‘What’s the formula for a bestselling book?’ So read an attention-grabbing headline in the Guardian last week.
The article was prompted by a list of those books that have sold more than 250,000 copies in the UK since 2000, compiled by Specsavers for their inaugural ‘Bestseller Awards’ (I confess I am a little bemused as to why an award is required for sales; I would think the sales were reward enough).
The top-50 list is fairly eclectic, ranging from classic fiction like Of Mice and Men to new epics like Game of Thrones; clear blockbusters like Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code to quieter word-of-mouth hits like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and The Kite Runner; long-time children’s favourites like Dear Zoo and The Very Hungry Caterpillar to fresh stories like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Gangsta Granny.
What really stands out in this list is the number of titles that have been explosive sensations, creating a new trend. From Fifty Shades to Twilight to Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to The Alchemist to Gone Girl, these are books that set imaginations on fire and caused readers to say ‘have you read?’ and publishers to say ‘we must find the next [insert bestseller] and quickly capitalise on this trend’.
So what are the common factors of these bestselling books? What’s the formula for emulating their success? Is it about style of writing, type of protagonist, length of book, name of author (gender-neutral seems to do well)? Does success come down to cover and price point and the creativity and budget of the marketing campaign?
No doubt all of these factors play a part, but no one can definitely analyse these books and deduce a formula that writers can follow in order to secure a quarter of a million sales or more.
In fact, in analysing these books only one commonality stands out to me: many of these books (and, I would argue, the best ones) were written with heart – with passion, from a place of authenticity. The writer wrote the book that had to be written, the book that was in them to write; they didn’t write to please the market, to chase or start a trend, to attempt to crack the bestseller formula.
I believe that writing authentically, perfectly in tune with the muse, is the only way to meaningfully connect with readers. No one can predict exactly which books will make evangelists out of readers, forging so powerful a connection that the reader feels compelled to encourage others to read the book as well. Attempting to create such a connection is pointless; it is not within the author’s control.
‘What’s the formula for a bestselling book?’ My answer: there isn’t one. The more important question is this: ‘What’s the formula for writing a book that moves a reader?’ Writing a bestseller shouldn’t be the aim of an author; that’s writing with hunger – for riches, for fame, for glory – rather than writing because you are a writer, because writing is as necessary as breathing.
The true goal of an author must be to write a book that moves readers – to wonder, to tears, to laughter, to love. How does an author do this? By being courageously, starkly honest on the page, and then leaving the rest to fate, chance, the universe, serendipity, God, whatever force you believe in.
… so wrote playwright Christopher Marlowe in this speech for Doctor Faustus:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss:
Her lips sucks forth my soul, see where it flies!
Come Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven be in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena!
These lines date from the sixteenth century, and yet their meaning resonates to this day. For a kiss can be so soulful: remember ‘Soul meets soul on lovers’ lips’ (Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound). A kiss is also of pivotal importance in a love story, whether at the beginning, at the end or as a turning point.
Recently, TLC television network conducted research of 2,000 adults in the UK to discover the nation’s favourite on-screen kiss. In first place was Rose and Jack’s kiss in Titanic. The top of the list is as follows:
1. Titanic (on the front deck of the Titanic)
2. Lady and the Tramp (kiss over spaghetti)
3. Ghost (Sam and Molly’s last kiss)
4. Pretty Woman (kiss on the fire escape)
5. Dirty Dancing (kiss at the end)
6. Bridget Jones’s Diary (kiss in the snow)
7. Spider Man (the upside kiss)
8. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (kiss in the rain)
9. Gone with the Wind (‘You need kissing badly’)
10. The Empire Strikes Back (Han Solo and Princess Leia’s kiss)
11. The Notebook (kiss in the rain)
12. An Officer and a Gentleman (Richard Gere and Debra Winger)
My personal favourite has to be Gone with the Wind, although I think I prefer the scene in which Rhett and Scarlett almost kiss, but Rhett declares: ‘No, I don’t think I will kiss you, although you need kissing, badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how.’
Which is your favourite on-screen kiss?
