How to be a best-seller

So, how do you become a best-selling author? Well, you write a great book, loads of people buy it and you hit the best-seller list, right?

Wrong. There are lots of best selling novels that aren’t really all that great, and there are lots of great novels that aren’t best sellers, so that can’t be it.

Come to think of it, how do authors manage to sell any books at all?

Imagine Mr Debut Novelist. He’s been working hard and has written his first novel – well done – and he’s managed to secure himself an agent (no easy thing) and now he has a publisher (amazing). The book is published to no fanfare and no marketing at all. It’s one of a zillion other books published that year and Mr Novelist begins his online campaign using his website, Twitter, Facebook, Blogging etc.

Wow. This is fantastic. The novel floats to the surface and bobs there for a while. There’s a quote from a best-selling author! There’s a nomination! There are a couple of good reviews in national publications! Real life proper bookshops buy some copies in!

But that’s not enough. Readers glance over those reviews because they’ve never heard of Mr Debut Novelist. The bookshops stick their copies in the A-Z shelves, spine out, where no one will find them unless they’re specifically looking (which they’re not, because they’ve never heard of Mr Novelist, remember). So people buy, but there’s no mass stampede at Waterstones, no clogged servers at Amazon. People aren’t jabbing at their Kindles or hurrying out to the bookshop.

So what is it that gets people worked up? What is it that brings a certain author’s name to the public eye? How do they become known? I really am intrigued by the ability of some novelists to shift huge numbers of their books – particularly debut authors who become instant hits.

Think of Audrey Niffenegger. Tom Rob Smith. Steig Larsson. Regardless of whether or not you like their books – how did they do it?

Is it word of mouth? Is it advertising? Is it witchcraft? Is it a combination of those things, all mixed in with a sprinkle of pixie dust and a fistful of luck?

So, Audrey, Steig, Tom, don’t walk away. We’re looking at you. C’mon. Fess up. Is it alchemy?


That’s all.

coming soon


8 thoughts on “How to be a best-seller

  1. Dan, you are a breath of fresh air! This is the reality. The illusion that getting published will change your life, bringing fame and fortune… or at the least, your books flying off the shelves, is one that grabs most of us at some point I think. The books flying off the shelves, with extra dosh winging my way, would be lovely. But when the shelves are stacked with those already big selling authors, the odds are already stacked against us. I definitely think magic and fairy dust are involved – and a big chunk of luck – writing the right thing at exactly the right time. It’s a good job we love what we do!

    • I know – it can be a little depressing when you see those established names hogging all the exposure . . . As you say, it’s a good job we love what we do. As for your comment about the illusion that being published brings fame and fortune, I remember telling someone the good news when I signed my first contract. In all seriousness, they congratulated me and asked when I was going to buy the Ferrari. Ha! There’s hardly enough to buy bread from the clearance section at Tesco . . .

  2. Thanks for posting this, Dan. So many people seem to think that a publishing deal = fame and fortune. In reality, it means… you get a book published. If you’re lucky enough get the fame and fortune bit along with it, that’s a bonus, I guess! But then, aren’t we lucky to get published in the first place? I certainly feel as if I am! 🙂

    • So you haven’t ordered the Ferrari then? Phew. Close call. And you’re right about being lucky. Of course, I think my books are good, but there is a certain amount of luck involved in the whole process – having just the right manuscript to land on just the right agent’s desk at just the right time. In any other mood, they might have rejected it. And then it’s down to them putting it on the right publishers desk and . . . well, you know how it works. But yes, I’m happy to have two published, one more coming this year and another in 2013 (I notice my fourth book already has a slot on Waterstone’s website!)

  3. hmm – getting it banned seems to work – thinking Da Vinci Code – or pretending there’s going to be a massive hype – like J. K. Rowling’s publishers did for Harry Potter. These amazing marketing campaigns must cost a fortune though and few authors are so lucky.

    I guess it is a lovely dream to get published and go and buy that mansion and Ferrari but then how many bands make it big and become rockstars? How many painters become the next Da Vinci? Think we just have to accept that artists are meant to suffer for their chosen craft 😛

    • I reckon you’re right about expensive marketing campaigns. I wonder who pays for them? The publisher? If so, I wonder how they choose which books to hype so much? Perhaps the controversy option is the best one. Maybe it’s a good idea to start being really offensive or get arrested or something. Suffer for my art? How . . . bohemian. Well, at least I’m not on the breadline and living in a garrett. Righto, I’m off to find my beret and frilly cuffed shirt.

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