10 Powerful Secrets Of Bestselling Authors

    secrets of bestselling authors

    Want to know how to write a book that will become a bestseller?

    We must first ask: why does a novel become a bestseller?

    If you said ‘great writing,’ you’d be wrong.

    Just check the quality of the latest bestsellers.
    If you replied ‘great marketing,’ you’re right—but not the way you think.

    It’s easy for a bestselling author to bring out another blockbuster and be assured of sales.

    The publisher simply has to announce it. No marketing involved.

    But how to write a book that makes you a bestselling author in the first place?

    How did top authors like Kathy Reichs do it?

    What secrets do they know that we don’t—secrets they dare not tell us for fear of creating competition for themselves?

    Do you know these 10 secrets of bestselling authors?

    I’ll let you into a secret—the secrets all involve aspects of marketing.

    I chose Kathy Reichs, author of 19 bestsellers, because her novels illustrate both great writing and great marketing. She writes in the crime/mystery genre.

    But you can apply these ideas to enhance the success of stories you write in any genre.

    Is your author name memorable

    1. Have a memorable author name

    Kathy Reichs is the author’s own name.

    It’s short. It’s distinctive.

    It’s legible on a Kindle.

    If your real name is terse and memorable, use it.

    But suppose you were born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski or Rodney William Whitaker?

    Best use a pseudonym. The first became Joseph Conrad and the other, Trevanian.

    why short titles work best

    2. Keep your title short

    Choose a brief emotive title. Pack it with meaning, menace and drama.

    Why short? Your cover will shrink to a fingernail on Kindle and other mobile devices. So make it legible!

    James Patterson typically uses terse or one word titles: Fang, Game Over, Private, The Fire

    So does Lee Child: Make Me, Personal, Never Go Back, The Affair, 61 Hours.

    So does Kathy Reichs: Cross Bones, Devil Bones, Bare Bones, Bones To Ashes

    write a series

    3. Use a ‘series’ title

    Since 2005, when Kathy Reichs’ adult thrillers were dramatized in the TV series Bones, they have all contained the word ‘Bones’ in their titles.

    A series title builds a ‘brand’. Readers who like one novel will confidently buy the next.

    They know that the novels will probably have the same familiar characters, settings or themes, as Reichs’ do. Certainly, they’ll be in the same genre.

    secrets of bestselling authors

    4. Publish a series of novels in fast succession

    A single novel won’t go far unless you have a celebrity name or your publisher advertises it massively.

    Both are unlikely for a debut author.

    Have several novels in the pipeline—finished or nearly so—when you present your first work to a publisher or go the self-publishing route.

    Publishers aren’t interested in waiting five years for a sequel. Nor are Amazon readers.

    At Amazon, the ‘tipping point’ for a series linked by author or title is around five novels. That’s when you build a fan base. Amazon starts to promote you. Its algorithms click in.  And your sales take off.

    Kathy Reichs has published a new novel every year since 1997 and never missed a year. Some authors who self-publish bring out a new novel every two months. It builds a funnel. One sale leads quickly to another.

    That’s the way to maximize your income.

    bestselling author secrets

    5. Make your prologue a ‘high impact’ sample of the novel

    What’s a prologue? The first scene or chapter.

    Keep it short, below 3000 words.

    Make it vivid. That’s what readers see when they download a free sample at Amazon or leaf through your novel at a bookshop.

    Here’s how Reichs’ thriller Bones To Ashes starts:

    Babies die. People vanish. People die. Babies vanish.

    I was hammered early by those truths. Sure, I had a kid’s understanding that mortal life ends. At school, the nuns talked of heaven, purgatory, limbo, and hell. I knew my elders would “pass.” … Nevertheless, the deaths of my father and baby brother slammed me hard.

    And Evangeline Landry’s disappearance simply had no explanation.

    Her first paragraphs present the essence of the plot. They also pose a mystery. We’re intrigued. We read on.

    Even if you’re writing in a different genre, leave a question hanging in your prologue. How will this conflict be resolved?

    If you have no conflict in your first scene, you have no story.

    Writing literary fiction? Or a story where an opening mystery or question just wouldn’t be right?

    Then enchant us with the power of your style. The reader thinks: “This author can write! I’m in safe hands.”

    And they read on.

    secrets of best selling authors 8

    6. Keep your sentences and paragraphs short

    Note Reichs’ sentences in the extract above. They average just six words. Her paragraphs are typically no longer than five lines and often just one line.

    That’s the style of modern tabloid journalism. If you’re writing commercial i.e. popular fiction, study media like The Huffington Post.

    Short units of meaning. Simple words.