I confess, while I love to watch movies, and go to the theatre, I am far more likely to be found immersed in a literary world, and consequently when I consider kisses in love stories it is fiction that springs at once to mind.
Take a look at this excerpt from the novel Gone with the Wind:
“Scarlett O’Hara, you’re a fool!”
Before she could withdraw her mind from its far places, his arms were around her, as sure and hard as on the dark road to Tara, so long ago. She felt again the rush of helplessness, the sinking yielding, the surging tide of warmth that left her limp. And the quiet face of Ashley Wilkes was blurred and drowned to nothingness. He bent back her head across his arm and kissed her, softly at first, and then with a swift gradation of intensity that made her cling to him as the only solid thing in a dizzy swaying world. His insistent mouth was parting her shaking lips, sending wild tremors along her nerves, evoking from her sensations she had never known she was capable of feeling. And before a swimming giddiness spun her round and round, she knew that she was kissing him back.
“Stop–please, I’m faint!” she whispered, trying to turn her head weakly from him. He pressed her head back hard against his shoulder and she had a dizzy glimpse of his face. His eyes were wide and blazing queerly and the tremor in his arms frightened her.
“I want to make you faint. I will make you faint. You’ve had this coming to you for years. None of the fools you’ve known have kissed you like this–have they? Your precious Charles or Frank or your stupid Ashley–”
“I said your stupid Ashley. Gentlemen all–what do they know about women? What did they know about you? I know you.”
Phew! Now that’s a memorable kiss, don’t you think? For me, it’s a much more poignant and stirring than the visual version.
One of the best things about being a romance novelist is that you have free licence to daydream about kissing – a lot. My absolute favourite part of writing a novel is putting on paper the first kiss. Usually, as in my latest novel Legacy, I build up to it slowly: a polite peck on the cheek that lingers a little too long, lips pressed to the back of the hand in a courtly fashion, a night-time dream that is so vivid the heroine can almost feel his lips on hers.
Here’s an exclusive peek at that heady first kiss in Legacy, which has been a long time coming for both Luna and Ruy:
Before she knew it, he had taken her in his arms, his mouth closing over hers with all the pent-up fire that had burnt them both since they had first met. Unable to resist, she responded with equal fever. He pushed his body against her until she was backed up against the wall of the summerhouse. Flames erupted between them as their lips, hands and bodies tried to satiate the craving that had tortured their days and nights. The hard pressure of his arousal pushed against the curve of her thigh and pleasure surged through her like white, liquid heat. His tongue found hers, plunging into her mouth and retreating over and over again in such a wildly suggestive rhythm that she thought she would go mad. In that moment, with the whole of the world shut out, only the two of them existed.
That, I think, is the very essence of why a kiss is so important: it creates a moment in which only she and he exist. The world, with all its clamour and cynicism, falls away, and there is only sensation and soul.
I will leave you with my favourite poetic rendering of a kiss, taken from Lord Byron’s Don Juan (Canto II):
They look’d up to the sky, whose floating glow
Spread like a rosy ocean, vast and bright;
They gazed upon the glittering sea below,
Whence the broad moon rose circling into sight;
They heard the wave’s splash, and the wind so low,
And saw each other’s dark eyes darting light
Into each other – and, beholding this,
Their lips drew near, and clung into a kiss;
A long, long kiss, a kiss of youth, and love,
And beauty, all concentrating like rays
Into one focus, kindled from above;
Such kisses as belong to early days,
Where heart, and soul, and sense, in concert move,
And the blood’s lava, and the pulse a blaze,
Each kiss a heart-quake, for a kiss’s strength,
I think, it much be reckon’d by its length.
By length I mean duration; theirs endured
Heaven knows how long – no doubt they never reckon’d’
And if they had, they could not have secured
The sum of their sensations to a second:
They had not spoken; but they felt allured,
As if their souls and lips each other beckon’d,
Which, being join’d, like swarming bees they clung –
Their hearts the flowers from whence the honey sprung.
