The Unbearable Truth of What Makes a Best Seller
Why are some books or films huge hits, and others not? There's a saying in Hollywood that goes something like this: If anybody knew what made a hit - every movie would be a hit.
You know it. I know it. Everybody knows it. Life isn't fair. Or even logical.
Sometimes great stories just don't rise to the top. Why is that? How can we keep writing if we aren't motivated by the dream that our book will be the book everybody is talking about?
We think about things like luck and timing when we think about projects that are successful, or books that just "catch on".
The truth is manifold. First, nobody really knows why some things become very popular (this article has some insights) but importantly, writers with more, higher quality output are more likely (no guarantee, even then) to find themselves with a piece of material that does well.
Very often, we think of writers who have been very successful in a kind of bubble, as if that writer just came out of the blue. Elizabeth Gilbert is a good example. She had written for years before Eat Pray Love took the world by storm. There really is no such thing as an overnight success.
Clarify Your Goals
Writing is a long game. Writers who jump into it for fame or money are motivated by the wrong things and bound to be disappointed. You have to write from your heart, and you have to write because, well, you just need to write. That really should be your starting point. You have something to say.
But you must be clear about your goals. Are you writing your book as a way of achieving some emotional catharsis or insights for yourself? That's a great reason, but will the book be valuable to others? Maybe you are writing your book because you said you would, as a life goal. That's another great reason to write a book - but will that story also have insights, entertainment and value to others? If the answer is you don't care - great - just be clear about your expectations.
Most writers have many reasons for writing a book. But if one of your reasons is that you think others would also enjoy the story, the journey and the lessons within, you must, at times, put on your business hat, and find out where your story fits in the marketplace. What other stories are people reading about 18th century China? What other memoirs are people reading about having overcome difficulty? Is your story unique?
Nobody can guarantee - ever - that your book will be a big success. There are so many moving parts, not all of which we can control. How good is your writing? Do you work with an editor? Are you aware of the market for your book? Do you have a writer's platform? Will the topic you've written about just so happen to click with the zeitgeist? Do you write project after project, to increase your odds? Do you write great queries and synopses of your work? Why do some books catch on and others do not? There are so many factors here, that we just cannot control.
But you can commit to writing often and writing well. Make the time. Be clear about your goals for your work. Always be improving. Read good stuff. Take classes. Work with a great editor. Invest in yourself. Become aware of the marketplace. Read book reviews. Take the time to understand where your story fits into the big picture.
After that, guys, there are only two things we know for sure: writing is about your behind in the chair, and beyond a limited understanding of what readers seem to want - we just don't know. We have to write for the sheer love of it.
If you use that motivation - a love of writing - you can't really go wrong. Maybe your manuscript will become a best seller. Maybe it won't. Maybe it will only be read by a few hundred people. But even then, the impact of your story, upon individuals who are transported, entertained or moved to think about things in new ways - is inestimable in and of itself.