What makes a bestseller?


Jonny Geller is a literary agent and joint CEO of Curtis Brown. Here he follows up with some thoughts following a recent Tedx talk he gave, ‘What Makes a Bestseller?’.

Print sales are up. Independent publishers are scooping major literary prizes on a regular basis. Attendance figures to The London Book Fair are up. The Creative Industries are worth a staggering £84billion and publishing takes a proud £10bn of it.

What’s not to like?

Except, we are in danger of throwing much of it away.

I recently gave a Tedx talk at Tedx Oxford on “What Makes a Bestseller?” – take a look if you have spare 15 minutes. I talked about the mysterious combination of factors that conspire to hit the zeitgeist and make books pop and hit the mainstream, but it did make me think about how literary agents are in danger of becoming risk averse. The funnel to publication seems to be getting ever narrower.

What I didn’t say in my talk was how publishing can sometimes get in the way of books. We all say we look for new, exciting voices that will enlighten and inspire a new generation of readers and yet we find ourselves all racing for the middle, veering towards the same vanilla, reading group friendly fiction.


The agent blames the publishers for excessive caution. The publishers blame the booksellers for second guessing what they think their customers want. The reviewers – well they just keep getting sacked.

Let’s face it. If the publishing industry closed tomorrow and did not produce another new book for a whole year, there would still be too many books for us to buy, read or sell.

Publishing is breathing its own ecosystem of books that publishers and agents want to see and read, but are we forgetting about the reader? Are we supplying books readers want to read?

Last year, when I read The Martian and saw Dr Foster on BBC, I began to worry about this issue. I enjoyed both, but guiltily. I had a creeping unease that had either project come into my office, I would have asked for edits to “clean them up” a bit. And I would have probably ruined both. People were talking about Doctor Foster at the water cooler because of its uneven and contradictory moments. But that is exactly what made this familiar story of adultery, different. Would we have edited out the very thing that made these stories stand out? Sometimes, books come to the reader directly from self-publishing because we in publishing do not think they work to our criteria.

Editorial taste is, rightly, a highly prized commodity in publishing – the battle between sales/marketing versus editorial vision is often talked about. What we in the publishing industry need to think about is: why we are so reactive? Are we listening to what readers want – originality, difference, dare I say, diverse voices? The bigger the publishers get, the more likely decisions become “corporate” and “strategic”.

The only “strategy” a publisher needs is to publish good books better.

The rise of the self-publishing phenomenon has resulted in, counter-intuitively, caution. The thinking is, I suppose, that these books will come to the big publishers eventually. Publishing is about sticking your neck out and daring people to buy the book you invested in.

Of course we all want dead certs based on what has sold before, but if we are not selling original material that only could have come from this country at this moment of time, and all agree to give it a chance, we won’t have much of an industry to boast about in years to come.

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  1. What makes a fiction bestseller? One factor may be that it doesn’t look like previous bestsellers. With Unwin published Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, it expected to lose money on something so new and different. To cut down the risk, it dribbled out as three volumes, so the sales of the first could drive the print run for the second and third.

    Over 20 publishers turned down Rowling’s strange tale about a boarding school for magicians. “Who’d be interested in something that weird?,” they must have asked themselves. Were they wrong.

    There’s no doubt some fundamental features of great tales, such as interesting characters. But publishers who use a recent success to tell them what their next bestseller will be are likely to be disappointed. Me-too books tend to be as lackluster as the sequels to blockbuster movies.

    –Michael W. Perry, author (as yet) of no bestsellers

  2. I read this on the same day it was announced that “Sales of Zoella book club titles surge on Amazon” http://www.thebookseller.com/news/sales-zoella-bookclub-titles-surge-amazon-333416

    We know that any book chosen by Oprah instantly shot up the charts, and so did Richard and Judy selections (though I don’t know how relevant these two sets of influencers are anymore).

    These influencers are not in themselves, authors or publishers (they may have a sideline in books but I think that’s irrelevant). The root to publication should be moot but is a case of “what channels are best to get this book in front of this person?”. Is the route to Zoella the same route to Oprah, or R&J? I seriously doubt it. And therein lies the tale I believe. In this situation it’s not just WHAT gets published (trad or self- pub) but the way it gets to the people who you want to talk about it.

  3. At the risk of sounding all newe-agey, The confluence of circumstances that created Rowling, James, Meyer, Martin will not happen to anyone else. It just won’t. These authors came up with unique stories at the right time, worked to get them noticed and the rest is history. Too unique to be duplicated. Truth is there are a lot of top quality unique self-published stories that will never achieve best-selling status, which can be gamed if you have the right strategy and timing. For some it’s not the goal and many of those authors sell just fine, if not better than, many “best-selling” authors. They have good stories with dedicated communities if readers/fans/followers. That’s my objective. I want to write a good story that I would enjoy reading because I know that if I enjoy it, there are others who will too. I prefer to sell consistently well all the time than to be a flash in the pan once only to continuously fade thereafter. I may never be one of the named ones but I can say that I enjoyed writing good stories that were enjoyable.