    If you aspire to Literature you can ramble on forever. Insert poetry, obscure words, semi-colons, lots of commas,  and even—yes, I’ll let you do it—dependent clauses (like the one you’ve just read). 

    It will kill your sales. But no matter.

    You might win the Booker Prize and gain bestseller status that way.

    author secrets 3

    7. Create a main character that mirrors your target reader

    Reichs’s heroine is Prof. Temperance (Tempe) Brennan.

    Tempe is lovable, scatty, attractive—and flawed. She’s a recovering alcoholic in early middle age. Her IQ is supposed to be off the radar, but she often acts like a child.

    She’s a ‘heroine’ in the classic sense—perpetually getting into perils of her own making but saved at the 11th hour by her own virtues.

    She’s what every female reader of Reichs’ thrillers wants to be.

    Reichs also offers us Ryan, Tempe’s off/on boyfriend. He’s a handsome street-wise macho cop. He’s deeply flawed. In his teens, he ran with gangs. He has a drug-addict daughter and bad memories. He lives with demons.

    In her two protagonists, Reichs presents idealized versions of her own target readers, female and male. Do the same.

    secrets of bestseller writers 7

    8. Devise a ‘foil’ character

    Your main character needs a ‘foil’ or buddy. Give them someone to talk to—a person they trust but occasionally spat with.

    Conversations with the buddy character can introduce conflict to keep a scene alive, give the main character a plausible sounding board for their woes and triumphs, and also prompt the protagonist to reveal  information. (Ryan frowned. “Run that past me again, Tempe.”)

    When Ryan is out of reach, Tempe talks to her cat, Birdie. One lift of its eloquent paw and she’s clarified the problem in her mind. Or at least, for the reader’s benefit.

    Foil characters also furnish sub-plots. Get them into troubles of their own. Make them victims.

    Whenever the plot sags, Ryan is assaulted by hoodlums. Or Birdie gets abducted.

    Use a foil as a series character in your every novel.

    create a great plot

    9. Make your plot worthy of your reader

    This is easy enough in a crime/suspense or adventure story.

    A devilish plot to steal the Amish treasure is foiled by a kick-ass ninja nun who must sacrifice her vows and virtue to save the man she loves. (Or something like that.)

    Reichs’ thrillers typically open with the discovery of a decomposed body. It points to a web of atrocious crimes, long concealed.

    Tempe forgets that she’s a forensic anthropologist, bound by a Code of Practice. She plays amateur sleuth, interferes with police investigations and predictably comes close to losing her life and job. In every story.

    Implausible? Yes. Formulaic? Yes. But the drama grips us from page one.

    Whatever your genre, have a strong plot.

    develop your voice

    10. Develop a unique Voice

    This is optional.

    Some best-sellers have all the stylistic charm of a software manual. But they sell.


    Readers of blockbusters buy story, not style.

    However, Reichs does have a unique voice. Set any passage of her work against that of her great rival Patricia Cornwell and you’ll know at a glance who wrote which.

    “It’s because we failed that children are dead. Another may die soon.”
    Two stormy eyes locked on to mine. “This time the moth has flown too close to the flame.”
    “She. Will. Burn.”
    Silly, but we smacked a high five.
    The next morning our confidence was blown to hell.

    Compare the above passage from Reichs’ Bones Never Lie with the one below, from Cornwell’s The Bone Bed. 

    I check my oversized titanium watch on its rubber strap and reach for my coffee – black, no sweetener – as distant footsteps sound in the corridor of my bullet-shaped building on the eastern border of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s campus. Headlights move along the embankment like bright insect eyes, the Charles River rippling darkly. Across the Harvard Bridge the city of Boston is a glittery barrier separating the earthbound empires of business and education. It’s too early for staff unless it’s one of the death investigators.

    Reichs is manically inventive in her language and frisky in her rhythms. She writes like a happy kitten. Cornwell is grim and stealthy in her pace, like a cold-minded panther.

    Voice cannot be forced. Let yours develop by itself. After you’ve written five good novels, you’ll have one.

    A distinctive Voice will help you build a fan base. Readers will either hate it or love it.

    I buy every novel Reichs publishes because I love her Voice.

    But I wouldn’t read a new Patricia Cornwell story if you paid me to. Her Voice offends me.

    Yet both authors have a million fans. And each fan adores the author’s Voice.

    What do these ten tactics have to do with marketing your book? Everything!

    Unless you get them right, you can forget about advertising, social networking, blog tours, Goodreads Giveaways, clever tricks for gaming Amazon, and all the other voodoo sold by by book promotion gurus.

    Your book might be the greatest literary work since To Kill A Mocking Bird, but it will vanish into the Amazon mud.

    Get these things right and, whether or not your book is great, it has a serious chance of becoming a bestseller.

