Formula for Success


Because blockbuster bestsellers—the books that sell in the millions of copies—are rarely as well written as they are widely read, there is a popular notion among writers and non-writers (and occasionally, trained monkeys with typewriters) that “anyone could write one.”  I’m skeptical.

The mysterious X factor that causes a book to catch fire is neither easily predicted nor replicated, much as publishers try. Bestsellers cannot reliably be manufactured, not even (as many people suspect) by outsize marketing and promotion budgets.  I worked for the house that published scores of bestsellers, including The Bridges of Madison County and the Notebook, but that same house also rolled out the red carpet for seemingly commercial novels that vanished, taking their marketing dollars and NYT ads with them.


Laura Miller’s column in Salon http://www.salon.com/2012/05/01/recipe_for_a_bestselling_book/singleton/ looks at Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers. In it, novelist James Hall attempts to isolate the winning formulas of “twentieth century megasellers.” He considers a list of twelve: Gone With the Wind, Peyton Place, To Kill a Mockingbird, Valley of the Dolls, The Godfather, The Exorcist, Jaws, The Dead Zone, The Hunt for Red October, The Firm, The Bridges of Madison County and The Da Vinci Code.

I’m keen to read his analysis, but I just don’t believe that it can yield much insight into the black box of blockbuster bestseller-dom. What do you think? Can reading taste be quantified in any meaningful way?



2 Responses to Formula for Success

  1. Diana says:

    Donald Maas in Writing the Breakout Novel analyzed and identified what makes a bestseller. I wonder if this new book will reveal anything he hasn’t already said.

    This is something that I have given a good deal of thought to. I think that the difference between literary fiction (those that literary type people enjoy reading) and popular fiction (those that the rest of us enjoy reading) is that literary fiction is how the story is told and popular fiction is what the story is.

    As an analogy it is the difference between riding Space Mountain at Disney World and examining the rivets to see how it is built. Most people enjoy the ride. Engineers are fascinated with the way it is built.

    I enjoy reading popular fiction. When I read criticism about Dan Brown or any other popular work, I am bewildered at the criticism. Recently I realized that the literary critics focus on how the story is told. When I read a book, I don’t care what words are used to tell the story. If they yank me into the story and don’t let me go until I get to the end, then that to me is a good book, and one that I will read again, and one that I will tell my friends about. I’m looking for the experience of immersing myself in the author’s story to the point where I don’t notice punctuation, grammar, typos, or the choice of words. If I notice those things, then the story isn’t holding my attention, and I will probably put it down and not finish reading it.

    Rowling has been criticized for overusing adverbs, but I have read the Harry Potter series many times and I have yet to notice the adverbs. Even picking up one of the books knowing that others have criticized the books for too many adverbs, I don’t notice them.

    Of those twelve books that he analyzed, I have read Jaws, The Firm, Gone With the Wind, The Da Vinci Code, and The Hunt for Red October. And what those books all have in common is that ability to yank the reader into the story and not let them go until they get to the end.

    It’s a different way of reading and enjoying a book. If you’re the kind of reader who notices typos, punctuation errors, grammar goofs, and the choice of words, then it will be difficult to identify a potential bestseller.

    That’s my take on the situation.

  2. Lena says:

    Maybe he should compare the 12 with another 12 that failed ;-D

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