If you’re a writer, it’s fair to assume you’d like to write a bestseller. In my 12-plus years of experience as an editor for a major publisher, bestseller status is the Holy Grail of the writing trade, and it’s not just an ego thing.
Hitting the bestseller lists is an emblem of the impact a book is having.
Bestsellers are not just about fame and money; in fact, writing a bestseller guarantees neither. They are about having an impact on society.
Bestsellers are world changers.
By definition bestsellers are rare. Whether it’s the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, or Publishers Weekly, the value of these lists is in direct relationship to the fact that they are limited.
So what does it take? How do you make it onto a bestsellers list? In this post I discuss the key elements to writing a bestseller, including a little known secret that can have a significant effect on book sales. Mind you, this post is not about how to buy your way onto a list. It’s about how to get there organically.
The makings of a bestseller can be divided into internal and external factors. Internal factors are those within an author’s realm of influence. External factors are those beyond the author’s control but which an author can still capitalize on.
An essential internal factor is platform. Platform is an author’s ability to promote his or her own book. The bad news is it takes time to build a platform. The good news is, if you’re willing to work hard over a period of time, an influential platform has never been more accessible than it is right now. Check out Author Media’s terrific platform-building tips.
Another important internal factor is excellent writing. It’s true that many well written books do not hit the bestsellers list. It’s also true that most books that hit the list are well written, especially those that stay there for a while. In short, if your book is not well written, it probably won’t hit the bestseller lists. My favorite books on the craft of writing are Stein on Writing, Bird by Bird, and The War of Art.
The Wild Card: Luck
One external factor is luck. How big a role luck plays in the life of any bestseller varies, of course, but let’s face it, some books get lucky. Oprah selects your book for her Book of the Month Club. A video or blog post goes viral. You can’t predict these things, they just happen. It’s important to note, however, that luck is often a friend to books that otherwise are worthy of attention.
The Little Known Secret: Write a Book the World Needs
This is the external factor that many authors don’t consider and is so, so important. If you write an excellent book and have a decent platform that you then leverage to promote your book, chances are the book will do fine. It will sell moderately well, and both you and your publisher will be happy.
To write a bestseller, though, often you have to say something unique that the world is ready to hear. In ancient Persia when recently crowned Queen Esther is deliberating about whether to intervene for the Jewish people before the king, her guardian, Mordecai, asks, “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Esther’s moment had arrived. Bestselling books are often those that have been written for such a time as this. Write a book whose moment has arrived.
How to Write a Book Whose Moment Has Arrived
Let me sketch out some possible steps for writing a book whose moment has arrived:
- Study all the bestselling books on your topic. Obtain a good working knowledge of the main things that have been said in your field of inquiry.
- Survey and interview lots of people. Do your research. Ask anybody and everybody what their thoughts are about your particular topic, particularly those who have written about it.
- Ask, “What hasn’t been said or emphasized that should be?” Based on all your research and intuition, what does the world need to hear?
- Ask, “What would constitute a watershed message in this area?” The message has to be both unique and sincere. We all know when someone tells us something that sounds too good to be true or smells of ulterior motives.
- Test the waters. Write some blog posts or articles that deliver your message. Don’t worry about letting the cat out of the bag. If your idea has legs, people will want a book-length treatment of it.
- Write the book. You’ve done your homework, composed your message, and refined your delivery. Now go, brave writer. Who knows but that you have come to your royal keyboard for such a time as this?
One More Thing
Let’s say you do all the above, and your book fails to hit the bestseller lists. Then all you’ve done is created a signal contribution to your field that will still help quite a few people. That’s worth doing no matter what.
Credit: Chad Allen