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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