    What experiences have you had in getting your book to market? What triumphs or heartaches? Share them with us in a comment below.

    About the author

      John Yeoman

      Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, was a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He was a successful commercial author for 42 years and was a regular, much-loved contributor to WTD. He died unexpectedly in 2016.

    • I have two novels on ground and I need a good publisher to work with.

    • Marionette Butts says:

      I am so glad I found your page.

    • Kyle says:

      Not to be rude, but it’s “Reichs’s” for the possessive form, not “Reichs’.” (All these writers and nobody else commented on that in the comment section? I’m not even a writer.)

      • Forgive me, Kyle, but that’s not an invariant rule. The possessive case after ‘s’ can be used with or without a further ‘s’. Either usage is permissible. Thus ‘St James’s Square’, a familiar London landmark. The usage is governed by cadence not by precept.

        • Kyle says:

          I don’t agree.

    • Most helpful piece, John, some uncomfortable truths. Just completed my fifth book, second in my first series, but only two books total on Amazon at the moment. I might retouch a few with the above tips in mind, to take advantage of that magic number. I recognized your pic from Twitter, where I’m @FleurdeB. Lovely to run into you again.

      • Congratulations, Belinda, on finishing five novels. That’s a rare achievement in itself. I’m delighted you know me from Twitter: @Yeomanis Till now I never knew that I had Twitter followers!

    • Andrew J. Stillman says:

      This is a really great article, and really helpful to get me thinking deeper about my own stories! Thank you for the great insight…time to tinker away 😉

    • Rania says:

      I’m actually not joking when I ask this:
      But in terms of your name being terse and memorable:

      is Rania Hanna terse and memorable?

      Any opinions would be most appreciated.

      • It certainly is, Rania. Leastwise, I’ll remember it!

    • SP Bragg says:

      So many great points to remember. I’m pretty much a non fiction writer, but writing a series seems like loads of fun! 🙂 Thanks for the shove in that direction!

    • Mary M. Hooker says:

      Hi John,

      I always love your post, but I think this was one of the most informative ones. I do appreciate the time you take helping new writers who are just beginning their journeys.

      I have finished my first mystery novel that will be part of a series that will all have the word “Evil” in the title. My name is Mary M. (Mann) Hooker and I am wondering if M. Hooker or some combination of my name would do well as the signature. Of course, this would not denote male or female writer. Would that be a problem for a potential reader?

      Thanks again.

      • Glad you liked it, Mary. Yes, M Hooker should work. Joanna Penn uses the name J F Penn for her novels, to differentiate them from her non-fiction work written under Joanna Penn. I doubt if many readers would know she’s a woman, if she didn’t say so in the afterword.. A series title using Evil sounds great. I wish I’d thought of it!

    • Jack. So far, I’ve published 3 books and the first one got around a thousand sales, in Québec only. The problem is that I don’t seem to attract sales on Amazon and I don’t know why. I opened an author account, and my books are advertised on Amazon.ca and Amazon.fr. I’m willing to advertise either on FB, Twitter, or Amazon, but can’t afford to do it on all of them. Is it woth it ? Thanks.

      • You did very well to get so many sales in just one area, Jacques. It suggests your book has great potential. Advertising? The Golden Rule is: test slow. Test cheap. Budget only what you can afford to lose. And never run more than one ad in a given period. Otherwise, you might see a sales hike but won’t know which ad is pulling sales. The only ads that reliably make a profit, it seems, are those at BookBub. But its prices have become so silly of late that you’d need to win the lottery to try it. Test small!

    • Aarish Nandedkar says:

      Hello John

      On the verge of completion of my novel, your tips inspired me to revisit my work and I could set many things right. You have my salute and a lot of good writer karma. Thanks. 🙂

    • Katharine says:

      Five good novels equal voice…

      I’ve written three self-help books, three literature texts, about 700 average-length blog posts and around 60 magazine articles of various lengths. I’ve won a contest, guest posted at Firepole, and been touted as editor’s favorite writer or readers’ favorite writer in my magazine work.

      I’d like to branch into fictionalized history. Would the above count as enough to have produced my own original voice? Or must I still write five novels before I can successfully market?

