The Ingredients of a Best Selling Book

 

by Doug Lewars

 

Best seller lists are tricky. They can be manipulated and sometimes are. Nevertheless, they do serve a purpose. For one thing, I suppose, they inform people of what other people are reading, thereby generating a sort of herd effect that might drive up sales, but more importantly from a writer’s perspective, they provide a touch stone as to what readers are interested in.

I examined the New York Time’s best seller list and made the following observations. I can’t call them conclusions because this is not a statistically significant sample but, the categories adventure, mystery and romance accounted for almost 70% of the fiction on the list where mystery encompasses detective novels more so than whodunits. Some people might have used the term ‘thriller’ where I used ‘adventure’.

Interestingly, I selected a couple of books in the ‘adventure’ categories and when I checked on Goodreads, a number of the reviews were less than enthusiastic; however, there was one quote that caught my attention. The reviewer only gave the book a 3 but wrote, ‘If he keeps releasing them I’ll keep reading them’. Therefore it seems that if you can get a series going and achieve some acceptance you have the wind in your back going forward.

In terms of non-fiction, 36% related to the culture war and politics while an additional 18% involved the culture was and feminism – which, in its own way might be considered politics. That’s a total of 54% which is huge when you consider all the non-fiction topics that might be considered. Add to that another 27% that I would classify as self-absorption and others might call self-improvement and you’ve got 81% covered. Therefore if you plan to write non-fiction and you want it to sell then select any topic that might be political in nature or relate to the individual.

Another source of data and one that is unfiltered, unedited and not summarized comes from Overdrive – the public library’s collection of e-books. If you go to https://toronto.overdrive.com/ and scroll right to the bottom, you’ll come across a link of the form: Check Out What’s Being Checked Out Right Now  It will allow you to watch e-books being held or checked out in real time. Frankly it’s a bit of a time waster and it’s almost hypnotic in nature but it is a viable source of data for what interests a subset of the public.

I took a sample from this stream – 151 titles that flashed by. Of that 60% was fiction and 40% was non-fiction. Within the fiction category 36% was part of a series.  Again within fiction, 21% was mystery, 29% was romance and another 11% was thriller. The remainder were such things as fantasy, sci-fi, personal or family discovery, a couple of horror stories and one vampire.

Therefore, presumably, if you want to attract readers write a thrilling, romantic mystery, add a little erotica, incorporate it in a series and they’ll sell in droves. On the other hand, there were only two books that I classified as humour so don’t be facetious or your readers will flee. Unfortunately I like to write mostly humour, or, if I’m writing fantasy, I try to incorporate some humour along with the more dramatic stuff. C’est la vie.

Within the non-fiction sample, 50% were some variation of self-help, 19% were culture-clash and 14% were cook books. I found that last number amazingly high seeing as just about any recipe can be found online; nevertheless, it appears that people really do like to explore food related books. I employed a fairly broad definition of the term ‘self-help’. So for example, I classified books giving business or investment advice in this category. There was even one ‘how to write creatively’ in the category that I thought was a nice touch.

As I noted at the outset, this is not a sufficiently large sample to be statistically significant although 151 items may large enough to be reflective of library patron’s preferences. That, however, does not imply that such preferences can be related to sales. Nevertheless, I think it is possible to conclude that one cannot underestimate self-absorption and therefore offering to feed the mind, the life, the psyche, the career or the stomach of the individual is a pretty good way to obtain market share at the book counter.

This sort of thing is interesting but I’m certainly not recommending changing genres or styles to be commercially viable. If financial success is your objective then some of this might be useful but on the other hand if your objective is financial success then I suggest you find a career other than writing.

 

 

     

Guest post contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing and sweets of all sorts. He has published ten books on Smashwords.com.

 

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