What makes a book a bestseller?

Jennifer Silva Redmond

by Jennifer Silva Redmond

I just finished an excellent read. It won’t win any big international book prizes, but it is in on the NYT bestseller list, and will stay there awhile. It’s by that guy whose name you all know, all of whose books show up on the NYT list of B.S. (best sellers, of course!).

I read all kinds of books in my work—not only to keep up with publishing trends (if such things actually exist, food for thought for another post)—but because I enjoy an eclectic array of words, from memoirs to literary fiction to bestsellers that are purely for fun.

Bottom line, this book was very hard to put down. Since I read the last line I’ve been wondering just what makes a bestseller a bestseller. I came up with a multitude of answers, including luck and timing, but here are my top five:

1. Excitement: Pacing is key, there’s no doubt about that…However, if you simply write a lot of end-of-chapter cliff-hangers, with no payoff, then readers will catch on; some would say that the aforementioned bestselling author is the master of what I call the “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” trick—it does works, if there’s enough meat to each chapter to make them worthwhile (not just interruptions for the sake of it), and, of course, it is a style that keeps you reading.

2. Entertainment: To paraphrase the great Sol Stein (Read his Stein on Writing), we writers must never forget we are in the entertainment business. My problem with a great deal of post-modern “literary” writing is that it seems steadfastly un-interested in story, or in entertaining readers. We want to feel, to laugh, to gasp, to find that we are holding our breath…to be enthralled.


Really good writing: Yeah, sure, you betcha…it’s gotta be there, but it’s number 5 out of 5 on this list for a reason.


3. Characters we can relate to: That doesn’t mean that we all think we are kick-ass heroines like Katniss Everdeen or Lisbeth Salander but that we can relate to some major aspect of their character (or his character, in the case of most every detective, ex-cop, federal agent, or brilliant psychologist in a recent book). Who has not felt they were an outcast in some way—that they did not fit in at home or at work? Who does not have one or more “issues” from their past they prefer not to discuss?

4. Payoff: You gotta deliver! The thing that unites all bestsellers, from the run-of-the-mill to the brilliant is some sort of emotional payoff, a resolution, a wrapping-up of plot lines and stories. Not all good books do this entirely, and certainly genre novels that are part of an ongoing series often leave a few sub-plot lines dangling and one or two major character dilemmas/personal issues unsolved. But the literary ride has to have taken us somewhere, not just showed us great scenery.

5. Really good writing: Yeah, sure, you betcha…it’s gotta be there, but it’s number 5 out of 5 on this list for a reason. Great writing helps, but is not essential—and sometimes it even gets in the way. One of my favorite writers over the years was Mark Helprin, someone who’s a prolific writer of gorgeous prose, but who has only briefly shown up on any bestseller lists in his lifetime. Story comes first, along with the other four ingredients here (and, hopefully, good luck and perfect timing, too!)

Jennifer Silva Redmond is a freelance editor and publishing consultant, as well as a popular writing instructor and speaker. Long-time editor-in-chief and acquisitions editor at award-winning Sunbelt Publications, she teaches at the Southern California Writers Conference, San Diego Writers, Ink, was prose editor for A Year in Ink Vol 3, and co-founder of the critically acclaimed Sea of Cortez Review. Her essays, articles, and fiction have been published in anthologies, magazines, and books, including Latinos in Lotusland and A Year in Ink; More info, a select list of edited books, and client testimonials can be found at www.jennyredbug.com.

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