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?