Certain About Uncertainty
I’ve been reading The Making of a Bestseller: Success Stories From Authors, and the Editors, Agents and Booksellers Behind Them by Brian Hill and Dee Power. This book contains some interesting insight about bestsellers. One aspect which is emphasized repeatedly is the unpredictable nature of bestsellers. Everyone would like to do something in particular and know for certainty that a book will become a bestseller. You can be certain about the uncertainty of bestsellers.
Here’s a partial answer from Neil Nygren, Senior Vice President, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief for G.P. Putnam & Sons to the question, “Have you ever gotten a manuscript from an unknown author that you were sure was going to be very successful?
“Absolutely. There is no such thing as an absolute sure thing, anymore in this business.; But there have certainly been lots of times when you see something and say, ‘Now this, this is commercial, this ought to work.’ Obviously Doubleday thought that when they signed up John Grisham…There are some writers who just have it. Many, many years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, when I was a younger editor for a different publisher, I read a manuscript called Storm Island. It was a World War II thriller, and it, too, just had a sure command to it. There was something about it. We wanted a more distinctive title and changed it to Eye of the Needle (Ken Follett), and there you are. That’s what you’re always looking for, what you’re always hoping for.”
Is there any consistent factor to what becomes a bestseller?
One theme which resonates throughout this book is good story—and it’s extremely subjective what constitutes a “good story.” Or the writer’s voice is another factor. Jennifer Enderlin, publisher at St. Martin’s Press said, “it all begins with a strong voice. Voice is the one thing that can’t be taught. It’s the author’s own fingerprint, their unique storytelling style. Writers with a strong voice are the ones that emerge from the pack.” Or a few pages later, Karen Kosztolnyik, Senior Editor at Warner Books said, “It really comes down to the voice. If an author has a really strong voice, even if they are telling a story that has been told a million times before, it can draw me into that story. The voice is so fresh, new, original, I feel like I’m reading the story for the first time, even if it’s a classic story line.”
For a book to become a bestseller, it has to — sell. The task of editors and publishers is to attempt to predict those sales. As Daniel Halpern, Editor-in-Chief for HarperCollins says in The Making of a Bestseller, “The truth is, unless it’s very obvious, you don’t know what’s going to sell an what’s not going to sell. Some people have a good nose for the book that is going to sell, can ‘sense’ it has commercial possibilities. Others have a sense of ‘literary merit,’ which may or may not sell but has value beyond track. You can have a wonderful novel that sells 7,500 copies and another very good novel that sells 75,000 copies…There are so many elements, and a huge part of it is luck.”
If it was predictable and simple, then it wouldn’t be so hard to achieve. Whether it is fiction or nonfiction, it comes down to a great book as the basis. While you may not be able to predict whether your book will become a bestseller or not, you can work on the craft of the storytelling and create excellence.