How to Write a Bestselling Book

How to Write a Bestselling Book

Yes, We Can Talk About Money Now.

If you’ve dreamed of being a successful author, you’ve likely realized that at some point, you actually need to get paid.

This should come as no surprise to most of you.

And yet, most creatives believe that they are doomed to forever be a “starving artist.” In fact, many see this as a rite of passage. Some treat it as a badge of honor, as if it were ideal to be the tortured, penniless artist who finds solace in his craft.

Thankfully, this ridiculous notion is dying out rapidly, and for many reasons:

  • It’s getting more and more expensive to just survive, leading creatives to more seriously consider monetizing their passion.
  • The “side hustle” phenomenon is here to stay. It’s a necessary reality for many, while others simply want to be rewarded for their efforts.
  • Thanks to the internet and the digital revolution it introduced to the world, it is now more possible than ever to make a living with your passion.

However, there are still people who turn their noses up at unseasoned creatives who want to get paid for their craft. “We don’t do it for the money,” they say in a lofty voice as they sip their Earl Grey tea and adjust their monocle.

Okay, maybe that’s not quite how it goes. Usually, it looks more like pretentious Facebook comments when you ask your favorite writing group about effective marketing techniques.

But I’m here to tell you, it’s okay to do it for the money. There’s nothing wrong with it. There are few things that feel better than doing what you love for work.

And so, it’s not gauche to talk about money. It’s not improper. It’s vital, especially if you’re trying to monetize a passion like writing, which has historically been a horrible way to make money.

Yet it is possible–very much so. And it’s not as complicated as some people make it sound. So get a notepad and make some coffee (or Earl Grey tea, if you really must). We’re going to be here for a little while, but if you take the following advice to heart, you’ll be well on your way toward the career of your dreams.

You’re Not Just a Writer Anymore

Once upon a time, life was simple.

  1. You’d write a book and send it to a publisher, and they’d send you a generic rejection letter.
  2. Frustrated, you’d fine-tune the book and try a different publisher. This time, they’d give you specific feedback, but in addition to a gentle let-down.
  3. Determined now, you’d crack your knuckles and polish your book to the best of your ability. You’d send it off once again, and this time, you’d hear the glorious news that the publisher wants to buy your book.

Oh, happy day! You’d buy yourself a bottle of champagne and celebrate, knowing that the publisher will take your labor of love and pour everything they have into it to make sure the book succeeds. They’d shop it out to bookstores, libraries, magazines, the whole shebang. You’d barely have to lift a finger.

Those days are long gone.

Yes, today’s publishers will do some of this work to an extent. They’ll still provide an editor, pay for a cover designer, and even do a little marketing. But unless you luck out–in the most extreme sense of the word–the book will fall flat. You’ll sell some copies, sure enough, but it won’t be enough for the publisher to want to give you another shot and buy another book. It may not even be enough to cover your advance (if applicable).

It’s not that the publishing house doesn’t want to sell your book. It’s just that most of them are relying on methods that worked 30 years ago.

The internet may have brought a veritable land of milk and honey, a world of opportunity for the taking, but it’s also brought modern marketing challenges. Now, authors need to actually interact with the world in order to sell their book.

I know this is devastating news to most of us. Authors are introverted creatures, overwhelmingly so. They’d rather rewrite their entire backlog than put themselves on social media and—*gasp—*market themselves.

But this is your job now. If you want to make a living as an author, you must accept that you are no longer just an author. You are also a marketer.

To take it a step further, if you want to make the big bucks, you’ll forgo traditional publishing altogether and independently publish. And this means that in addition to being an author and a marketer, you must also be a publisher.

SIDE NOTE: In case you’re wondering … yes, independently publishing is generally the right choice if you want to make money (assuming you’re willing to put in the work). It just is. This is not a matter of opinion for the vast majority of authors, so I won’t spend any time trying to argue this point today. Pursue traditional publishing if you wish–most of this post will still apply to you. But if you want money, indie publishing is, in fact, the way to go.

You’re Not Writing for Yourself Anymore

People write for a number of different reasons.

  • One person writes because it’s how they make sense of their lives.
  • Another writes because they feel like they’re called to tell a specific story to the world.
  • The third writes because they think modern literature is terrible, and they want to prove that they can do better.

All three writers, in the vast majority of cases, will fail to make money with their books.

And that’s okay.

