Ask the Editor: How Can I Get on the Bestseller List?

A writer once asked me if, based on ten sample pages, I could tell if his novel had what it took to land on the New York Times Best Seller List.

I couldn't be mad. I'm the same person who—after seeing Beauty and the Beast's show-stopping number "Be Our Guest" at the Palace Theatre (aged three)—went back to her ballet/tap combo class and asked her instructor how many more dance lessons before she could be on Broadway. 

In other words, it's a pure-hearted question, but there's a lot of information the asker doesn't know. 

The Bad News: Getting on a Bestseller List is Challenging

Captain Obvious, right? Bestseller status wouldn't be such an accomplishment if it weren't challenging.

There are many factors, inclusive of and journeying beyond editing, that go into a bestselling novel. See Jodie Archer’s and Matthew Jockers’ The Bestseller Code for the closest anyone has come to quantifying a formula for a bestseller.

One such factor today is that, with many ways to publish and consume literature, the publishing industry mirrors other previously broadcast media, such as television and film. Just like movies and TV shows don’t just appear on silver screens and cable anymore, there are more books to read out there, more ways to disseminate and consume them, and therefore there are lower chances of drumming up a big enough audience (“broadcasting”) to make an author a regular bestseller. This is not what it was like when Tom Clancy and John Grisham were getting their starts.

Another factor is the author’s platform, where their book sells, and the publisher’s marketing plans. If you look at today’s NY Times lists, you will see authors who “made it big” before big box chains like Borders went bankrupt and potential audiences fragmented (e.g., James Patterson, Danielle Steel); you'll see authors who have successfully built online and in-person platforms for themselves; you'll see timely books that everyone wants to read (or pretend to have read as it languishes on their coffee tables); and of course you'll see celebrities who are already household names.

Perhaps the author has a large, existing fan following they can encourage to preorder books from NYT-reporting bookstores; perhaps their book is damn good and stands up to all of the preorder buzz the publicity department created. A common thread here, though, is that all of these authors had the advertising power of their publisher behind them.

Wait—aren't there other bestseller lists? Like the Wall Street Journal and USA Today? Are those easier to get on?

Of course, there are multiple bestseller lists, and each tabulates its charts differently. Instead of reinventing the wheel, I want to direct you to this article, "How to Get on Every Best Seller List," from Scribe Writing for more info. Their bottom line seems to be that a bestseller is not a guarantee unless you buy your way onto these lists. This is frowned upon, as you may imagine, and if all you want as a writer is your name on the NYT, you may want to examine the deep, dark reasons why you're writing.

I don’t say all of this to be a “Debbie Downer,” but rather to be realistic. I can't answer questions about the NYT or any other bestseller list with certainty, in large part because of how early in the traditional publishing process an author works with a freelance editor. My job is to help you strengthen your existing manuscript until it’s the best darn read we can feasibly make. You can then send it on submission to a literary agent who will hopefully champion it and find the publishing house that will then give it the best chance it can have for bestselling success. 

The Good News: Using Bestseller Lists to Take Publishing's Pulse

Instead of bemoaning all of this, consider shifting your perspective. How can the lists as they stand (i.e., without your name on them) benefit you?

One way to use the lists to your advantage is to see what's trending in your category. Earlier I mentioned Archer and Jockers’ The Bestseller Code (SMP, 2016). Its authors did this, analyzing approximately 20,000 novels to isolate what has worked well in terms of plot, characterization, theme, and pacing for bestsellers over the past thirty years.

This is not to say that if you see a lot of vampire novels you should go out and write one. If you did this in 2007 when Twilight was getting big, the trend would have passed you by by the time you got an agent and a contract. However, it can help you see what agents, editors, and American readers have been responding to for the past five or so years better than if all you read is nineteenth-century British literature. (I see you, Teenage Jessica. I see you.)

The Bottom Line

On a recent podcast episode, literary agent Barbara Poelle told Writer's Digest that writers would do well to "keep their eyes on their own paper."

In other words, don't think about what everyone else is doing, especially if you're not already published or even represented. It's hard to believe when you're coming at this from a perspective of scarcity. Focus on craft and on honing your story, and the rest will come as it's meant to.