How to Write a Bestseller

Now that’s a question. Most writers would kill for the answer, and apparently, some dudes are trying to find some sort of link between bestselling novels – a certain formula shared by them.

First, novelist J.W. Hall tried his hand at this in his Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers, where he analyzed a few of the bestselling novels of the past years, including Gone With the Wind, Peyton Place, To Kill a MockingbirdThe Godfather Jaws, and The Da Vinci Code. Even though he didn’t find many similarities in terms of plot, characters, and settings, he says these novels share 12 different features, including protagonists who “act decisively” instead of “navel gazing,” and plots that waste no time setting up situations where readers are “drawn forward by the momentum of the unfolding story as one complication after another challenges the central character and the original dramatic question mutates into another question and another.”

Of course, he does say that his book won’t help anyone from writing a bestseller. How could it?

Maybe there are some common features, but there’s no formula for writing a bestseller. For once, trends change. Then, even though novels that have been selling very well in the past are doing so even today and will continue to do so in the future, current readers have different tastes than those in, let’s say, the 1980s. Political and cultural views are changing, and there are a lot of factors that alter the novel and force writers to constantly change and adapt the medium.

Let’s say, just for fun, that someone with an incredibly high IQ does spend years and years studying different novels, trying to find a sort of frame by which to build a bestseller. Let’s say he actually writes a good story. But then it all comes down to the one factor that is out of our control: luck. Even though sometimes chance isn’t the predominant factor, it does have a degree of influence on whether a novel sells or not.

But then again, the really interesting thing is that neither Hall, nor any of the other individuals who tried their hand at finding a formula for writing a bestselling novel, are bestselling authors themselves. Go figure.


  1. Laura Miller of Salon wrote a very nice article about this book,…. I think studying bestsellers to come up with a "recipe" for creating a bestseller of one's own represents a gross misunderstanding of statistics. Just because all bestsellers share characteristics X,Y,Z does not mean mean books with characteristics X,Y,Z are likely to become bestsellers. And it's really the latter that's the thing every aspiring writers want to know. The best one can say is that if X,Y,Z are necessary — even if not sufficient — for producing a bestseller, then not having X,Y and Z means foregoing selling megadom. I doubt that one can really pinpoint such necessary conditions, however. As you mention, luck and other idiosyncratic factors play a big enough of a role that for every rule proposed, counterexamples defying the rule are probably not hard to find.


    1. As an aspiring writer, I think that it's more important to have clear, realistic goals in mind. And writing a bestseller, unfortunately, isn't one of them. Nothing can guarantee sales, and this statement is valid for everything that has a price tag attached.

      What's even more disconcerting is the fact that there are writers out there who spend an awful lot of time studying the market – what sells and what not – and then trying to write novels to sell well under those trends. That's one of the biggest mistakes. Writing, as much as it's a craft, it's an art, and forcing yourself to write in a certain genre, or a particular type of story will undoubtedly lead to frustration. And, by no means, writing in a popular genre will guarantee success.

      And then, there's the part about trends — they tend to change awfully fast.


  2. Amazing. He (Hall) found out that you need to write an interesting story in order for people to want to read it. };->

    (Hey, Christian, thanks for visiting.)


  3. Thanks for your mention of my book in your blog. A couple of errors of fact:

    I spent 20 years reverse engineering the biggest bestsellers of the last century and found 12 recurring features. Not the ones you refer to here. Don't know where you got those. Also, most of my 18 novels have appeared on numerous bestseller lists from coast to coast and internationally. And many students of mine who took this course (Dennis Lehane, etc.) have gone on to bestsellerdom. I never promise in this book that using these 12 items will produce a bestseller. Nor do I say the features CAUSE a book to be popular. This book was about my own journey from snob to bestseller appreciator. As a by-product of my study of bestsellers I found 12 recurring features that I believe tell us a lot about why many Americans fall in love with particular novels. Ignore them if you like, or trivialize them. Doesn't matter to me. But they're there.


  4. Reblogged this on Salerosa and commented:
    Τελικό συμπέρασμα απ'όλο αυτό; Ακόμα κι αν είσαι ιδιοφυΐα και γράψεις ένα εκπληκτικό βιβλίο πάντα θα υπάρχει και ο παράγοντας τύχη που είτε μπορεί να σε ευνοήσει είτε όχι.


  5. I just want to write something I believe in, that I care about and a story that I love. I hope others will love it as much as I do…or at least like it…but I have never aspired to the "bestseller status". It's fun when I see one of my books on the Amazon MC Bestseller list, but I know that's fleeting. Something else will come along that sells well and knock my book off; but if I put a story out that I really believe in and love nobody can ever take that feeling of accomplishment away from me.


  6. I had the formula once, but I forgot to write it down. Now, I'm feeling kind of rejected.

    Agents reject me. Editors reject me. Publishers reject me.


  7. If a book as badly written absurd and poorly plotted as an 'erotic' novel based on Twilight can sell ten million copies there is no formula. That said, James Patterson certainly has developed a framework for best sellers. Not saying the books are good but they sell and he is able to get other writers to write within his framework for him. I think you can write a book that sells well based on formula, but they aren't good books, you can tell they are going through the motions.


  8. "But then again, the really interesting thing is that neither Hall, nor any of the other individuals who tried their hand at finding a formula for writing a bestselling novel, are bestselling authors themselves."

    Well said.


  9. Thank you for reading my blog. I feel as though I have just stepped through the rabbit hole into a whole new world.Terrifying and exciting at the same time. Where the writing goes doesn't matter as much as the soul knowing it must write. You seem to have a lot to offer for one so young. I'm looking forward to reading more.


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