How to Pick a Best Seller

Every so often I’m asked to read and critique someone’s work. What most want to know is: Will this story sell to a publisher? And beyond that question is: Will this book be a best seller?

It would be nice if I or anyone could answer those questions. I know I can’t. I can point out spelling, grammar and formatting errors that will weaken a writer’s chances for success, and I can give my response to the material; that is, did it grab my attention, were the characters’ actions and motivations reasonable, and did the story have an interesting plot? But I can’t guarantee a book I like will be successful, or can I say it won’t be. Neither can agents, editors, nor reviewers.

I remember attending an RWA® session years ago where the panel was made up of agents and editors. These agents and editors worked with a variety of writers, not just romance writers, and they were discussing how they picked a story to publish and decide how much to pay the writer and how many copies to publish. One editor mentioned a book that they’d recently published. He said when he read it, he liked it and felt it would do fairly well. So he took the story to the marketing department, which, in turn, told him they felt the book would sell reasonably well and to offer the writer (a new, unknown writer at the time) an advance of fifteen thousand dollars.

We in the audience all laughed when the editor told us the name of the author and the title of the book. It was Robert James Waller who wrote Bridges of Madison County. 50 million copies were sold worldwide. The book definitely earned out its advance.

But who knew?

The list of books that have been rejected multiple times goes on and on: Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone; Gone with the Wind; Catch 22; Jonathan Livingston Seagull; M*A*S*H; Carrie; The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; Lord of the Flies; and… You get the idea.

If agents or editors knew what was going to be a best seller that’s all that would be published. But just because a book is a best seller doesn’t mean everyone is going to like it. (Obviously those editors who turned the books down didn’t like them.) So thank goodness there isn’t a magic formula or template to determine what will sell millions of copies and what won’t. And, for exactly that same reason, when I’m asked to critique a story, I always hedge my comments. I can tell the writer if the book appealed to me or not, but I can’t even begin to predict how others might react to a story. The writer really can’t even depend on a critique group. When you look at the number of rejections some of those best sellers received, it’s amazing the writers had the tenacity to keep sending the mss out.

But send them out they did. And why? Because the writers believed in their stories. Maybe they tweaked the plot or characters a bit after receiving a rejection (I don’t know), but they were persistent and didn’t give up. They wrote stories that meant something to them…and finally found an editor/publisher who shared their opinion.

So if you’ve received a rejection—even many rejections—don’t give up. If you truly believe you’ve written the best possible story, if that story means something to you, who knows…it may be the next best seller.

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7 Responses to How to Pick a Best Seller

  1. Inspiring blog, Maris! I’m determined not to give up! I can’t. I want this too much to quit. Maybe someday I’ll join the ranks of ‘published’.

    • MarisMaris says:

      Jennifer, persistence is the main ingredient in getting published. If you persist, you will succeed.

    • Ann says:

      I’m freelance, so I work with a lot of deneirfft people, but hands-down my favorite editor is Scott Armstrong at Christian Science Monitor. He’s tough. Hard-nosed from more than two decades as editor for the national desk. He doesn’t tolerate laziness or poor writing, and he isn’t afraid to say your work sucks and why. The most praise you’ll ever get from him is Good job, or Good work, but because he seldom doles compliments, you know it’s sincere. Most of the time, I have to make changes. Sometimes they’re major. We go head to head occasionally. I’ll argue a sentence’s worth, and he’ll tell me why he thinks it needs to go. I’ll nitpick a word or a comma, and he listens. Sometimes I even win the argument. When I don’t, I at least know his reason.He gives good direction so I understand what he wants and can make the necessary tweaks. He’s a good writer, and his style meshes with mine, so when he changes a sentence or paragraph completely, it blends well and I don’t mind.He sends my final proof back and asks me to go over it one more time. Sometimes he sends the headlines and cutlines, too. He gives me interesting stories and pitches to me as often as I pitch to him. When I can justify the expense and offer a fleshed out idea, he’ll let me travel. Last year, I drove from Alabama to Oklahoma, covering the unveiling of a 50-year-old car in Tulsa and profiling cattle rustlers in OKC. I went to Dallas and covered a biker church, went to Fort Worth and wrote about a seminary offering a degree in homemaking. When a serious, life-changing event happened to me, he called and talked to me about it. He found my best friend and talked to him about it. He made sure I was okay before he sent me out again, and even though he wasn’t sure it was time, he listened when I begged to hit the road once more. Every once in a while, he’ll crack a joke, and because he does it so seldom, it always makes me smile, not only at his dry wit, but also at the personal side he seldom shows.I thought he was hard on me at first, thought I was the worst writer that ever sat down to the keyboard, but I realized eventually that not only did he care about the final product, but he was willing to take the time to make me a better writer. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve had to be reminded repeatedly that I’m not sitting at the desk of a weekly newspaper, I’m playing with the big boys and I need to write accordingly. When he went on vacation, he trusted me enough to bring me to Boston to take his place. I’m sure he didn’t need me. In truth, I didn’t know enough to fill his shoes. I was a small-time writer in a small town in Alabama. I’d never been anywhere, didn’t even own an ATM card. Living six weeks in Boston changed my life on all levels. By the time I flew out of Logan, I was a completely deneirfft person, not the awkward, timid girl who landed at the airport and didn’t know what to do next.I’m a far better writer than I was three years ago. I’m a far better person than I was three years ago. And though I imagine he’d blow off my unabashed admiration, there’s no editor I’d rather work with.

  2. Lucy Kubash says:

    I recently read that the mega-bestseller The Help made the rounds of many many publishers before finding a home, and now it’s a huge hit as a movie. The author even took her ms. into the labor room with her, she was that obsessed with making changes before sending it out one more time. She really believed! Pulitzer-prize winning To Kill A Mockingbird is another example of a book that was rejected numerous times. It took me about twenty years to get my first novel published but I hope it doesn’t take twenty more for the second, lol! You’re right. You just have to believe. Thanks for an inspiring post.

  3. Diane Burton says:

    So true. Rejection hurts and diminishes confidence. It’s great to be remnded of those who succeeded after so many rejections. Very encouraging.

  4. Joe Novara says:

    True, you have to be persistent and I continue to send out mss regularly. But I also believe the old saying: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you and the paraphrase of the same: just because you’ve been rejected doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have been. We’re not all superstar writers which makes it harder for us to find a niche even if it’s ePublishing our work. The fun is in the doing and sharing.

  5. Nourhan says:

    Hi, Maris: Thought I would explain why I enter conetsts first as an unpublished writer and now a published author. As an unpublished author, I began entering conetsts to make sure I was on the right track, that my work would gravitate toward readers. Later after I finaled or won, I entered to attract the attention of an editor or agent. Now as a published author, and inept at social media, I use conetsts as a way of getting my name out. I use contest simply as one more business tool. Like your review, it’s nice to final, great to win, but in a world where the market is saturated and the competition is fierce, I think conetsts can and do serve a purpose.