      • Those are fabulous credentials, Katharine! Don’t take too literally my advice that you need five books up at Amazon before you start making sales. At Amazon, only sales count. Great reviews don’t count. Your track record doesn’t count. Only sales count. Focus on getting great sales for your first book(s) and the Amazon algorithms will notice you. Then your future sales should take off 😉

    • engemi says:

      John, I really enjoyed this article, your ever present whit and the wide circle from which you pitch your posts never fail to impress me. I noticed here, there are some comments written from less enthusiastic pov’s, lol, I suppose this should read p’s o v) however … I think one could never write an article like this from the either or seat, because so many readers have so many different writing styles, interests and pleasures, not to mention plagues. So to point the arrow at say the literary side only, would chase away more than half of your readers. Therefore, I enjoyed the article. I am very … um, loose (if you get my drift) afa writing and reading is concerned. A publisher – a real ‘Covici’ kind of publisher/friend – advised me, while publishing my first novel, to never have an attitude, as a writer. This advice served me well throughout my life. He told me never to be scarred of anything, not to count myself as either too high or too low where reading matter is concerned, but always to read with a pencil in hand. And never to judge, especially my own, or anybody else’s characters. Only to take notes and learn from either good or bad writing.

      So, all I need in a book is a Good Story and Good Writing. By myself I quickly arrived at never allowing any author to bore me. Not in a commercially written story, and even less in a literary book. And if these two things can be gathered into one book, how much more rewarding.

      That’s why I got excited when you mentioned Trevanian. His Shibumi is one of my all time favourites. His writing is not so literary that you have to stop reading to get back into life. But he could ‘spin a yarn’. His concept of the anti-hero really thrilled me. The small man. Not that his main characters were small, And thanks for providing the real name: Rodney William Whitaker. By the way, is he still alive? Or rather; did he only write 5 books?

      And I am so happy to see your hates expressed so gently. And yes, they are mine too, esp Elmore, what a facetious name that is; it prevented me from ever reading a single one of his books. Where as years ago I waded through some Harold Robins-going-nowhere-but fortunately- fast … And then I found people like Ondaatje who could mesmerize me with language and story and plot and slow passages and sound and colour and smells and memorable characters. My all time favourite is a forgotten UK author Charles Morgan. I read at least one of his books every December, just so I will remember the place I’d like to attain in the world of penmanship

      Thanks for this reminder about the other side of writing without which no writer can ever become one; the little foxes that spoil the vines on the road of becoming a bestseller author

      • Nice to see you here, Engemi. I love that expression: ‘Going-nowhere-but fortunately- fast.’ Doesn’t that describe all of today’s ‘gulp read’ fiction, designed to be read on a plane then left behind on the seat? Of course, the idea is not new. The ‘railway novel’ began in the 1840s when cheap yellow-backed novels would be sold at rail stations for passengers to read on the journey then leave in the carriage. Hence, the term ‘yellow fiction’. ie. trash.

        Alas, Trevanian died on Dec 14, 2005.

    • Thanks for a great post with really good tips. I am currently writing a series and your tips will come in handy!

      What do you think about my name, Margaret Nystrom? I would love a suggestion from you for a pen name.


      • It’s memorable, Margaret, but a bit long. Subject to your genre, how about truncating your first name eg. to Dawn Nystrom? Or Blaze Nystrom? (That’s unique.) Or even Blaze Steel?

    • Margaret Nystrom says:

      Thanks for the great post with good tips. I’m working on a series now.

      What do you think about my name? I would love a new one suggested by you.


    • Penny Taylor says:

      John, once more a great post with wonderful advice. When I’m stuck, I sometimes go back to pieces you’ve written to get out of the bog. Since I’ve finally quit my day job(s) and I’m writing full time, it’s welcomed wisdom.

      • Many thanks, Penny. To read a blog to get out of the bog sounds like a metaphor. I bet James Joyce would have made something of that 😉

        • I learned the definition of bog on the streets, in the pages of The Replacement Bridesmaid by Laurie Ralston, to be exact. I wish she’d make a series of that character.

    • Linda O says:

      Thank you Dr J. Y. This is a bit like the Two Ronnies ‘answering the question before last’ sketch.

      • That dates you, Linda 😉

      • Linda O says:

        Thank you, Sir, for the recommendation.

    • Linda O says:

      Apparently, not. Must have leaned on a button. Sorry for casting aspersions. The plot worthy of the reader is a crucial aspect of a novel, as this post asserts,. ( Alan Bennett claims he isn’t very good on plot, but I can read him all day long.) I think the plot also has to be worthy of the writing for a satisfying novel to emerge. I’m full of admiration for anyone who achieves strokable writing and an unpredictable plot.

      • ‘Strokable writing and an unpredictable plot’? I heartily recommend Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz, a stylistic genius. The structure is badly flawed – he wrote the novel in a hurry to capitalize on the success of his brilliant The House Of Silk – but the twist in the last chapter just blows you away. Even if it’s utterly implausible…

    • Linda O says:

      I posted a lengthy comment, saying thank you for a really useful post, and I commented on the lure of a character who defies the aging process and returns us to our treasured youth, as Kinsey Millhone does, but it disappeared. Have I been blacklisted? Just too senile?

