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Writing a Bestseller


It's every writer's dream.

To write something that sells millions and pretty much guarantees you a place in history. Now that's sweet - the idea of it anyway.

Of course, you have to remember it's every publisher's dream too.

I read a publisher's blog recently that said that even in the US, it was rare for any author to sell more than a few hundred of their own books - and only then if they were lucky.

I know that mainstream publishers with worldwide distribution often have trouble selling the first print run of what they call their 'B List' authors - a title which pretty much covers the majority of us!

That's the reality. For every bestselling author that sells millions of copies of their book, there are perhaps a thousand, more likely ten thousand other authors who get by selling barely enough of their books to justify their publishing deals.

Many career writers who receive (often small) advances on their work usually don't start making money for their publishers until their third or fourth book - after slowly picking up a fan base and perhaps some critical acclaim.

Fact is, the bestsellers pay for the rest of us. 

Without the likes of Twilight, Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code, there simply wouldn't be a publishing industry, which would no doubt collapse overnight if it had to survive on literary merit alone.

I guess there's always cookbooks and celebrity biogs to fill the shelves. Apart from the bestsellers, sadly, that's where the real money is. And, so publishers believe, in their list of already signed authors - who are writing what? Probably not bestsellers.

So don't be disheartened by your next rejection. When they say "your book is not quite right for our list," what they mean is they already have a thousand other 'ordinary' books to try out first.

Publishers basically hunt and peck on the principle that they really just never know which one will surprise them - and become a runaway success. 

The reality is that bestsellers have a habit of surprising everyone: their authors, the media and the publishing companies too.

It's been said often that publishers are pretty bad at spotting bestsellers. You only have to look at the number of them that have been rejected many times before they were finally published - and usually by some small house that has no idea what they've got their hands on!

If anyone has an inkling of what a bestselling book looks like, it must surely be us writers. After all, it's we that write them.

It should therefore be in our own interest to know what a potential bestseller looks like. 

In the movie business there's a whole industry built around teaching writers how to write effective blockbuster movies - to a kind of formula.

(Okay, if you don't like the word formula, think of it as a set of conventions that are necessary to make a movie work for a large audience.)

The sheer size of the film industry and the lure of the millions to be made with a movie has effectively necessitated the need to teach writers how to do it 'properly'.

Why, I wonder, is there no similar resource for novel writers?

I mean, it's not as if you need to be a great literary talent to write bestsellers. As Ken Follett says, it's enough to be literate - that is, to be able to string a few sentences together.

Bestseller writers are routinely criticized for their lack of literary finesse - but surely that's to miss the point.

It's the story that makes a bestseller. The story, the characters, the setting - and the big idea.

Isn't it about time somebody instructed ambitious writers on the fundamentals of writing potential bestsellers?

I think so. That's why I put together my latest writing course. To teach novelists the basic conventions contained within all bestsellers. And if you think there's no rhyme or reason to these things, you'd be wrong.

There are glaring similarities between all bestselling novels - but as writers, we often can't see the forest for the trees. We get so involved in the writing process, we fail to see the big picture.

And the reality is that you really can plan, create and manufacture a potential bestseller. (Assuming you are literate of course.)

There are conventions that always work. There are indeed templates - just like you'd use to write a screenplay - that a writer can use to hang their own novel on - and make their story look and feel and read like a bestseller.

I think sometimes the whole publishing industry is a little too precious about writing. Because they can't do it themselves - let's face it, they'll always need us - they attach a misguided mystique and significance to what they regard as 'good' writing that clearly doesn't lend itself to finding bestsellers.  

It's my ultimate mission to change that perspective - even if I have to spend forever doing it!

In the mean time, I want us writers to show them our own potential bestsellers - and let them work it out for themselves!

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell
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