When I ask new clients what their goals for their books are, I often hear this response: “I want it to be a bestseller!” Of course, every author dreams of making the New York Times bestseller list, but most of us won’t make that list with our first book, or our third book, or maybe even ever. To be on one of the three traditionally recognized bestseller lists (The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today), a book has to sell anywhere from 3000 (WSJ) to 9000 (NYT) copies in its first week of availability—maybe even more if it’s a heavy book-buying time of year like Christmas.
For most authors, this is more of a dream than an achievable goal. According to a December 2018 MarketWatch article looking at the data science behind bestsellers, there are a hundred thousand new books published each year (other sources put the number closer to a million). If there are fifteen slots per week on the NYT bestseller list, that works out to a .0078% chance of your book making that list.
Of those that make the list, only 14% are “first-time” authors. Keep in mind that while that novel is their debut, traditionally published novel, it is highly unlikely that it’s the first novel they’ve ever written. It’s just the first to get an agent and be traditionally published. It’s very difficult for a book to make the list without the marketing power of a big publishing house. And there are some genres that are more likely to make the list than others.
Making the WSJ or NYT bestseller lists is a combination of luck, great writing, a knockout marketing strategy, and having the resources to implement that strategy. The only thing that you, the author, have control over on that list is the writing. The rest is up to your publisher and the ineffable grace of the universe.
That said, the dream is not unreachable. In order to reach the dream though, you’re going to have to set some smaller achievable goals. Make these your focus, instead of bestseller status, and you just might pull the gracious universe to you.
1. First and foremost, write the best book you possibly can. Work on your craft. Read books on writing, attend writer’s conferences, join a quality writers group, and write, write, write.
2. Make sure that your book’s genre is clear. This has two benefits: 1) a book with a clear genre is easier to sell; 2) writing within a genre helps you hone your craft. You learn what is expected and necessary in that genre and how to put your own spin on the genre conventions.
3. Get professional help. Serena Williams has a coach, so does Tiger Woods. A good developmental editor and/or writing coach will see the strengths and weaknesses of your story and coach you through how to fix what isn’t working.
4. Get feedback from trusted friends/colleagues.“Trust” here doesn’t mean that you trust these people not to hurt your feelings. Trust means that you know these people have the capacity to critique your book and give you honest, specific feedback.
5. Rewrite. Be willing to incorporate the notes you get from your friends, other writers, and the professional developmental editor you hired—even if it means starting over from page one.
6. Have your book professionally copyedited. Every writer needs a copyeditor, no matter how well you know your grammar and punctuation rules. The truth is, after working for endless hours on your story, you stop seeing the errors and inconsistencies that a pair of trained, fresh eyes are going to catch. Not only will copyeditors correct your grammar, punctuation and usage, they’ll catch that holdover from the first draft on page 103 where you call your main character by the wrong name, having changed it in the third draft.
7. Find an agent. If you want to sell your book to one of the Big Five and give yourself a shot at the bestseller list, you’re going to need an agent. Learn how to query agents effectively and professionally and keep at it until you find your perfect fit.
8. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.“Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Rejection is part of the game. Make no mistake, your book will be rejected—by agents and publishers before it’s published, by critics and readers after it’s published. Sometimes it will feel very personal. But keep at it. Martine Fournier Watson queried 108 agents before being signed by the 109th.
9. Be ready with your next idea. Agents want to know that you’ve got more than one ball in the hopper, so even while you’re perfecting your current book, keep a record of potential ideas for your next book. Even if you don’t wind up using any of them, it helps you keep the door open for the right idea for your next project to walk through. And that might be the one to land you on the bestseller list.
10. Make connection your guiding principle. Though last on the list, this should come first. Why do we read? Why do we write? Isn’t it to connect with others across space and time? To have our ideas received by those who might benefit from them? If you’re focused on your reader and their understanding, enjoyment, education, or benefit, you will find your audience.
Goals like the above are S.M.A.R.T—specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and (can be) timebound. By focusing on what you can have power over, you’ll gain more satisfaction from the writing process.
And if you still feel like making a bestseller list should be one of your goals, check out Tim Grahl’s 2016 Observer article “The Truth About the New York Times and Wall Street Journal Bestseller Lists,” which suggests there’s at least a little tarnish on those dangling golden carrots.