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Everyone who writes wants to write a bestseller. They may tell you they don’t, that they’re just writing for themselves, that publishing their work was just something they wanted to do just because. They rationalize their lack of becoming a bestseller by criticizing the publishing world and the lack of marketing dollars put towards marketing their books (if they’re published), the readers out there not appreciating their genius, not buying their genre, or that there are just no more readers reading well-written books.

They bash fan fiction. They bash Amazon. They bash the bad reviews they receive on Goodreads, Barnes and Noble (and every other site where you can leave reviews), and they bash other books that are selling for a variety of reasons, some of which may even be semi-valid. You don’t hear too much except shock and appreciation from the actual bestselling novelists.

I’ve never written a bestseller. I’ve met authors whose books have become bestsellers, and they’ll admit that a large piece of it happening was due to luck. Bestsellers are like white tigers; obviously they exist, but in terms of the overall population, they’re rare. However, according to an article on, a data scientist in 2018 analyzed the sales pattern of books and came up with some interesting statistics. For example, “Eight-five percent of best-selling novelists have landed multiple books on the list.” Personally, I thought the percentage would have been less than that. But as the data scientist points out, “A quarter of those . . . have only a cameo appearance, briefly grabbing a spot at the bottom of the list and dropping out after a single week.”

It’s the white tigers of the white tigers that hold on for more time than that, and if you read fiction, you probably have heard of the novels that have held on for extended periods of time. Some of these books include The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, which stayed on the list for 598 weeks, Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing, which stood for 168 weeks, and The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, which stuck around for 131 weeks (and, by the way, got rejected by sixty literary agents over three and a half years before being picked up by an agent). Pretty amazing all around.

“Bestseller is a manipulated term. If you want to be a bestselling author, take out a $100,000 loan and buy 15,000 of your own books from Amazon.” – Patrick Snow

Something a lot of us writers don’t realize, as well, is that you don’t have to sell a million copies of your novel to make it to the NYT bestseller list. It depends on how many books you sold that week in comparison to how many books other authors sold. As the article explains,

“The majority of titles on The New York Times best-seller list only sell between 10,000 and 100,000 copies in their first year.”

While that may sound like a lot to the majority of writers out there who don’t sell anywhere near that, it’s not a lot generally speaking, compared to the number of books sold each year. Another factor is when your book gets released. Timing impacts the number of books you must sell to make it onto the list. “In February or March, selling a few thousand copies can land a book on the best-seller list; in December – when sales skyrocket during the holidays – selling 10,000 copies a week might not guarantee a book a spot,” says the data scientist.

Clearly there are a lot of factors that play into whether or not a novel makes it to that prized 15- or 20-spot list on the New York Times bestseller list. What that means is, it’s improbable you’ll ever see your name and book on there. Not impossible, just improbable.

So, which genres sell the most books? According to, here’s the list:

1. Romance/Erotica - $1.44 billion

2. Crime/Mystery - $728.2 million

3. Religious/Inspirational - $720 million

4. Science Fiction/Fantasy - $590.2 million

5. Horror - $79.6 million

If you write literary fiction like I do, the above top five have nothing to do with me. In an article on from 2016 written by Lincoln Michel, “If you took the ten literary fiction books that all the critics, Twitter literati, and well-read friends are discussing, their BookScan numbers might range from a couple thousand to 100k.” We may hear a lot about them, but they just don’t sell. Most readers read to escape (that’s my educated guess), and literary fiction is too deep, and requires too much thinking for most readers. I think that’s a shame, but I’m obviously in the minority.

According to the Business Research Company, “The global fiction books market grew from $10.01 billion in 2021 to $10.44 billion in 2022 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.3%.” That’s a lot of books. Plenty of them are translated from other languages, though in the U.S., it’s believed (according to Diálogos, an online forum/blog-style journal that publishes works of Hispanic literature), that only around 3% of the books published in the U.S. are translations. Pretty paltry, in my opinion, considering how many great books there are out there that happen not to be from U.S. authors.

“If you’re going to write a bestseller . . . it’s got to work for a lot of people.” – James Patterson

So, what do bestsellers have in common? Writer’s Digest list is:

1. Readability

2. Strangeness

3. Controversy

4. Big Actions with Big Consequences

5. Nuanced Uniqueness

6. Extreme Situations

7. Reasons to Care

Okay. I get that. But even with the descriptions WD gave, I was left unsatisfied. If you’ve ever read The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers, it provides some interesting information which they compiled using some sort of algorithm and text-mining research. But it left out the how part of how a novel becomes a bestseller, which is why I read the book. To me, it felt more like reading a technical manual; it’s possible others may benefit from it more than I did. It lacked the “this is how you do it” piece, which would have been great to have.

Of course, there’s no such thing as a formula to writing a bestseller. Writers and others will tell you there is if they’re trying to sell you something, but what they’re really saying is that (at best) they’ve analyzed a few (or many) bestsellers and have found commonalities in them that they’ll point out to you. As any writer knows, reading is subjective. Someone may love a book with all their heart, while someone else may hate the same book for the same reasons the other person loved it.

Why was E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Gray so popular yet panned by critics? Same with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I personally couldn’t get through the first page. Stephen King called it, the "mental equivalent of Kraft macaroni and cheese." Salman Rushdie said it was a "novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name." Brown’s novel has sold more than 80 million copies and made him over $250 million. Apparently, Brown knew what he was doing. But here’s where the luck came in for him. When discussing success, Brown said,

"I really didn't sell many copies. It was not until 'The Da Vinci Code' came out that I had really any success at all. Of course, the previous three novels, which had not sold, went on to sell, went on to No. 1 on the bestseller list. I had not changed a word."

Clearly, luck played into The Da Vinci Code's success. But then once Brown's novel skyrocketed, so did his other novels. If you're a writer, write. Pick whatever genre is most comfortable to you, or one you want to write in, and get to work. Hopefully you'll write a bestseller, but if you don't, do you quit writing? Do you stop doing the thing you love==the thing you have--to do, because you can't not do it?

I may never write a bestseller. It would be nice, but I'm not holding my breath waiting for it to happen. I'll keep writing irrespective of what my sales are or aren't. Because I'm a writer. And if you're a writer, you'll do the same. I do, however, wish you success. If you end up writing that bestseller, let me know about it. More importantly, let me know how you did it.

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