  4. Enjoyed your article and will definitely check out your Tedx Talk. I understand that publishers need to make a profit. Authors also want to sell their books. I think there is an opportunity for both to share the risks and share the costs. Authors have content/ideas and publishers have contacts and distribution channels. I think a new hybrid publishing model needs to emerge. Otherwise, we are both missing out on giving our readers what they want! J:O)anne

  5. I agree with Palesa. Out here are millions of readers who want good straight forward STORIES. Tales they can relate to, situations they recognise. Me Before You had me on the floor with such believable descriptions. I felt I knew the family and wept with the grim choices made. Jojo Moyes captured the ‘ordinary’ folk ( what’s wrong with that?) because majority seek reflections of what could or is happening to themselves. My two novels are still being turned down but I know with perseverance they will emerge and bring an hour or two of satisfying reading.



  6. Has the time come for publishers to become influencers rather than risk takers? to embrace the digital age , look at good writing which, because it is a bit different, will not fit standard publishing pigeonholes and hence can only find an outlet on line. It is simple to set up a Kindle and/or KDP Select offer, accompanied by a p-o-d paperback selling fairly cheaply. The biggest problem then for the author is to get the word out about his awkward but well written story, especially if, like me, the wonders of social media are beyond him/her. The selections highlighted by Kindle are as conservative and mainstream as any publisher’s risk-averse list.
    So here’s an opportunity for a publisher to promote such stuff without taking any risk at all, for perhaps a ten percent cut. The author remains free to write what he/she wants without being edited and straightjacketed to death, the publisher gets to extend their list the cheap and easy way into novel and (hopefully) exciting ways.
    Oh, by the way you’ve turned me down for mainstream publishing already.

  7. I read best-sellers and some very obscure and wonderful books (usually in translation). I agree that the industry can be risk-averse but there are many indie publishers out there (as well as self-published authors mentioned in the post above) who are more willing to take a risk with new books and authors. As for what makes a best-seller….it’s such an elusive thing really….part magic, part hype…who knows? And to be honest many of the best sellers bore me to tears anyway.

  8. Thank you for this thoughtful piece – and especially for admitting to ‘creeping unease’ about how publishing firms can’t take risks because of their (understandable!) need to make money in a market where there are already too many wonderful books clamouring for attention.

  9. I am so glad that someone as renowned as Mr Geller has highlighted this topic.
    The issue of being extremely (market) selective is clearly apparent not only in the publishing houses but also in a large majority of literary agents. They advocate the need for new and inventive voices, a kind of ‘fresh’ approach to story telling, yet when an author writes from the heart and (extremely) over active imagination, they are shot down like ducks on a hunt. Not only are the hounds of self doubt echoing in their own ears, but as soon as the story takes flight…BAM! it is blown from the sky because the out-of-the-box the agent was looking for is, well, out of the box.
    Rejections are part and parcel of the industry as not everyone will be as excited about your work as you are, yet when a queried agent boldly states that you write very well and have a distinct voice and then goes on to say that they can’t take a chance because it is a very selective market, then you ask yourself the question of ‘why do I even bother?’ It would be easier to guess the winning lotto numbers when there is a one in hundred million chance of that happening.
    The reader is not asked what they want to read, but rather told what they need to read.

  10. I’ve been saying the same thing for years, and completely agree with Mario. “The reader is not asked what they want to read, but rather told what they need to read.” And Jonny Geller’s comment about publishing “… getting in the way of (good) books,” is rather understating the problem. But there’s also a rather contradictory problem in the rise of ‘Reader group tyranny’. As we all know, few, if any, of the great classical novels of the past would ever get published today (despite them still selling). And why is that? Because the highly idiosyncratic yet (in their own way, mirroring the publishing industry) ‘conservative’ tastes of reading-groups tend to smother all attempts at literary individualism, in order to conform to some socially accepted ‘norm’. The result, as many have decried, is an ugly kind of ‘cookie-cutter’ fiction, which neither seeks to emulate the great writers of the past, nor create anything of any artistic merit for the future. It seems that the only way for a good story, well told, to prosper these days is via self-publishing… if one can afford it.

  11. The publishing model sucks. In the old days, the writer wrote and the publisher published. Today, “pizza marketing” prevails. The author is supposed to hawk his own mutton in the market place while the Neilsen roulette wheel spins, closely watched by the publishing punter. Promotion peters out the minute print costs are covered, then it’s on to the next bet. The first thing they ask you is : “What’s your platform?” One problem is the prevalence of bean counters and lawyers in the creative world; most of them cannot tell Nabokov from Dan Brown, and they apply the same rules to sell music, fiction, widgets and cabbages. We badly need a new model.

