Saturday, 27 April 2013

X-Factor That Sells Books

While it’s fairly self-evident that there’s more to creating a bestselling novel than good grammar and a well formatted manuscript, working out exactly what it is that lifts one book above the crowd is not so obvious.

It should also go without saying that I’m not going to be providing a magic bullet at the end of this post that will turn your book into a million-seller.  But then the experts in this field, the publishers and agents, have no better idea of what the secret ingredient to a popular book is either.

I don’t mean to be snide (even though I do find it very easy), I’m simply referring to the numbers. Of the thousands of books carefully selected each year because they reach the high standards expected by the industry, which are then polished to a high sheen by the top editors in the business, 90% make no money.

So I decided to take a look at the really big sellers of recent years just to see if there were any common factors they all shared. The following will be highly scientific so please have your slide rules and nerd glasses at the ready.

First, I just wrote down the first thing that came to mind when I thought of the books that have made the biggest splash over the last few years:

A boy goes to wizard school.
A girl fights in a competition to the death.
A clue in a painting leads to the Holy Grail.
A sparkling vampire falls in love with a schoolgirl.

At this point I thought, Well done, Moody, you genius you. You’ve spotted the link: a person does something unusual or dangerous. Quick, clear some space for the Pulitzer.

Then I got to this one:

A journalist uncovers some nasty family secrets with the help of a punk hacker, plus lots of rape.

It occurred to me that although the investigation into a rich families dark side would probably have made a successful novel, the x-factor in this particular book was the girl with the tattoos.

And what makes her so special? She’s a gifted computer hacker, she’s treated very badly, she gets her revenge in no uncertain terms.

This set me to thinking about the other books. Harry is an expert wizard, but treated very badly by his family.

Katniss is an expert archer, but endures great suffering.

Robert Langdon is an expert cryptologist, but I’m not sure if I can find any great disadvantages he’s faced.

Bella is the reverse, suffers greatly (even when there seems little to cause it), but has no expertise.

For the Da Vinci Code, I would say it follows a detective model, perhaps in the Sherlock mode. There it’s the mystery that maybe adds the x-factor.

With Twilight, it’s a romance novel, and so it gains from the crazed hormones of young girls.

But with Hunger Games and Harry Potter, and also Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, they present an interesting mix of brilliant and abused, expert and underdog. Could I have found the magic bullet after all? No. But maybe something to consider with your main character.

If they're expert at something, is everything else against them? If they're downtrodden, could they benefit from an ability no one else has?
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. if you can think of several examples that prove I'm talking rubbish, let's pretend I never said anything. It's been a long month.
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20 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Food for thought though - trying to find the link that would make one story rise above others.

mooderino said...

@Alex - something to chew over.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I really do think there's a sense of magic to it - everything comes together at just the right time. If there was a practical solution, everyone would be applying it. Oh, and I always have my nerd glasses ready. :)

Lexa Cain said...

I've been twirling a new idea in my mind, and I found this post very helpful when deciding on character and plot. Thanks for the great post! :-)

Botanist said...

I think you've pointed up a few things that lift some works above the crowd. On top of that, though, I reckon there's a measure of luck and timing too. The novel not only has to be good and unique in an important way, it has to hit the market in a way that resonates with a lot of people.

Krista McLaughlin said...

I would definitely say suffering has to be included. No book with unicorns and butterflies only have ever sold well. Except maybe a children's book. It has to have something painful a reader might connect to.

Patricia Lynne said...

Maybe this is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the world: what makes a book sell. Will we ever figure it out? I doubt it.

mooderino said...

@Madeline - it does help to be lucky.

@Lexa - cool, glad my ramblings helped.

@Botanist - it's tough having such a big thing out of your control.

@Krista - now I'm trying to think of a successful book without suffering. Sherlock Holmes suffers from very little other than from boredom.

@Patricia - but if i could just find out and then bottle it...

VikLit said...

Really interesting, it has certainly given me food for thought!

R. Mac Wheeler said...


Two factors, I can think of:

- accident

- luck, as in, "The harder I work, the luckier I am."

Clara Kensie said...

Very interesting: "If they're expert at something, is everything else against them? If they're downtrodden, could they benefit from an ability no one else has?" Lots to think about. Thanks for a great post!

mooderino said...

@Viklit - it would be cool if there really were a secret ingredient.

@Mac - yep, sounds about right.

@Clara - you're very welcome.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Interesting topic to think about. When I wrote romance, there was a specific formula to follow and it seemed like sticking to it was the best way to make a success out of a story. But now that I write YA, the factors are so diverse, it's hard to tell what's going to resonate. Guess I'll just keep writing and see what works :)

mooderino said...

@Cindy - I guess it's trial and error for most of us. I wouldn't mind a hint, though.

Lynda R Young said...

Yeah, I do a lot of novel analysis (because I can't help it) and that xfactor really can't be broken down to just one thing. It's usually a collection of 'things' and sometimes it's simply the initial timing.

mooderino said...

@Lynda - a lot of it seems to come down to timing and other things you can't really control.

C. Lee McKenzie said...

It's always exciting to follow a story about someone whose special talents either bring them down or save their necks.

mooderino said...

@C. Lee - or maybe both.

The Wicked Writer said...

I can never figure it out either. Looking forward to your Z.

Nigel Mitchell said...

The X-factor, I think, is the extraordinary. It's not just about a boy wizard; it's about the extraordinary journey he makes to become a wizard. It's not about the young girl who fights to the death; it's about the extraordinary obstacles she faces and things she is forced to do to survive. Even the girl who loves a sparkling vampire encountered an extraordinary man who did extraordinary things.

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