How To Write A Bestseller

There are two secrets to becoming a bestselling author.

(1) Be fiercely talented.

(2) Release your first book no later than about 1990.

Today? The odds are roughly zero that you will sell a lot of books if you’re working on your first book now.

They’re not exactly zero. That’s an exaggeration. They’re just so close to it that the only way to see the blip in the chart for successful authors is by zooming in, mashing the plus button over and over, and jamming your nose up against the screen.

If you’re writing a book to get famous and make money, you’re setting yourself up for failure, unless you enjoy therapy, in which case, sure, dare to dream.

Don’t write for fame and fortune. Those are the wrong reasons.

Write because you will learn about yourself. When you write you will see the world differently.  Writing will make you feel excited, frustrated, happy, bored, angry, impatient, thrilled. You will feel like an imposter. You will feel like a hero. Write because when you open a box of books you will be more proud of yourself than anything has made you proud before. Write because the people who read your book, however many or few they are, will be enriched or excited or educated by your words.

It’s awesome.

But selling your book? Getting anyone other than your friends and family to read it?

Go down to the ocean with a spoon. Fill the spoon with water. Now try to get people excited about your spoonful of water. “Look, this spoonful of water is unique,” you will say. “No one has these exact drops! This spoon is special because I have chosen the drops. You can buy it cheaply. I might give it to you for free if you will pay attention to it for a few minutes and give me feedback.”

Many of the people you approach will be polite because people are nice. But not very many people are at the beach to start with, and the ones who are there are busy, and a few of them will look at your spoon and then look past you where there’s an entire fucking ocean and a lot of the water in it frankly looks better than what’s in your spoon.

When we finished Uncommon Scents, we set a goal of selling enough copies that we were sure someone read it that we did not know personally.

We cleared that bar. Barely. We threw a party using our royalties, which were enough for us to split a beer.

Only a handful of people have become reliable bestselling authors since the glory days when Stephen King and Nora Roberts and James Patterson began their careers.

I can give you a list that includes every author who has become dominant in the 2020s. Ready?

1) Colleen Hoover

Oh, sorry, did you think there were more? The publishing industry for the last couple of years is all Colleen Hoover, all the time. Sales numbers for her romance novels have tilted the entire industry. The New  York Times reported that in 2022 she had five of the top ten selling print books of any genre. At one time she held six of the top 10 spots on the New York Times paperback fiction bestseller list. She continued to be the top-selling author in the US in 2023 – without releasing a new book.

It’s good news if you’re writing romance novels or the new mashup, “romantasy,” blending romance and fantasy. One survey last year found that 87 percent of the top 100 sellers on one self-publishing platform were romance novels.

At least some books are selling! Maybe yours will be one of them. Your book is a special snowflake and you’ll make sure people find it when they step out into the blinding storm.

Over 2.3 million books were self-published on Amazon in 2021.

Imagine yourself in a crowd of 2.3 million people. The entire population of Phoenix has joined you in the desert for this experiment. Each person has written a book. It’s about a square mile of authors. Around it are a few million other people who are readers.

You’re in the middle of the crowd. Raise your hand. How many readers noticed you?

But you still don’t have the right mental picture, because each and every person in that square mile of authors is also raising their hand. I don’t care if you’re wearing Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet, nobody is looking at your hand no matter how much you wave and jump around.

Also, many people in that desert crowd are passing out from heat exhaustion and lack of water. Tell them to go home. They’re not going to buy your book.

Over 90% of self-published books sell under 100 copies during their lifetime.

Most of those self-published books are crap. Stipulated, your honor.

So let’s elevate your book. Imagine that an agent has agreed to represent you and your book was sold to a major publisher. It’s released by Penguin Random House or HarperCollins, say. (There are only five publishers.) You’ve made it!

The major publishers were forced to disclose sales numbers during an antitrust trial last year. The statistics were eye-opening for authors, in the same way that a jolt from a Taser might open your eyelids while you’re spasming in pain.

Effectively all the income in the publishing industry comes from a very narrow band of huge bestsellers. Just over 1% of books (around 500 titles) from major publishers sold more than 50,000 copies in a year.

And the rest?

Two-thirds of all the books released by the major publishers sold less than 1,000 copies in a year.

Fifteen percent of the books released by the major publishers sold under 12 copies.

Those aren’t typos. Those conclusions are from the lead industry analyst for NPD Bookscan. See the comment by Kristen McLean to this article, providing some perspective after even more alarming interpretations of the data in other news outlets.

I know you. You’re smart, savvy, calculating, willing to do the hard work of marketing your masterpiece. You’ve heard books are sold by authors on TikTok with the #booktok hashtag and how hard can it be to make some videos?

Aren’t you the social media princess! You’re absolutely right. #Booktok has hit one billion views. It has driven sales into the stratosphere for (1) Colleen Hoover and (2) romance novels. A sales assistant for Waterstones said, “I can’t stress how much BookTok sells books. It’s driven huge sales of YA [young adult] and romance books. The demographic is almost exclusively teenage girls, but the power it has is huge.” (emphasis added)

Oh, you’re not writing a romance novel and you’re not Colleen Hoover? Make some cute TikTok videos, it will help pass the time while you refresh the Amazon page to see if anyone else bought a copy of your book. But no one else will watch them and they won’t sell books. Five percent of videos on TikTok generate 89% of the views. Your videos about your book will go by unnoticed. (The numbers are even more skewed on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook.)

Let’s go back to the beginning. How do you write a best-selling novel?

You won’t. Neither will I. No one will who reads this, unless Stephen King is a subscriber. Hi Stephen! Call me!

Write a book, write a story, write a poem. Write what you love. Your voice has value, even if you’re the only one who reads the words, even if only five or twenty or a hundred people share your vision. Find other people who take writing seriously and give them respect. Accept praise. Learn the difference between meaningful criticism and reflexive rejection by people who aren’t interested in your genre, your style, your choices. (You’ll get a lot more of the latter. Most people aren’t good at feedback.)

Write for yourself.