Hazel McHaffie

Creating a bestseller

I think I’m pretty realistic about my own potential as a novelist but it doesn’t stop me exploring the reasons for other writers’ phenomenal success. So I was intrigued by an article by Debbie Taylor, founder and editorial director of the women writers’ journal Mslexia, in the June/July/August edition. What is it about certain books that appeals to so many people that they become runaway bestsellers, she wanted to know? Ears pricked. Eyes wide open. Brain in gear. Is there any hope …?

Well, apparently researchers have textually analysed 20,000 published novels using a bank of 1000 computers (mind spins into boggle-mode) and come up with some answers. And such is the accuracy of their findings that editors and agents all over the world are apparently sitting up and taking notice. Well, you would, wouldn’t you, when ‘of the 55,000 new novels published in the US each year … just 200 reach the New York Times bestseller lists (0.3 percent) and only four will stay there long enough to sell a million copies (0.007 per cent)‘. An algorithm to improve on the odds? What’s not to like?

Ahhh, well … of course, there’s bound to be a strong cohort of discerning professionals in the real book world who’re understandably sniffy about an inanimate piece of kit being a better judge of literary merit than their finely honed, expertly trained, clever human brains. But Debbie T has stirred the pot and tipped in findings from a number of research teams and spread out a number of conclusions for us to taste and test.

OK, so what does make a runaway success? Four main characteristics to start with it transpires:

  1. One signature topic per author
  2. One of the additional topics should be in conflict with the central theme
  3. A recognisably realistic setting/characters
  4. Emotional closeness between the main protagonists.

Hmmm. Nothing revolutionary there, I’d say. Moving on … What about the plot? A variety of aspects can be compelling, it seems:

  1. Emotional roller-coasters for the characters and readers
  2. Plenty of peaks and troughs to maintain suspense
  3. A protagonist with conflicting impulses
  4. Larger than life characters
  5. A central dramatic quest
  6. High life-and-death stakes
  7. Several intimate viewpoints
  8. An interesting setting
  9. A high-concept what-if premise

In short, authors need ‘to think about what readers want‘.

  1. Stimulation.
  2. Entertainment.
  3. Emotional engagement.
  4. Hooks and cliff-hangers. The kind of breathless ups and downs that films and TV series are made of.

And if that isn’t all too depressingly obvious, you don’t even need to be able to string a sentence together elegantly. Staccato sentences, limited vocabulary, predictable plots, can make it to the mega-bestseller list because … and here’s the nub … if it’s to sell in its millions a book has to be read by people who don’t read much as well as by confirmed bookworms. Intellectual readers might sniff at the poor structure and lack of literary brio but as long as they’re addicted they’ll all want more of the same.

It’s a cruel unjust world out there, guys!!

Elsewhere in the same journal, novelist and short-story judge, Deborah Levy gives her personal take on why one writer’s work is more compelling than another: ‘In the end, it is about the mystery of that thing called Voice … it’s about the particularity of the writer’s attention: how she is looking and listening.‘ Yes, indeedy. A slippery something but we like to think we’ll know it when we see it.

Oh, and I must remember to drop a few hints in appropriate quarters … according to this same edition of my literary magazine,  Kate Summerscale‘s publisher sent her ‘an extraordinary profusion of flowers‘ to congratulate her on a new book deal! Hello? VelvetEthics Press are you listening?

Chance would be a fine thing!!

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