I believe all three of them have valid reasons for writing. Yes, one of them is arrogant and foolish, but all three of them are free to have their own reasons for writing that have nothing to do with money.

But if you want to make a living with your books, you can’t afford to think in those ways. Overwhelmingly so, those motivations will produce a book that flops on release (if it is released at all).

Here’s the long and short of it: If you publish a book that is not what your reader wants to read, that reader will not read your book.

It sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? Yet so many writers will stubbornly insist that they’re the exception, that they can write whatever they want because “that’s the story I have inside me.” Or worse, “that’s what my characters told me to write.”

Feel free to write however you want to write. But if you want your readers to read your book, you have to keep your reader in mind throughout every step of the process. If they spot any red flags (or even some yellow flags) like “the description looks boring,” “the reviews say there’s too much cussing,” or “the cover looks too bland,” chances are they won’t buy your book.

And guess what? All of those elements are perfectly fine in certain genres. If you write heavy-handed literary fiction, a more somber description may be needed, one a mainstream reader would find boring. If you write about the seedy underbelly of metropolitan Chicago, an abundance of cursing may be appropriate. If you write college algebra textbooks, a bland cover isn’t an issue because students are forced to pay $300 for your book anyway.

But if you’re writing a romantic comedy, you’ve missed the mark big time. It becomes all too easy for a reader to click away and look for a book that looks like it suits their tastes more accurately.

You need to create as few barriers of entry as possible. The choice to purchase your book must be an obvious one, the path of least resistance. You want your reader to say, “THAT’S the book for me” with complete and utter confidence.

Therefore, you must keep your reader in mind, from start to finish. Your understanding of your target reader should heavily dictate everything you do, from first draft to the marketing you’ll run on that title for the rest of its life.

You are not writing for yourself anymore. Not if you want to make money.

The Holy Trifecta of Writing Bestsellers

It all boils down to this: In order to launch a successful writing career, you must master the Holy Trifecta. What is the Holy Trifecta?

  1. Writing a stellar, genre-appropriate manuscript
  2. Publishing a professional and attractive book
  3. Marketing to the right people with the right tactics

If you ignore any one of these facets, you are setting yourself up for failure.

If you do not hone the craft of writing, anyone who buys your first book will not buy the second. Furthermore, they will leave negative reviews, deterring other potential readers from buying the book.

If you do not become a proficient publisher, you risk launching your book with a cheaply made cover–or worse, a home-made cover. You release a typo-ridden paperback that looks like someone printed out a single-space Word document. You miss your pre-order deadlines and fail to set up your book’s metadata so it can actually be found.

If you don’t master marketing, no one will buy your book. Yes, there is a tiny smidgen of work that sites like Amazon will do for you, but it’s really not much. To publish your book, sit back, and then expect it to sell magically is truly foolish. And if you try to market without understanding your audience, you’ll get your book seen by all the wrong people. You’ll throw money down the toilet and not understand why it’s not working.

You must be equal parts author, publisher, and marketer. There will always be ways you can make each of these facets easier, but you can’t neglect any one of them. If you do, you will truly pay the price.

Don’t freak out. We’re only going to talk about writing today. All that dreaded publishing and marketing stuff, we’ll talk about another week. You can relax now.

And finally, one rule stands above all else when it comes to making money with your books. One key aspect you must keep in mind and implement as an author, publisher, and marketer. One rule to … well … rule them all.

Know your reader and give them what they want.

So How Do You Know What Your Reader Wants?

This sounds like a nebulous question, an unknowable mystery that is impossible to determine with any certainty. But it’s really not that complicated. In actuality, the work has already been done for you.

Knowing what your reader wants boils down to knowing your genre.

Here’s where a lot of writers roll their eyes. “Genre? Come on. Something as elementary as that? I’m writing a mystery. Someone commits a crime, and someone tries to solve it. The end.”

But such flippancy results in a complete negligence of this key aspect of writing. Genre is the secret sauce that can make your book a bestseller. And if you ignore it completely, it can ensure that no one ever reads it.

To any non-fiction authors reading this, this first article is written with fiction authors in mind. However, I encourage you to keep reading and see what you can apply in non-fiction.

The Truth About Genre and the Golden Rule of Marketing

Genre is how most readers think of books. Most browse Amazon or peruse the shelves of their local bookstore and spend 90% of their time in one specific section. Some people swear they’ll try something new, but after a few minutes browsing sci-fi, they’re back in the fantasy section where they subconsciously knew they’d end up all along.

