specific line currently rated as the worst is “His eyebrows widen in surprise” from Fifty Shades Darker, the sequel to the equally questionable Fifty Shades of Grey. That line even generated an animated meme all its own. If I ever have a meme generated about one of my books, I hope I’d be proud to post it on my author’s page. I don’t think anything about eyebrows would qualify.

Eyebrows widen in surpriseBut “worst line” status aside, not only did both books end up as best-sellers, the first was subsequently made into a movie. Power to author E.L. James, who’s probably laughing all the way to the bank, waggling her widening eyebrows at the rest of us.

The members of the Lockhart Writers critique group sweat over every misplaced comma or use of the same descriptive noun or phrase more than a couple of times on a page. And certainly several of the authors in that group deserve Best Seller status. I’m hoping that happens. I’ll bring the champagne to help them celebrate. (Note: You won’t see it here, because I caught and changed it, but I’d used “couple” twice in this paragraph: “couple of times” and “couple of authors” – I could hear my fellow critique group members tsk-tsking in my ear.)

When I decided to write this blog, I couldn’t remember the specific “worst line” I’d read about, so I typed “worst line in” into Google. It auto-filled “fifty shades of grey” as the top recommended completion text option. I’m obviously not the first person to search for worst lines in the Grey books. There are dozens of articles and blogs dedicated to ripping the actual writing apart. CNN went so far as to publish an article Explaining Fifty Shades’ wild success, since most rational people can’t imagine how that possibly could have happened.

The CNN article pretty thoroughly explains the luck and timing of the Grey books’ financial success (in spite of 24% of readers on Amazon awarding the first book only one star).  The three primary conclusions in the article were: timing (following on the heels of the Twilight success), the theme (sex sells), and the packaging (discreet, tasteful covers). Nowhere in the article does it mention anything about the quality of the writing.

Book and magnifying glassPerhaps all is not lost for we authors who aspire to Best Seller status. A group of computer scientists from Stony Brook University in New York developed an algorithm that “can analyze a book and predict with 84 per cent accuracy whether or not it will be a commercial success.” They analyzed classic books from the Project Gutenberg archives to come up with their recommendations. The problem in believing in this algorithm is that Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker didn’t follow any of their recommendations, and yet the Grey books are one of the fastest selling series in recent history. So are we authors back to square one? Perhaps. Maybe it is mostly about luck, timing, and knowing the right people. Or maybe Voodoo. Where’d I put that box of pins…


  1. Tam Francis:

    Great points Janet. I agree, a lot of it is hard work and voodoo. And I will say that what we perceive as “good writing,” is subjective and all too subject the standards of the era and academia.
    I was NOT going to read 50 Shades of Greenbacks, but my mother, yes my mother, really liked it and encouraged me to read it.
    I did not always enjoy the sentence structure and some of the repetitive nature in her style, but she created an empathetic character in Christian Gray that I rooted for. So, although James’s book wasn’t academically “good writing,” she created an emotional connection with her readers and in the end, isn’t that what all ART is all about?
    One extra caveat. I think if you’re striving to be a better technical writer, reading these types of books would not serve you well, but if you want some entertainment, it’s like junk food, which I enjoy every once in a while. Most of the time I like homemade foodie food, but sometimes I just want a crappy Taco Bell Taco.
    Thanks for your insights and I too can’t help being jealous, but applaud any author who makes it because even the “not well written books,” are still a hell of a lot of work for the writer!
    I hope we’re both blessed with some voodoo :)

    ~ Tam Francis ~


    • janet:

      You are right about how even bad books take work. Let’s hope those pins work and good Voodoo mojo comes out way!


  2. Susanne:

    I stumbled across a comment you made on Facebook about your decision not to have kids and standing by it. At 35 I’ve made the same decision but wandered over to your profile to see what your life looked like sans children.

    What an inspiration you are, ma’am! I have always aspired to be a writer and you (unknowingly) pushed me to start. I’ve always lived with the fear of not being able to make “decent” money or a real living writing. Any advice would be welcomed. Thank you again for being a push in the “write” direction 😉


    • janet:

      Thank you! I’m so glad to have inspired you. Although I’ve been lax at my weekly blog entries, I have been busy finishing my latest novel. The best advice I can offer is to write, write, write. And read. A lot. And if you can find a critique group, join it. The Lockhart Writers Group has been so inspirational and helpful to me. We’re now just over two years together and I wouldn’t trade those folks for the world. All of my writing is better thanks to them.

      As for the childfree lifestyle, I wouldn’t trade it for the world, either. I write. I create pottery. My husband and I travel to Europe twice a year. And we donate lots of time and money to various charities and worthy causes. Our life is full, rich, joyful, and rewarding.

      Find me on Facebook and send me a Friend request!


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