Recently, the arts news has been full of a major comeback: that of the vinyl record. In 2016, vinyl sales in the UK reached 3.2 million, which is the highest figure for 25 years, and represents a 53 per cent increase on the previous year. Most interesting is that this surge of vinyl sales has pushed past digital downloads, making the physical, ‘real’ record the more popular format.
No doubt the death of several prominent artists like David Bowie in part prompted vinyl sales, as fans looked to purchase lasting mementos. But the most compelling and most resonant reasons behind the impetus to choose vinyl over digital come down to authenticity, tangibility, quality and nature of the sound, and the ‘art’ of music creation and listening. Listeners want to turn back time and go back to basics. Music lovers enjoy the sound of vinyl and the experience of playing on a record player, and appreciate the record and its sleeve art as an objet d’art to be treasured.
Are you connecting the dots already between music and literature? There is no denying that a parallel can be drawn between the music industry and the publishing industry. Digital in both arenas has empowered creators to seek out their own audiences, and has opened up new ways for consumers to discover music/books. However, digital has driven down prices, and in doing so it has devalued the actual, tangible art – the books and the CDs or vinyl.
Now, just as music listeners are returned to vinyl, will readers who embraced ebooks make about turns and return to print?
Back in August last year, Market Watch reported that print sales in the US were on the rise. According to US Census Bureau statistics, print sales declined from 2009, but rose 6 per cent in the first half of 2016. The Guardian in the UK reported a similar story: ebook sales falling and print rising – not remotely at the level of vinyl, but certainly notable.
Readers, authors and publishers alike were shocked last week when popular distributor AllRomanceebooks.com suddenly announced its abrupt closure, after a decade of trading. The reason cited? ‘Growing concern over the state of the eBook market going into 2017’ (source: Bustle).
Do you have an ereader, an iPad or a Kindle or a Kobo? Do you enjoy reading on it, or is there a (growing?) disquiet about the format? Do you feel in a pull to print – if you have the choice, do you opt for a print book in your hands over an ebook? If I gift you one of my novels, is that more meaningful and special with a paperback or hardback for your shelf, or an ebook on your device?
I would love to hear your thoughts.
Amazon.com has recently released a list of the top twenty bestselling books published in 2016, based on both print and Kindle sales. Here it is:
- Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2, Special Rehearsal Edition Scriptby J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany
- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
- The Whistlerby John Grisham
- The Last Mile (Amos Decker series)by David Baldacci
- Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japanby Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
- Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisisby J.D. Vance
- Truly Madly Guiltyby Liane Moriarty
- Night School: A Jack Reacher Novelby Lee Child
- The Black Widow: Book 16 of Gabriel Allon Seriesby Daniel Silva
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid # 11: Double Down by Jeff Kinney
- 15th Affair (Women’s Murder Club)by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
- Before the Fallby Noah Hawley
- Fool Me Onceby Harlan Coben
- Crisis of Character: A White House Secret Service Officer Discloses His Firsthand Experience with Hillary, Bill, and How They Operateby Gary J. Byrne
- The Wrong Side of Goodbye: A Harry Bosch Novel by Michael Connelly
- The Magnolia Storyby Chip Gaines and Joanna Gaines
- The Nestby Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
- One with You: Book 5 of A Crossfire Seriesby Sylvia Day
- The Obsessionby Nora Roberts
- Everything We Keepby Kerry Lonsdale
I was not surprised to see books relating to society and politics featuring on the list, given the circumstances of the year, but I was surprised by the prevalence of dark, suspenseful thrillers and the marked absence of my favourite genre: romance.
Of these twenty bestselling titles, only three contain romance: Everything We Keep, The Obsession and One with You. Two are not exclusively romance novels; Nora Roberts’ and Kerry Londsale’s books straddle the women’s fiction and suspense genres. Sylvia Day’s novel is a romance, and it is interesting that her brand of seduction mingled with poignancy has made her the only romance writer to make this chart.
Overall, statistics indicate that romance is best-selling genre in fiction (source: the BBC). So if Amazon’s 2016 bestselling books list encompassed all books purchased this year (but not necessarily published this year) then we could expect to see more romance books in the list. But of the books published in 2016, clearly the romance genre was eclipsed by thrillers.