      • Fret not, Linda. The comment thread software here is eccentric. I’ve often posted an erudite reply at WTD and seen it vanish. A day later and it pops back again! Patience, patience…

    • Yes, John, I know how true all of these points are. But once we develop our own voice, and are writing comfortably with it, then I guess that is our own ‘formulaic’ style, and if we don’t follow the other ‘rules’ too closely, perhaps it allows us to get away with it? Or am I talking rubbish? Or just being too hopeful?

      • Good point, Mick. If we develop our own Voice and follow it thereafter, are we being formulaic? Yes! We’re following our own formula. Nothing wrong with being formulaic. If it works 😉 Henry James was so ridiculously formulaic that Max Beerbohm found it easy to satirize him. To their mutual joy. When someone asked James what his next novel was going to be about, he sighed and said “Ask Max. He knows me better than I do.”

    • Louis says:

      The paragraph from Reich’s work is why I prefer Best sellers.

      I check my oversized titanium watch on its rubber strap and reach for my coffee – black, no sweetener – as distant footsteps sound in the corridor of my bullet-shaped building on the eastern border of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s campus. Headlights move along the embankment like bright insect eyes, the Charles River rippling darkly. Across the Harvard Bridge the city of Boston is a glittery barrier separating the earthbound empires of business and education. It’s too early for staff unless it’s one of the death investigators.

      I check my watch and reach for my coffee – black, no sweetener – as distant footsteps sound in the corridor of my bullet-shaped building. It’s too early for staff unless it’s one of the death investigators.

      That’s what a real editor and my English prof would have done to that over prepositional phrased paragraph. Literary now means look how much stuff I can cram into a simple paragraph. Hemingway is rolling over in his grave.

      • True, Louis, but… Hemingway ruined the English novel (IMHO) by insisting that every perception be expressed in journalese. Minimalist, bare, rich in ambiguity (perhaps) yet leaving the reader to do all the work. We must remember that Hemingway evolved his style in the same period and milieu as Picasso, the Cubists and other minimalists. It found its most absurd expression in Gertrude Stein (unreadable) and, later, in Elmore Leonard (ditto). Am I old-fashioned in preferring the Edwardian flock-wallpaper style of fiction? Florid, rich in sensory description and unashamedly verbose? (Yes…)

    • Linda O says:

      Thank you, Dr. J. Y. This post makes me want to write a novel! Though, ‘making a plot worthy of the reader’ is an enormous task. Alan Bennett claims he’s not much good at plots, but I can read him all day long, and have done, so I think I’ll limber up with short stories, for now.

      Mention here of Kinsey Millhone, Sue Grafton’s heroine, brings to mind another reason to follow a character. When I began to read that particular series, I was the same age as the character. I have aged twenty -odd years, but Kinsey has not, so when I read her latest exploits, I am time travelling. When she is taking the measure of some young ‘foil’ she is meeting for the first time, he is also weighing his chances.Those were the days! And Kinsey’s followers can re-live them vicariously!

      • Ah, the idioms of yesteryear! I remember well the era of mini-skirts, stockings, bell bottomed trousers and kipper ties. They’re overdue for a revival. But just a reference to them in the last novels of Rex Stout, circa 1970, puts me all in a flutter. Carpe diem…

    • Renee says:

      Is this an example of dumbing down? Granted the points about technology are apt but I think the cover illustration does most of the work. Maybe titles shouldn’t be on the cover. Course, to be classically me I have to argue that it is easier to one finger tap a short title than a long but even better to abbreviate. That way fans stick out from ignorant old style folk. G of T for example. My mom is big on G of T. And DA.

      • How about these titles, Renee? ‘Eh?’ ‘LOL!’ and for the British ‘Yer what?’ They’re terse, intriguing and emotive. What’s more, the author’s name could be ‘?’ That way, the name would always sit at the top of any alphabetical list of authors. I aim to please… 🙂

    • Zarayna says:

      Hi John,

      How lovely to see you here along with a lovely community of aspirational writers.

      Amongst other things, you reminded me to cull my waffle – I love my sub. clauses, semi-colons and thought associations.

      Now, I must get back to churning out my series – thank goodness we have an extra hour this weekend.

      Thanks again, John.

      • Great to see you here too, Zara. Waffle? What would the old-time classic authors have done without it? G K Chesterton is all waffle but every word is a joy. You simply need to ask yourself: do I really want to be a best-selling Amazon author? Amazingly, not every author does.

    • Sharon Dotson says:

      If you’re reading this, Dr. Yeoman, thank you for this post. Every time i see your name come across my email box, my lips curl up in a smile. I know I’m about to learn something and execute a few smiles, too. I loved this piece. It gives me energy.