There will always be eclectic readers, ravenously devouring anything that has ink on a page, but these are not your target audience. If you want to make money with any product, the golden rule of marketing is to narrow your focus. You don’t want to sell to everybody. You want to sell to a very specific subset of people.

Genre helps you do exactly this.

Readers predominantly focus their entertainment in one to three specific genres. As such, they can spot a book they’d like from a mile away. It has all the right elements: a pleasing cover that sparks intrigue, an enticing description that further piques their interest, and a compelling first page that compels them to make the purchase.

But there’s nothing nebulous about these magical ingredients. For example, if you spend any amount of time on Amazon’s catalog, you’ll notice recurring themes on book covers. The shirtless male in spicy romance, the magical dust and swirls of urban fantasy, the lasers and spaceships of hard science fiction.

Book covers have dominant themes because certain imagery has proven to be successful. This is true across all aspects of writing, publishing, and marketing. Certain tactics are proven sellers, and if you come to understand your genre inside and out, you’ll have everything you need to sell your book along with the best.

In fact, contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to write the best book in the world in order to be successful. You only have to write the right book.

What Is the “Right” Book?

Put simply, the “right” book is the one that a new reader can pick out among a sea of others and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that she’ll love it, that it’s the right book for her. How will she know it’s the “right” book?

  • It’s the book with a cover that instantly connects to your target audience.
  • It’s the book with a description that highlights a genre’s tropes in fresh and exciting ways.
  • It’s the book that “hits all the right spots” and keeps readers coming back for more.

The “right” book is easy to write. It’s easy to publish. It’s easy to market. Easy, of course, being a relative term. The life of an author isn’t a famously easy one. However, it’s so much easier to be successful when you stop trying to reinvent the wheel, when you stop fighting genre expectations, when you give up your stubbornness and give readers what they want.

The “right” book is one that looks like it belongs next to your favorite books (assuming, of course, that your favorite books are in the same genre that you write). This is a huge stumbling block for authors because this is when they run into imposter syndrome. Forget about comparing your writing for a second. If you write romance, then you should be able to hold your book up to your favorite romance novel and imagine them next to each other on the bookstore’s shelves. They fit together. It looks right.

There are some caveats to this piece of advice. The styles and techniques of traditional publishing are not always in line with genre. For example, famous authors like James Patterson could draw a cover in crayon, and it would still sell.

You are not James Patterson.

This is why, when you are looking for books in your genre to compare, it’s generally a good idea to ignore the big names and most of the traditionally published books. In a lot of cases, they’ll get away with a lot of moves that you cannot.

Instead, look at the independently published title that might be #3 on the bestseller list. That’s the person who knows what he’s doing. That’s who you want to emulate. Learning from those who have succeeded before you is so much less stressful and so much more rewarding than trying to figure it out for yourself.

Now that you understand what the “right” book is, let’s spend the rest of this post talking about exactly how to write it.

How to Write the “Right” Book

There’s a lot of writing advice out there. And yes, to some extent, you should study books on craft. You need to learn prose, dialogue, pacing–everything that goes into making a technically good story. Ideally, you want to write the best book you can. That’s why studying craft is important.

But because it’s more important to write the “right” book, most of your time should be spent studying your chosen genre. That’s where you’ll learn what makes readers swoon, laugh, cry, and overall become ravenous consumers of certain kinds of books.

Here’s where the overrated piece of advice “write what you know” can be actually useful advice. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting and trying new genres, but if you want to sell your book, you need to understand what makes a certain genre successful. You need to know the ins and outs of genre-specific story beats and character dynamics. It all comes back to giving your reader what she wants.

I’m not talking about picking a popular fantasy book and copying it, changing only the names and places. I’m talking about understanding and implementing genre expectations.

Genre Expectations

Talk about scary words that a lot of writers despise. They don’t want to be bound by such a strict taskmaster as genre. But riddle me this, o creative one–if you write epic fantasy, do you expect a regular reader of the genre to be satisfied by your 40,000-word novel that’s set in modern Australia?

Yes, I know that was a drastic example. But you can see how readers expect certain elements in a given genre, I hope.

Genre expectations are far more pervasive than you might think. Sometimes they’re as vague as happily-ever-after. Sometimes it’s as specific as the need for a shirtless man on the cover. But there’s one thing that’s consistent about genre expectations: every genre has them. And you’d best pay attention to them because your readers certainly are, whether they realize it or not. And if you neglect them, you can bet there’ll be hell to pay.