  12. And that’s another thing I’ve been saying for years, too! “The publishing model sucks.” Nobody needs to hear it said (since we all know it anyway) but Ian Rankin recently bemoaned the obligation he’s put under to ‘hawk his own wares in the market place’ (at book readings, literary festivals etc.). It sucks! As he said: ‘Writers (at least, many of us) are *not* public performers! We are intensely private people, because that’s how many of us need to be in order to be able to write.’ Writers write, actors perform. That’s how it always was, and that’s how it still should be. Why should writers be expected to ‘promote’ their own books in public (because the publishers are too lazy/incompetent/mean to do their own job)? It’s no more fair or logical to expect writers to have to ‘sell’ their own books – by reading them in public – than it would be to expect actors to have to write their own scripts, before performing them on stage or camera. Where on earth has respect for the artist gone? I humbly suggest that the ‘new model’ we need is the ‘old model’; that is, the one which existed before the crappy one we’ve now got! 🙂

    1. But it is so much easier selling a person than a book! Publishers – who let’s face it aren’t having a good time either – know that Joe Public enjoys ‘seeing’ the person who will hopefully amuse/stimulate them before they give up their money. Nobody enters a theatre before paying and most times actors are known. Catch 22 ?

    2. Sadly publishers know that it is easier to sell people than ink and paper. Joe Public enjoys seeing the artists who hopefully are going to amuse/stimulate them before they hand over their money. Nobody enters a theatre without parting with money first BUT of course generally they ‘know’ the actors and visit to enjoy people they are familiar with. Catch 22

  13. Well… there are many instances of ‘Catch 22’ in this world, of course. The one of foremost concern, here, (presumably) is that of struggling authors trying to get published. The modern (pretty unhelpful & useless) publishing industry won’t publish you unless you are already an ‘established name’ (whether that be from actually being a best-selling author or from being a super-model, premiership footballer, disgraced politician, reality TV ‘celebrity’ etc.). Yet how do you get to sell any books unless somebody publishes you in the first place? The sad truth is that, because the publishing market-place is oversubscribed by 100+ times, simple arithmetic tells us that 99% of us will never get into print. But that still doesn’t address the extra burden placed on even established authors (like Ian Rankin) who are still expected to do the ‘promotional work’ which publishers should be doing, themselves. I any theatre/movie directors told their actors they had got the part in the play/film… but that it was now up to them to write their own script, then I think most people would consider that extremely odd. So why are modern authors now expected to keep a dog *and* bark, themselves 🙂

    1. Actors may not be expected to write their own script…but they are expected to go on the promo tours to promote the film, and very few (usually the big names of course) are allowed to not take part. If you watch the beginning of Notting Hill I think you get some idea of the treadmill that actors are expected to do. I don’t see how this is different to authors, though it does mean that if they are touring, they’re not writing (or acting), which means that the next product is delayed.

      I think the question is not whether they do the promo, but who is responsible for organising the tour? Was it previously the publishing house, and now primarily the author (or their “people”) who do the organisation, bookings, organising of transport, hotels etc…..and then getting stuff into the press. So I agree with you as to the core message, just think the example was a little off.

      As a reviewer, I get to deal with all levels, from the small self pubbeds, who contact me themselves to get me to read and review their books (and for which I will do a certain amount of publicity for them, as I see it as the least I can do), through PR companies, up to the publishers themselves, who will give me books to read (and we’ll each do a certain level of publicity).

  14. Well I’m glad you agree with the core message (though not quite sure how 🙂

    On your own point about actors being expected to go on promo tours, however (if you don’t mind me pointing-out) that is still part of their own primary function of being a ‘public-performer’, and is on the same spectrum of work as their performance on screen or stage. They are not being expected to venture into a completely different form of work in the way that writers are when also being forced to become public performers in order to publicize their books. Writing and public performing are two distinct activities and I would dare to suggest that fewer actors would be even capable of writing a novel/script than the number of authors who are now expected to go completely against their solitary, introverted, stage-shy nature and become a performer (citing Ian Rankin again). You just can’t compare writing with public performing; the two are completely different activities requiring quite different personalities (if either of them is to be done well). And in any case, where were all these ‘publicity tours’ for writers 50-or-so years ago? How many book-signings or readings did Harper Lee or J.D. Salinger ever give (the latter being ‘famous for not wanting to be famous’)? I think I’ve made my point: They were both the supreme examples of the proverbial ‘reclusive writer’ – a species which is now extinct… perhaps because they’ve been ‘hunted to extinction’ by the modern publicity industry! Please excuse my possibly extreme metaphor, but then, being an author of course, written words are my only tool – not being any good at public performances. I get sick, tongue-tied, my throat goes dry and I forget everything I wanted to say when I’m forced to do it in front of hundreds of total strangers – and that’s only partly due to the fear that someone with a grudge might attack me because they don’t like what I’ve written (plus I know I speak for many others 🙂

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