      • Of course, I’m reading this, Sharon. I read everything you write as well! 😉

    • Hey John. Great piece all around.

      And I must be a cookie cutter guy because I enjoy commercial fiction.

      Also, please assign me with a new last name for my debut novel.

      Last, thanks all around for this great article.

      • How about Villalva? It’s as memorable as Trevanian. Even better, it’s your own!

    • Ohita Afeisume says:

      So informative. I’ve decided to just keep writing until I have five manuscripts ready before I begin to publish. But wait a minute, I’didn’t understand this:”You could just write the same novel five times. How’s that done?

      • I was being facetious, Ohita. But have you noticed that once an author hits a winning streak their subsequent novels all seem the same? That’s very wise. Their readers would be annoyed by something radically different. The UK author Dick Francis wrote the same novel several times. An ordinary, decent, reclusive man – once a jockey – finds his friends threatened by criminals. He must become a hero to rescue them. Job done, he slinks modestly back into the shadows. It’s a reprise of the Superrman myth. Readers knew what to expect. But they kept buying his books.

    • Frederic says:

      Thanks for this post, it is eyes opening and not only for writing.

    • Nicolas says:

      Hi, John. I found the post very interesting and i will surely use the advice that i have read here. You see i am a new writer and i love every piece of advice that takes me to where i want to go even if if it’s a step at a time. My love for writing is very important and valuable to me, and when i write i love letting my imagination drive me to where it takes me and dont stop until. I’ve reached my goal. I love writing fiction, and published one book.now i will put many of your advices to work. Thanks John.

    • Great article! The idea to make my characters idealized versions of my target readers is excellent. Very helpful for the project I’m working on right now.

      About a year ago I came across some advice (Brandon Sanderson, I think) to study the careers of the authors you respect and admire. This article does that for best selling authors. To the commenters who are put off by how formulaic this is, you probably don’t want to be this type of author.

      I found that the authors I most respect and want to be like publish a book every year or two. They tend to have several stand-alone titles, a trilogy, and then another stand-alone. Usually their books are long and have complex concepts (I read mostly sci-fi). Maybe they make less money than Reichs and Cornwell, but they are successful writers. That’s ok with me. I don’t need billions of dollars, but I would like upper five figures per year. 😀

      • ‘I found that the authors I most respect and want to be like publish a book every year or two.’ Theirs is a sound strategy, Fritze. They’ve trained you to like them! Seriously, there’s a lot of merit in publishing a novella or short work first, pricing it at 99 cents (free suggests it’s rubbish and people can download a free sample anyway at Amazon). Then pricing your next works more sensibly at $3.99. Better still, just bring out a series of novellas at that price, around 20,000 words each. It’s not hard to write a novella in two months. So you’ll have six books in your funnel within a year. When you’re established, you can bundle four novellas into one volume as a boxed set. It’s a goal more attainable than trying to hack out a 100,000 word novel in one go!

    • Thanks for this post. It is the most useful one I’ve seen about what makes people buy your book. All others talk about the importance of social media, press releases, getting reviews etc. this is the most practical one yet.
      Now I must get on with writing Book 3 of my fantasy series.

      • Social media is much over-rated, Vivienne. One of my author friends confessed that he’d made more than 30,000 tweets in the past few years to promote his books and sold only three by that method. With the same output, he might have written three novels in the time.

    • LX Cain says:

      Fantastic article! Even though some of the concepts were new to me, it all made complete sense. The most helpful info for me was that the protag needs to mirror the target reader. I need to do that. (I’m not quite sure how, since I’m not sure who my target reader is, but I’ll work on it!) Thanks a million!

      • Thanks, LX. Yes, that’s a big secret. Have your protagonist mirror your target reader! Tom Clancy did that. His heroes were his readers, in their secret fantasies (plus a few token ninja girls and wives dropped in to appease his few female followers). It obviously works…

    • gigi wolf says:

      Hi John!
      This was an interesting post, and one worthy of note.

      But, speaking as a reader, I have to agree with the ‘cookie-cutter fiction’ remark. Reich’s voice sounds like a dumbing-down, although I’ve tried to read Cornwell, and couldn’t get into her books, either.

      As for waiting for a book, I happily wait two years for the next Kinsey Millhone mystery. Her books have everything you’ve mentioned in this post, and they’re written as if I can understand words of more than three syllables. You will never find a sentence in her books like, ‘Two stormy eyes locked onto mine.’ Perhaps because her readers graduated middle school with a clear understanding of English. Her books I can read, and re-read, many times.

      Am re-reading Edna Ferber, whose paragraphs take up an entire page, but who managed to win the Pulitzer Prize and had several of her books made into movies, the stories were so well loved. She also wrote as if her readers could understand them big words and could follow a descriptive phrase.

