Four lessons writers can learn from a bestseller list

The next time you glance at a bestseller’s list, put aside your reader’s cap and look at it through the eyes of a writer.

Publisher’s Weekly has posted three lists of bestselling print books and e-books.

Here’s one of the lists (Nielsen BookScan, Top 20, week ending July 8, 2012):

1. Fifty Shades of Grey  by E.L. James (Vintage)
2. The Hunger Games  by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)1
3. Fifty Shades Darker  by E.L. James (Vintage)
4. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
5. Fifty Shades Freed by E.L. James (Vintage)
6. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
7. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)2
8. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)3
9. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
10. Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace by Sarah Young (Integrity)
11. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever by Jeff Kinney (Amulet)
12. Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly (Henry Holt)
13. The Serpent’s Shadow by Rick Riordan (Hyperion)
14. Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo (Thomas Nelson)
15. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (Random House Children’s Books)
16. StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath (Gallup Press)
17. The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks (Grand Central)
18. American Sniper by Chris Kyle (William Morrow)
19. Calico Joe by John Grisham (Doubleday)
20. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss (Random House Children’s Books)

What can you learn from reading that list of titles?

1) There’s diversity in readership

You may be as disappointed as I am that books about sadism and masochism are at the top of the list. Be encouraged by the rest. Look at the many genre types represented here:

  • dystopian/speculative fiction
  • religion/devotional
  • humor
  • historical narrative
  • fantasy
  • children
  • self-help
  • romance
  • autobiography
  • sports novel

Now, that’s good news for the writers of today, especially novelists: most of the books on the Amazon Kindle Top 20 are novels.

2) Self-publishing is now mainstream

Gone are the days when self-publishing was looked down upon as amateur. You know that to be true when you read about a vendor being purchased for $116 million dollars by Pearson, a global publishing giant.

Several of these best sellers began their publishing lives on a blog. They were offered as e-books and then were later acquired by a major company. If you’re a writer who’s been thinking about going the non-traditional route of indie publishing, these lists affirm that your choice is reasonable.

3) Publishers and what they want

Publishers are looking for stories that sell. They are businesses first. Writers must accept that fact and keep it in mind. And, like any other business, what sells well is what they want stocked on their shelves.

So, it’s safe to say that most of these publishers would be happy to have more books that sell as well as the top sellers listed here.

But that doesn’t mean they want all writers to grab their pens and work up stories about illicit sex or children killing each other for sport.

What publishers want is a story that appeals to many. There’s nothing wrong with that being one of your writing goals.

4) Books are here to stay

There’s never been a time in printed-page history when writers didn’t fear the world would stop reading. With the advent of movies, television, electronic games, the internet, and the high-tech enhancements to date, book reading has major competition. Alarming reports that show the decline in reading are issued regularly.

But books are here. They’re still being bought and borrowed.

People love holding them, turning the pages, and marking where they left off with a cherished bookmark.

People love swiping a digital screen, looking up unfamiliar words with the touch of a fingertip, and scrolling through their 1,000-book library.

There are seven billion people on this planet. Not all of them want, need, or can afford books.

For those who do and can, though, you and I can provide the stories that they long to hear.

Be challenged by these lists. Use them to decide what you do and don’t want to do with your writing life and skills. Research the authors and companies. Read the books that you know will strengthen your creativity.

Let the lessons inspire you to keep on writing.

Which of these lessons was most helpful to you?


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