I wonder why this is the case. Are we in dark times, and seeking answers in dark books? Is it easier to read a ‘quick-grab’ thriller than a romance novel? Have romance readers read more thrillers than romances this year? Is romance somewhat out of vogue?
According to the Romance Writers of America, the subgenres of the romance genre break down as follows in terms of share of sales:
Print: romantic suspense (53%); contemporary romance (41%); historical romance (34%); erotic romance (33%); New Adult (26%); paranormal romance (19%); Young Adult romance (18%); and Christian romance (17%).
E-book: romantic suspense (48%); contemporary romance (44%); erotic romance (42%); historical romance (33%); paranormal romance (30%); New Adult (26%); Young Adult romance (18%); and Christian romance (14%).
It’s interesting that in both print and ebook formats romantic suspense dominates. Romantic suspense is effectively a blend of the thriller genre that’s dominating the charts and traditional romance. Clearly, readers enjoy excitement, twists and turns and a certain degree of darkness in their fiction.
What does all this mean for a writer like myself, who writes beautiful, evocative, epic romance ‘like Hollywood used to make’? Will my next book be a romantic suspense novel instead? Absolutely not, is the answer! Because, as I shall discuss in a post later this week, a writer must write entirely for him- or herself, not to chase a trend or please a market; you have to write the book that demands to be written, the book that touches your heart and soul. Only then can you genuinely connect with readers.
‘Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas… without The Nutcracker’: so begins this trailer for the Royal Ballet’s production of the classic ballet, showing now at the Royal Opera House in London.
I love The Nutcracker. It was one of the first ballets my parents took my sister and me to see at the theatre when we were children. It not only inspired in me a love of ballet that endured through many years of lessons and many more subsequent years of theatre-going, but it also fuelled the vivid imagination of a little girl and reinforced that essential message for the time of year: magic is real!
In case you are not familiar with the story, here is an outline (from the Royal Opera House):
The young Clara creeps downstairs on Christmas Eve to play with her favourite present – a Nutcracker. But the mysterious magician Drosselmeyer is waiting to sweep her off on a magical adventure.
After defeating the Mouse King, the Nutcracker and Clara travel through the Land of Snow to the Kingdom of Sweets, where the Sugar Plum Fairy treats them to an amazing display of dances. Back home, Clara thinks she must have been dreaming – but doesn’t she recognize Drosselmeyer’s nephew?
The ballet is based on nineteenth-century Prussian Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann’s novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The French writer Alexandre Dumas revised Hoffmann’s story in The Nutcracker, published in 1844, and this version captured the interest of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
In 1890, Tchaikovsky’s composition for the ballet The Sleeping Beauty proved so popular that he was commissioned by the director of the Russian Imperial Theatres to compose another. Choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov reshaped Dumas’s story to fit and choreographed the dance, giving Tchaikovsky explicit instructions on what was required musically for each number. The result is music that is famous to this day:
When The Nutcracker premiered, in 1892 in St Petersburg, the reception was lukewarm if not frosty. Criticism centred on the prominence of children in the ballet, and in 1919 the choreographer Alexander Gorsky took it upon himself to take a different angle, and he cast adult dancers as Clara and the Nutcracker Prince. Now, with experienced, expert dancers under the lights, audiences warmed up.
It was in 1934 that the ballet was first performed in England, and during the war it was opened up to American audiences by the San Francisco Ballet, which began the trend of performing the show each Christmas.
This season, The Royal Ballet is performing Peter Wright’s classic production, which is all about theatrical spectacle. The set alone is something to behold, with a Christmas tree that grows to 40 feet in height. It is so colourful, vibrant and magical that it has inspired the historic department store Liberty, which has dedicated its iconic window displays to The Nutcracker this year.
The Peter Wright production is my favourite; it really encapsulates the magic of The Nutcracker, and of this time of year. Tickets are sold out for the Royal Opera House shows, but audiences all over the world can enjoy the production transmitted live to cinemas this Thursday (8 December). To find a venue near you, visit http://www.roh.org.uk/showings/the-nutcracker-live-2016.