      • Ay, Gigi, I understand dem big words too. But I’m not allowed to write them. When I dropped some obscure language into my novel Dream Of Darkness a few reviewers said they were bemused. “Do your homework!” I wanted to say. “This is historical fiction and folk talked like that then.” But my words wafted on the wind…

      • gigi wolf says:

        John, at least the reviewers were ‘bemused’ and not ‘like, whatever, dude’.

    • Michael says:

      This is a very good article. You would think this information would be intuitive, but as market and publishing trends change, so do the requirements to achieve best-seller status.

      The comment that most resonates is, “But I wouldn’t read a new Patricia Cornwell story if you paid me to. Her Voice offends me.”

      Her voice offends me?

      That’s a very subjective statement in an otherwise objective article, and reminds me of the line from the film ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’ – “My ignorance amuses me.”

      Still, I’m less ignorant than I was ten minutes ago.


      • True, Michael, my distaste for Cornwell is entirely subjective. But then, I loathe Elmore Leonard too, for entirely different reasons. And Harold Robbins. And pasta… Point is, our Voice will attract some people and offend others. The world is big enough for all of us, if we’re competent authors, to gain a fan base!

    • Sharon Carson says:

      Every human being has a story to write, but that does not make them a writer.

      I agree with John – True, writing is an in-born quality. When one writes from the heart, they write to the heart!

      • ‘When one writes from the heart, they write to the heart!’ That’s a great truth, Sharon. Why not tweet it?

    • Ava Jarvis says:

      By the way, my favorite foil is what’s comically termed the “frenemy.” That’s someone who isn’t on your protagonist’s side, could even be an enemy most of the time, but they sometimes share common goals.

      It’s delicious when there is additional romantic tension, come to think of it.

    • Great post John, I took lots of notes! I liked your point about developing a voice over time too. I admire those authors who can turn around a book every two months. I guess that gets easier with practice and if you have a series.

      • Welcome, Bryan. You’re my third Story PenPal member to post here today! (Those jungle drums sure worked…) In fact, it’s not hard to hack out a novel every month if you do what Russell Blake allegedly does. He straps himself to a gym treadmill every day, with his laptop lashed to the top, and doesn’t get off until he’s written 10,000 words. Personally, I think he’s mad. Who needs to get that fit?

    • Ava Jarvis says:

      I’d add something else to this list.

      Be capable of writing really, really good dialogue. I don’t mean flowery stuff, or stuff that wins the Booker prize—I’m talking how people actually, really speak to each other.

      I’ve seen books live on dialogue alone when everything else is, ah, less enthralling. Because dialogue reveals character, relationships, plot… dialogue can show, can tell (in the right circumstances)… it’s an invaluable tool.

      Movies typically have to rely heavily on dialogue. And books that are like movies tend to move better, I’ve noticed. It’s that kind of age.

      • Absolutely, Ava. And the funny thing is… to be effective in a story, dialogue need bear no relationship to the way people actually speak. I overheard a curious snatch of dialogue in my pub the other day. Whenever one person spoke, the other would answer “Trousers!” And both would fall about laughing. Why? I’ve no idea. Somehow, I can’t see that working in a novel…

        • Ava Jarvis says:

          Ah, you’re right about that dialogue. It’s probably more of an idealized version of that.

          Another interesting thing I’ve noted is that not all characters have to have their own voice—it helps, but isn’t necessary. I’ve seen a whole cadre of characters all talk similarly in several successful best-sellers.

          • I suspect it only worked in life because the drinks kept coming.

            • No, Pat, It was because they were both ferret fanciers. (That joke only makes sense in England. Which is why, to report dialogue verbatim, can be very perilous for a global readership…)

      • Another term for frenemy is cotagonist, Ava. And if you wanted to sound very literate you could refer to the foil as the ficelle. Don’t academics love to complicate things?

        • Ava Jarvis says:

          Hmmm. Nah, frenemy is better, though cotagonist is interesting, in a way. But nah.

    • H Max says:

      Dr. John: another outstanding post in your long and illustrious history of sage publishing/writing wisdom. This one gets push-pinned to the wall. One of your best ever.

      • Many thanks, H Max. I’ve never been push-pinned to the wall before. I shall accept it as an honour 😉

        • Penny Taylor says:

          John, maybe you don’t realize how much your advice gets around. I’m sure you’ve been push-pinned to a wall before. Or, in my case, taped to a wall over my desk. For advice a writer I used to work for gave me, I resorted to an aerial note. An index card hung by a string hangs over my desk, fluttering around with the fan, or hanging stagnant with the summer heat. “Exposition Kills!”