The Risks of Ignoring Expectations

What happens when someone expects something that they never get? They become disappointed, dissatisfied. This is what you risk if you defy genre expectation because you refuse to be tied down by such strict, so-called arbitrary rules.

Successful authors know their genre, they know what is expected, and they deliver. This doesn’t mean abandoning all creativity and originality. It simply means serving the reader over a selfish desire to be more unpredictable and creative than modern drivel.

Have you ever seen How I Met Your Mother? Do you remember the outrage that stormed the internet when the finale aired? I won’t spoil anything here, but the writers chose a subversive ending, one that defied expectation and resulted in such outcry that people are still bitter about the ending today.

If you take a second to examine the finale from an objective standpoint, it’s a well-written narrative. Every subversive choice the writers made was justified and foreshadowed comprehensively throughout the show. It made perfect sense.

But it didn’t fulfill expectations.

The writers had convincingly led audiences in a very specific direction for so long that it was understandably shocking when the show ended on a very subversive note. I don’t blame people for being upset.

What about Game of Thrones? This Emmy-winning series was the favorite of millions before the final season. Now, it will forever be remembered for a disastrous final season that will mar D. B. Weiss and David Benioff’s careers for the rest of their lives.

It wasn’t just that the writing of the final season was bad (which it was). The issue was that the show completely abandoned everything that made it great in earlier seasons, it undid years of foreshadowing, and it was such a disservice to the lore and narrative that many people are finding it hard to watch the earlier seasons that they used to love.

All this goes to say: When you defy expectations–for whatever reason–you risk alienating your readers.

That isn’t to say that you can’t be subversive. After all, interesting plot twists and unique takes can be welcome in a world where every story feels like it’s the same. It’s a very difficult balance to strike, being subversive while still delivering genre expectations.

But in many cases, the answer will be obvious. For example, if you’re writing a sweet romance, don’t have the characters break up at the end, or–God forbid–die.

But what about 500 Days of Summer? That broke your precious genre expectations, didn’t it?

No, it didn’t. It’s not a sweet romance. Shut up.

But I’m afraid of being too predictable. I want to write something new, something fresh. Genre takes all the fun out of writing if I can’t be creative.

But genre is not the strict taskmaster I alluded to earlier. In reality, it should be more like a guiding hand. Genre is your friend, not the relentless, micromanaging boss that we’ve all had.

Creativity and serving your reader by delivering genre expectations are not mutually exclusive notions. You can tell the most formulaic story in the world, but with enough twists and novel elements that people don’t realize they’re watching Hamlet when Simba comes back to take his place as king.

But Don’t Readers Want Something New and Original?

Yes… but also no.

Readers want fresh takes. They want a new perspective. But if an avid romance reader picks up your “original” book and finds out that the two love interests don’t make it, and there’s no happily ever after, don’t expect that reader to ever pick up another one of your books.

Readers will never admit it, but they don’t want “new.” They like the stories they like, and they like them for a reason. If you ignore the reason someone likes romance so much, you will fail to satisfy your reader.

Here’s the thing: There’s nothing new under the sun. You’ve heard that before. We’re telling the same stories we have for hundreds and thousands of years, just with fresh takes and twists.

The most successful, overrated movie of all time is a retelling of Pocahontas, for crying out loud. But Avatar was so successful because it put $237 million of lipstick on a 400-year-old-pig. It looked gorgeous, even though there was little substance to it.

I’m not saying that you should copy Avatar’s example. After all, I doubt you have $237 million lying around to make a retelling of a centuries-old story any prettier. But my point is, if you emphasize the parts of your story that make it unique, then you have the best of both worlds. You can still have genre expectations and be creative in a way that your readers will never forget.

Forget rolling their eyes; this is where writers by the droves flat-out stop listening. They don’t want to be told how to write their books. No one does. This is where most writers fail. They write the book THEY want to write. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you can’t expect to be financially successful if you put your fantasies above the reader’s. Full stop.

In Practice

So let’s put it all together and write the right book. What does that look like, practically?

Well, assuming you’ve done your research, you now know the key ingredients in your chosen genre. You know its tropes, conventions, and beats. Now, it’s your turn.

