Note: I define 'setting' as where and when a novel takes place, as well as what the genre entails. It is the background to the picture of the story.

I realize there are a lot of factors that contribute to making bestsellers become bestsellers, and that the list is by no means limited to writing and setting. My concern is with writing versus setting. I've seen some books (which I will not name, to avoid the inevitable debate), that to me at least, seem to have become bestsellers simply through their setting. They are written well, certainly, but they are often full of mistakes, and the writing in general is not the stuff of greatness.

This raises the question: can a novel become a bestseller (mostly) because of its setting? Can you get away with mediocre writing and still sell because your setting is popular?

Note: I don't want to give the impression that I am trying to get away with mediocre writing. :) I'm actually hoping that the answer to the question above is 'no'; that there is some other reason these novels have become bestsellers.

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    I think you've created a false dichotomy. Good writing doesn't necessarily make a bestseller, and neither does the setting. It's more complicated than that. – Kit Z. Fox Jul 16 '15 at 23:49
  • It's more what contributes the most out of the two. I tried to convey that in the question, maybe I wasn't clear enough. I know neither makes a bestseller on its own. – Thomas Myron Jul 17 '15 at 0:07
  • Well, I'd say that varies on a case-by-case basis. Getting your setting or writing on the point isn't exactly a sure-shot way to guarantee a bestseller. I wish all the rules were laid in stone, but they just aren't. But isn't that what makes writing fun? – Sampark Sharma Jul 17 '15 at 14:40
  • I have an answer below; but to answer the implied question, the "other reason" these novels have become bestsellers: It is not about setting, it IS about writing, specifically imaginative plot, sympathetic characters, pacing and an engaging mystery or question. An imaginative setting can contribute to an imaginative plot, but the novels you question get away with flawed technical skills because they excel in story crafting so the question of "What Happens Next" never fades and keeps their readers turning pages to find out, and leaves their readers satisfied at the end. – Amadeus Oct 18 at 10:25
up vote 5 down vote accepted

It seems you're using the term setting in a non-standard way to mean genre conventions. Given that, I would say that a mastery of genre, including the fulfillment of the expectations of the core audience, can bring short-term popularity, but that only good writing will endure over the long term.

It's also worth noting that the most popular works typically draw on a given genre, but subvert it or transcend it by taking it in unexpected-but-satisfying new directions (that way they not only pick up the core audience, they expand upon it) --and it takes excellent writing to manage that task.

As @what noted, however, the impact of selling can outweigh both quality and genre appeal, at least in the short term.

  • I am indeed using 'setting' that way. For me, the 'setting' of twilight is teenage vampires. The 'setting' of the Inheritance Cycle is dragons, magic, and elves. As far as I can tell, these books sold well because of their setting, not necessarily because of their writing. A lot of people like those settings, and so liked those books. – Thomas Myron Jul 17 '15 at 17:12
  • That's not how most people use the word "setting." You might get more on-topic answers if you used a different term. I know you explained it, but it's still confusing, given that setting has a well-understood common definition. – Chris Sunami Jul 17 '15 at 18:23
  • What term would you suggest? – Thomas Myron Jul 17 '15 at 19:57
  • @Tommy-Myron I believe the term you are looking for is Concept. To rephrase your original question it would be Is it Writing or Concept which makes a best-seller? Hyperbole can probably best explain Concept and Concept is what "sells". For example, imagine if a tornado over the ocean picked up a pod of sharks and carried them to a densely populated area. If that was ever made into a novel or move, you might name it Sharknado. Oy! What a Concept! And, these days, it is Concept that most-often creates a best-seller. Otherwise, we'd probably make the term a best-reader or a best-written. :) – raddevus Aug 31 '15 at 1:17

If I had a formula for what makes a book a bestseller, then I'd have a bunch of bestselling books to my name instead of the lame few hundred copies my books sell.

