A refreshing idea, good marketing and lots of luck are the essential ingredients of a bestseller.
How do you write a bestseller? I am often asked that question. Well, there are no hard and fast rules. There are certain things, however, that are common to most bestsellers, and, if you keep them in mind, you just might be able to come up with one.
Three things make a bestseller — a good idea, good marketing and good luck. Of these numbers two and three flow from number one. If you have a good idea to sell to publishers, then they will be enthusiastic about your book and invest money in promoting it. A well-promoted book will make the reading public aware of your idea which will, hopefully, catch on and translate into bumper sales. Luck determines whether the idea catches on, and to what extent. Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code was not the only Biblical thriller of 2003. Nor was it the only one to be promoted aggressively. But it was the one that went on to clock bumper sales. That said, Brown's success cannot be attributed merely to luck. By coming up with a good idea, and getting his publisher to back it, he put himself in a position where he could be the beneficiary of luck.
What is a good idea? A good idea tends to be fresh, if not original. If it does not create something entirely new, it lends an innovative twist to the old. By marrying the crime novel with the family saga in The Godfather, Mario Puzo created a sub-genre of the crime novel. By creating the character of Lisbeth Salander, a bisexual computer hacker, in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson brought in high tech, as well as a sexually ambiguous central character, to Swedish crime fiction. Both novels remain runaway bestsellers to this day. By the same token, an idea may not be overly fresh or original, but could tap into a universal experience with which a large section of the reading public identifies. Take, for instance, Rohinton Mistry's novel Family Matters. At the centre of the novel is a family that has to look after a sick, ageing relative. Who in the world has not had to do something like that, irrespective of culture?
Just having a good idea is not enough. As they say, it's all in the execution. Bookshops, the world over, are full of novels and stories that start out well and then peter out. Not surprisingly, all they gather is dust. In order to convert a good idea into a commercially viable product, you also have to possess the patience to develop it so that it fulfils its potential. A successful book or story is not composed of one eureka moment but several, and writers often go through a lot of frustration before arriving at these moments.
Sweating it out
The American inventor Thomas Alva Edison once dubbed genius as one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration. The Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet W.B. Yeats made a similar point about writing poetry. The one per cent inspiration is all-important; it turns the middling or the merely good into great. But the 99 per cent perspiration is not wasted. It is just part of the process you have to go through in order to arrive at that eureka moment. It is in the midst of going through this process that writers falter. They get frustrated, because it's not happening, and end up trying to force matters. Sometimes they are driven by imperatives beyond their control. Such as looming deadlines and pressure from publishers keen to put the book out. The result is they damage a promising work and, in the process, end up with a final product that fails to live up to its potential. .
In our age, something like that is more than likely to happen. We live by the mantra of instant gratification. As a result, when something is not happening, rather than leaving it alone for a while, we are liable to go at it hammer and tongs in a bid to make it happen. When it still refuses to happen, we reach a point where we simply want to be done with it. We end up settling for an end product that is vastly inferior to how we first envisioned it. As I mentioned before, sometimes contractual and commercial obligations are responsible for such a turn of events. That, however, does not apply to first-time novelists who rarely, if ever, write with a book contract in hand. Edison once said: Many of life's failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up. We would all do well to remember those words, before settling for mediocrity.