A lot of people think bestsellers just happen. While some probably do, that is far from the norm. More often than not, bestsellers come from carefully orchestrated campaigns to create them. Whether accidental or on purpose, however, bestsellers emerge from the convergence of three different “fronts,” sort of like The Perfect Storm Sebastian Junger wrote about.
Unlike Mr. Junger’s book, I believe bestsellers come from the collision of three different storm fronts rather than just two. These three are rarely of the same size and strength—sometimes one is so good, it makes up for deficiencies in the other two—but I find all three are usually present. These are:
- the content
- the marketing/design, and
- public interest in the topic.
In my posts for the next couple of weeks, I want to take each of these and explore what I mean. This week, I want to talk about content.
“I couldn’t put it down!”
Good content—first and foremost—keeps you reading. Either the story sweeps you away, the ideas light a fire inside your heart and mind, or you get swept off your feet by the way it is written. Good content inspires what I consider to be the most powerful marketing tool for any product—word of mouth. Nothing sells like, “Oh man, I just finished this great book—you gotta read it!” The only thing that is better than that is books that inspire people to buy a dozen copies and give them away to friends because they were so moved or changed by the book.
There is no question in my mind that the most important thing about any book is its content (but of course, being an editor, I would say that—sales and marketing guys would probably say other things are more important, and often with good reason). Good marketing or the right author can drive a book to the bestsellers’ chart, but it usually doesn’t stay there very long. This is why it has long been said that “Content is king.”
What’s the difference between good and mediocre content?
And what makes the content of a book good? I would say a good manuscript, which, again, it is the interplay of a number of contributing factors, namely:
- The thoroughness of thinking behind the ideas, story, and the like,
- The quality of the writing (voice, flow, storytelling, etc.), and
- the organization, logic, layering, and flow of the presentation.
All of these work together, and should do so without the reader noticing. The ideas or story is well developed, logical, and coherent (writing is just thinking, after all); the expression is convincing and clear; the writing is personable, artistic, and yet unobtrusive; and the organization and layer of analogies, metaphors, etc. leads you naturally down a path you feel the author has traveled many times before you. This is what makes them a trustworthy and entertaining guide. Often, however, these things are noticed more when they are missing than when they are present. Good content draws you in almost hypnotically; bad content is jarring and confusing.
Making a book bestseller worthy
As a ghostwriting and editor, these are the factors I work on the most—and they rarely come easily. I have to spend some time in the world of the author and their thinking, striving to understand, express what they have to say clearly, and doing my best to sound as much like them as I can. If I have three months to work on a book, generally at least half, if not two-thirds of that is research and studying the author’s content. Each book is its own journey, but also rewarding.
It is my job to make every book a possible bestseller to make sure I have created the best expression of the author’s content. That is also why I believe ever book needs a good editor who can do more than just make sure all of the commas are in the right place. Editors who have been down the road of creating a book with great content have learned a thing or two every new author should know—why not take advantage of that expertise rather than having to learn it all on your own? Why not make your first book a success rather than waiting for your third?
What do you think? Have you come across books you love just because the ideas of the book were paradigm shifting for you, even if the writing wasn’t so great? Or what about well-written books that don’t say much? In your thoughts, what do you think makes a book that has great content?
One of the things that make me latch onto a book or article are great, memorable one-liners. An example is the book Visioneering. In the beginning of the book, the author states, “Everyone gets somewhere on life, some people get their on purpose”. I grew so much from the rest of the book, but it was this one line that really made the content stick with me. Whenever I write I try to find or create at least one line that is simple enough to remember and profound enough to be worth remembering.
Great point, Jacob. I always like to have those “sound bites” in the books we do, though I often find it is not a matter of creating them as much as finding or noting them in the regular writing process. For me, they kind of just occur, I don’t spend special time trying to develop zingers, but do feel them when they come in the natural process of writing.
Thanks for the info.
I’m curious to what would be considered a “Best Seller” in the 1700s and 1800s and what kind of comparison there is, if any.
A recent meme stated, “You know you’re a writer when you visit books stores to read the opening line of every novel to compare notes.”
Great question! I suggest reading the blog I posted a couple of weeks ago entitled, “Bestseller: ‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means'” for what I mean by it. 🙂 Here’s the link: http://killiancreative.com/bestseller-you-keep-using-that-word-i-do-not-think-it-means-what-you-think-it-means/.
As far as the 1700 and 1800s go, I don’t think it was really thought about. According to Merriam-Webster the first known use of the word bestseller was in 1889.
Personally, I find that voice is critical. I have to identify with and love the voice of the protagonist. If that happens I can overlook or put up with dicey layout. However, one thing is clear; if the writing is bad I won’t continue reading. Also, my attention span is such that if the author doesn’t captivate me by the first chapter – it’s doubtful I will finish the book.
Thanks for a great article.
True, true. Since I work mostly with nonfiction, I think more about clarity than voice, though. Are you thinking more fiction and memoir or nonfiction too? To me, voice is almost everything to memoir, very, very important in fiction (though maybe second to story), and it needs to be convincing (and not distracting) in nonfiction.
I always think back to books like To Kill a Mockingbird. Voice carries you in for 10 or so chapters, and then story takes over. I often wonder if that would have been enough to get it published today, though.