I think the biggest factor in making a best-selling book is that the author is already famous. If a big-time Hollywood actor or a well-known politician or a champion athlete writes a book, it will almost automatically sell many copies. (In many cases they don't even write the book. They get someone else to write it and they put their name on it. But that's another story.)

Number two is that the author has previously written best-selling books. Now that Tom Clancy and J K Rowling and so on have written best-selling books, anything they write will sell well.

Number three is having a broad potential readership. Romance novels tend to sell relatively well because a large percentage of women are interested in romance (and several dozen men). A how-to book about re-inking antique typewriter ribbons will not sell very well because the number of people interested in the subject is tiny to begin with. (Though niche books like this have the advantage that there's not much competition.)

After that, I think there's a lot of luck involved. It is not at all clear to me that best-selling books in general are better written than many books that go nowhere. A really bad book that doesn't meet number 1 or number 2 above will probably not sell well. But there are lots of good books that don't sell. Some books just capture people's attention and create a "buzz". Others, for whatever reason, don't. Quality of the book is certainly a factor, but it's not simply a matter of "the best books make it".

Of course you could say the same about marketing anything. There are restaurants that have really good food that go bankrupt while a restaurant across town with mediocre food does well. There are brilliant gadgets people have invented that never take off while less clever gadgets make millions. Etc.

In many cases this is marketing: a bad product with good marketing beats a good product with bad marketing almost every time.

But in the book world, there isn't very much real marketing. You get a book on the shelves at the bookstore and/or listed on Amazon and you hope people will buy it. You rarely see TV commercials or newspaper ads for specific books.

I don't mean to sound negative. I'd just say, "Write the best book you can, do the best you can to promote it, and hope and pray for the best."

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    "#1: Author is already famous. #2: Previously written best-sellers." What about J K Rowling? She had neither of these rules going for her, and turned out the best selling series of all time. She even got turned down by a fair number of publishers. – Thomas Myron Jul 17 '15 at 17:09
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    @TommyMyron My intent was to say that having one or both of these things in your favor gives a strong chance that a book will be a best-seller, not that the absence of these things means it is impossible to have a best-seller. Like if I said, "If someone drives drunk they are likely to have an accident", that certainly does not mean that it is impossible to get in an accident if you are not drunk. – Jay Jul 17 '15 at 17:46
  • ... That's just way too logical. :) – Thomas Myron Jul 17 '15 at 18:22

As Alexandro said: Neither of those. Many bestsellers are amazingly badly written, and bestsellers come from all genres and settings.

What makes a bestseller is marketability and the marketing that are based on this. Every current bestseller has a clearly defined target audience and contains what that audience craves most. (For example, Fifty Shades of Grey is a condensation of the sex column in current women's magazines.)

Bestsellers are turned into movies. Therefore a bestseller must be written with the movie in mind. Current bestsellers are almost all novellizations of movie scripts that don't exist. To get your book turned into a movie, you or your agent must have connections to the filmmaking undustry, or you must be a filmmaker yourself (director, producer, actor etc.). (For example, Roth's badly written and badly reader-reviewed Divergent series was sold to become a movie before the first volume was published.)

Bestselling authors are good looking. If they are, the media will love to report on them and their work frequently and with lots of photos, and fanboys and fangirls will spend all their allowance on their books. Attractiveness sells. I've personally bought and read and written fan letters to authors simply because they were pretty.

Socially competent authors also know how to use current social media to build a community around themselves and their work. (Best example is the YouTube channel of John Green.)

  • Nah. You can spend a million dollars marketing a piece of junk, and although you will sell many copies of that piece of junk, you won't sell a million dollars worth of it. People read it and bring it back, and complain on social media, and none of their friends buy the piece of junk. Reviewers tell people its a piece of junk. Marketing can get people talking about a book, but if it isn't good talk, it won't sell. Less than 10% of people will buy a book based on marketing without any input from anybody else, and even they won't buy it if they have heard it is a piece of junk. – Amadeus Oct 17 at 21:31
  • If you are writing with getting a movie made in mind, why wouldn't the author just write movie scripts, and not a novel? What's the point of writing a book if you want to write a movie? – Artsoccer Oct 17 at 22:52

Neither of those. They can certainly make a novel enjoyable. But make it a best-seller...I'm not sure. For instance, I've never heard people say that they want to read a novel because it's set in New York or Paris or Narnia.