  1. Before you write a single word of prose, take your compiled research and begin crafting your narrative on a high level.
  2. Begin with an interesting character and a compelling conflict (and vice versa).
  3. Finally, start applying your genre-specific elements until a basic narrative takes shape.

That sounds like outlining.

You bet it does. Here’s the only actual writing advice I’ll give you in this post: When you first start writing genre fiction, outline rather than writing by the seat of your pants.

Trust me. I used to be a “pantser.” I know how fun it is. I know how daunting outlining seems.

But you don’t have to write a 10,000-word outline. You simply need a plan of attack for how to implement the necessary tropes and conventions into your narrative.

If you don’t plan ahead by outlining, you’re relying on your subconsciousness to automatically craft a story that has all the necessary ingredients as you go along. And unless you know the genre like the back of your hand, and unless you have the discipline and self-control to keep your characters from “writing the story for you,” it will take a great deal of outlining to retrofit your narrative for your chosen genre and make it work.

Once you have your outline, then all you have to do is write the book!

There’s No Way It’s This Easy … Right?

Pretty much, actually. Of course, writing a book is no easy task, especially when you’re just starting. And if you’re rather new to the craft, you must find a good editor. A good editor can take a mediocre book and make it good, take a good book and make it amazing.

But when it comes to writing a book that will actually sell, it’s not as difficult as writers make it out to be.

Well, if it’s that easy, why doesn’t everybody do it?

One simple reason, really: Not everyone is willing to make their own fantasies take a backseat.

It is so easy to just go with what “feels right” and write the first thing that comes to your mind. It’s the default mode for most writers, to write how they want to write no matter what advice they hear. If it sounds good to them, it has to be good, right?

And there’s nothing wrong with that if your reasons for writing don’t have anything to do with money. You can ignore all the writing advice in the world and write the craziest, genre-breaking narrative you can possibly dream up.

However, if you want to make money, this is a proven method that has worked time and time again for thousands of authors. And if you put the time and effort into it, it can work for you as well.

Before I leave you, I will offer one more piece of advice that takes everything I’ve told you so far and makes it instantly twice as effective.

Write Book 2

Yes, writing a series is one of the biggest potential moneymakers as an author. After all, you can generally sell more products if you have more than just the one.

Not all readers love series, of course. But plenty do, and many read nothing but series. Besides, it’s incredibly difficult to make significant money with just one book. There will always be the odd outlier, and if you’re traditionally published, it can be a little easier. But overwhelmingly so, it’s much easier to make a career with multiple books, specifically a series of books.

It’s also easier, generally, to write subsequent books in a series instead of a brand-new narrative each time. Why? Both the author and readers are already invested in and familiar with the characters, setting, and basic premise. You don’t have to start from scratch when writing book 2.

Also, when you have a series, the books market each other. Of course, not everyone who reads book 1 will read book 2; that’s just the nature of it. But a lot of people will, and a large number of those will read book 3.

I know I’m making it sound all too easy, but the principle really is that simple. Writing a series is an amazing way to establish yourself as an author, especially in today’s binge culture.

Now Get to Work!

Many aspiring writers dream of being able to make money from their books. Many are fooled, thinking that it’s a pipe dream, that it’s not possible unless you have connections, that only people like Stephen King have what it takes to succeed.

But it’s not as complicated as people make it sound. And now that the internet has brought a new age and a new way of doing business, there are no more gatekeepers. It is more possible than ever to make a living as a creative, especially as an author.

Just don’t ignore the advice of giving your reader what they want and expect to do amazingly well. Of course, there are a few outliers, a few unicorns that go viral for whatever reason and blow up into overnight sensations. But if you stubbornly insist on writing how you want to write and ignoring your readers in the hopes that you’ll make it as one of those unicorns, the chances are overwhelmingly good that you’ll be waiting for a long, long, long time.

The secret’s out. You know where to look. Learn your genre, learn its tropes and quirks, and implement them. There’s plenty of money to be made by writing, and you can have a slice of it as long as you always remember to put your reader first.

 P.S. I throw around the word “easy” a lot, I know. But ask most seasoned authors, and they’ll tell you the same thing: Writing the book is the easy part.

Publishing and marketing your book is some of the toughest work you’ll do. And unlike writing, you’ll actually have to spend some money. But if you do it right, that money will come back to you several times over.

So don’t miss parts 2 and 3 of this series to learn how to turn your manuscript into a bestseller!

How to Write a Bestselling Book
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