    • Alex says:

      A very helpful and realistic post!

      I guess in any field of art, you have to make a decision about how commercial you want to be. Would you rather produce something you like that has less of an audience (no audience?), or would you rather cater to the masses and sell a lot?

      And ideally, you like what the masses like and it all comes together beautifully…

      • We can do it either way, Alex. We can write what we want to write, then wait for the market to catch up with us. But that might take a while. (It took Melville 70 years to get a decent review for Moby Dick.) Or we can write for the market, make our name, develop a fan base – then write for ourselves, confident that our market will follow. That’s what J K Rowling did when she turned to writing adult fiction. It doesn’t matter that her Robert Galbraith novels aren’t terribly good (in my opinion). They has a fan base. She could publish her laundry list now, and sell a million…

    • I always toy with participating in Nanowrimo but end up staring at a blank screen or — worse — staring at a couple thousands words of “gook” that sound stupid even to me.

      Your post has inspired me to “up and have another” with Nano, keeping in mind these tips. I know that if my zeal starts to flag, I can develop my ‘foil’ or work on my main characters’ mirror traits.

      Thanks for clearing the path for me, John!

      • It’s great to see you here, Brenda. Ay, a foil is a wonderful thing. (Especially when s/he turns out – in the last scene – to be villain in disguise…)

      • Penny Taylor says:

        Brenda, Brenda, Brenda… It’s almost November 1st. Definitely do NaNoWriMo. Go to a local introduction party to get an energy bump from new friends. And on Halloween, if your area has an opening night write-in, attend. It will really give you a good push. In the Los Angeles region, ours starts at 10pm and goes until 2am… or whenever.

    • A very awesome post John,
      Every writers dream is to become a best selling author some day and this is achievable if you can follow the right procedures.

      I agree with all the points you made here especially using s short and memorable name, this is one of the best decisions you can make as an author.

      • Ay, Theodore. You must change your name at once to Ted Steel 😉

        • Penny Taylor says:

          Ted Steel… now that made me smile. I like it. I may be calling you for suggestions. Not that my name is too long. I’m going to be working in a second genre and don’t want the readers confused with two completely different subjects and styles.

          • Ay, I was an idiot to use the author name ‘John Yeoman’. I hadn’t know that John Yeoman was once the author of popular children’s stories. So Google Alerts keeps annoying me by saying I’ve got a new web citation! It always turns out to be for the other John Yeoman. (Sigh.)

    • IBOMCHA says:

      It great tips. And I can see something too that it growing facets in the beauties created by inborn qualities of a writer.

      • True, writing is an in-born quality. It can be vastly developed – as every writing mentor will attest – but not created ;(

    • David Safford says:

      Wow. Just wow. Thank you for the advice!

      Now, back to writing 5 novels to get my series going….

      • Alternatively, David, you could just write the same novel five times. That’s another ‘secret’ that best-selling authors don’t want you to know 😉

        • Ha! Isn’t that the case!

          But then I wouldn’t want Nicholas Sparks to sue, would I?

    • Nice to see you here, John! As always, excellent advice. Bookmarking this post for future reference. Thanks!

      • Glad you liked it, Sue. (We must stop meeting like this…)

    • Thank you so much for this article. Well crafted points and I really appreciate the sample writing to support your research. I learned a lot from this and hope to apply it to my 5th book in progress.

      • Thanks, Rosemary. Just don’t neglect the sixth book. That’s where you reap the profits!

    • Marni says:

      Thank you for posting this, and for the effort involved, but now I understand exactly why I never read best-sellers. With respect, this just encourages more cookie-cutter fiction instead of original work, and is an example of why there is no one solution to the question, How do I write a best-seller?. I can follow this advice and *still* not write one. Which is actually fine by me. Best wishes and thank you again.

      • “I understand exactly why I never read best-sellers.” I can relate to that, Marni. It’s why I made the point at the start, that best-selling novels are rarely graced by great writing. I’ll confess, I had to grit my teeth to read through the best-seller lists when writing my doctoral thesis ten years ago on the strategies behind commercial fiction. (I then turned with relief to the 1912 novels of Austin Freeman. Best-selling crime authors knew how to write in those days!)

        That said, you don’t need to be formulaic in the stories themselves – just in their presentation. Kathy Reichs’s whipcrack style is not for everyone but she is enormously inventive in her style and structure. No cookie cutters for her!

    • WOW! This post packs a punch. It really is a ‘must-read’ for those of us who dream of becoming a bestselling author.

      It really brought home to me that writing a bestseller needs a lot of planning, not just for one book but for a whole series.

      thanks for an outstanding post, John!

      • Thanks, Mary! It’s a privilege to be here, once again.

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