As for the writing...okay maybe this one is more important. However, the term is a little ambiguous. What do you mean by writing? The quality of the prose? Whether it's funny?

I think the key element to write a best-seller is to make it a page-turner. I've never read or heard of a page-turner that wasn't a best-seller.

If I am limited to Writing and Setting as you describe them, I have to choose Writing.

Because I think a fine story can be written in an unsurprising setting, about lawyers, or love, or comedy, or hacking. Mr. Robot has no really exotic or memorable settings, I think that is excellent writing.

I think Seinfeld was excellent comedic writing, it is set in very ordinary parts of NYC, the characters had pretty basic jobs.

The same was true for things like Backdraft, The Perfect Storm, and many other dramas.

When Harry Met Sally has mundane settings.

I don't care how exotic your setting is, poor writing is just not entertaining, it is irritating. What makes a best-seller is an entertaining story and free and trusted advertising by word-of-mouth and free reviews, from readers that say they really liked it. They liked it because they liked the characters and kept reading to find out what happened to them, how it worked out, and were still happy after reading the last page.

"Setting" may provide some surprises and delight at its cleverness, but if the reading is a slog, these novelties fall flat. And I don't think an unusual "Setting" is required at all for a best seller, what is required is a compelling character with an interesting problem and the mystery of how she will solve it. To my, that falls more on the "Writing" side than the "Setting" side, because she can be a reporter in Anytown, USA, trying to send some evil crime boss to prison without getting herself killed in the bargain.

I agree with your first statement. There really are many, many factors in creating a bestseller, some of which vary depending on your target age range. The story's setting, if well written, can contribute a lot to a piece of writing. Without other factors, though, even a stunningly-written setting cannot make it to the top alone. An interesting plot and well-developed characters probably do more for your book than a good setting.

I don't want to be too cynical, but... being politically correct in just the right way.

It is old news in U.S. politics that, as is said in some of the many constellations of African national cultures, "It takes a village to raise a child." (Or, if you aren't reading this in history books, "It takes a village.") I don't know which of the many constellations of cultures this quote is attributed to, but there is something similar in spirit in one of Kenya many languages having a saying, "When you're pregnant with a child, he belongs to you. Once he's born, he's belongs to everybody." (And yes, I'm saying "he," out of respect to a culture that also says, "he.")

What "It takes a village to maintain a child" would ordinarily mean in any traditional African culture would probably be that every adult owes some participation in responsibility for every child: every adult stands, to some degree, in parentis loco. This is almost a diametric opposite to the contemporary U.S. understanding of "It takes a village", meaning more specifically that it takes a full complement of bureaucratic initiatives to raise a child, and adults of the village, and if you are cynical enough, parents too, know their place and do not encroach on state territory by standing in parentis loco.

Now it may be murky territory to say that the four words "It takes a village" is a bestseller. I submit that if you take the number of times that phrase has been broadcast to what number of people, we're giving your favorite bestselling author a run for its money.

I see no serious way to suggest that all you have to do is be politically correct in just the right way, maybe a several steps ahead in the Zeitgeist, as presumably there are three or four factors at minimum, and I furthermore do not see political correctness as the #1 contestant.

However, it would seem silly to try to write a bestseller while ignoring the true depths and layers of political correctness.

  • What... does this have to do with the question? I'm not asking about political correctness. – Thomas Myron Aug 31 '15 at 0:56
  • You asked about what makes a bestseller, and I outlined a guaranteed dealbreaker. Can you name one bestseller in the past ten years that has been politically incorrect by far? – JonathanHayward Aug 31 '15 at 1:33

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