James Hall’s book Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the 20th Century’s Biggest Bestsellers attempts to do what publishers and authors have failed to do since Gutenberg: identify what determines whether or not a book will become a bestseller.

While Hit Lit focuses on novels, much of what he attempts to do should go into every author’s thinking as they determine what to write, how to write it, and how to get readers to buy it.

  1. Identify what readers want and need. Bestsellers tend to include similar themes and elements that appeal to common wants and needs. We are fascinated by stories of fractured families, spiritual quests, doubts resolved, and common sense overcoming shrewd manipulation. We want to learn something along the way and even gain an understanding of current issues. We cheer for characters that take risks and act decisively as they work through conflicts and dilemmas. 
  2. Write well. As editor Michael Korda said, “At least half the books on any given week’s bestseller list are there to the immense surprise and puzzlement of their publishers.” If a book triggers an emotional response in readers that causes them to mention the book to others then the fire has fuel. Many bestsellers deal with common wants and needs in new ways. While there is “nothing new under the sun” there are new ways of saying things.
  3. Get readers excited. While publishers and authors that have connections with millions of readers have a distinct advantage, they really do not have absolute power to drive sales of an inferior book. More important is getting the book in the hands and minds of influential individuals and communities that would have a natural affinity for the book. If they get excited about it then they will pour more fuel on the fire.
  4. Get lucky/blessed. It is easy to find books that are very similar to any bestseller. Some are better written. Some were released before the bestseller and some after. What caused one to ignite while the others fizzled? A lit match dropped on a pile of dry tinder has a much better chance of igniting a fire than one dropped on soggy logs. A book that provides a new approach to address a common need and is in the spotlight just when the urgency of that need increases for some reason can catch fire. 
  5. Repeat. The good news for successful authors is that readers that like a book usually want more from the same author. We all have limited time and resources so we prefer to use brands we trust.

Since much of what determines whether a book sells well or not can’t be controlled or even influenced by an author or publisher, it makes sense to focus on the few things that can be impacted.

What are you doing to improve the likelihood of your book sales catching fire?