No one can say for sure what transforms a manuscript into a bestseller. If they could, the book publishing industry and literature in general would be far duller.

Sometimes luck plays a role: a book flies off bookstore shelves because of fortuitous timing or the prevailing zeitgeist. Or maybe putting “Girl” in the title still helps stack the deck. The sexualized-girl-in-danger trend shows signs of being evergreen, as demonstrated by An Anonymous Girl by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen.

But some novels clearly have more commercial potential than others—meaning they are more likely to be picked up by a publisher, and later by readers.

A genre advantage

Not all the books sold within a genre are perfect fits. Sometimes authors are annoyed to have their work pigeonholed within a genre, even though it could be advantageous to their writing career.

Titles published within a genre are more commercial because their stories are classifiable. A publisher knows how to sell romances or mysteries. Booksellers know where to shelve them, and they have other strategies for targeting potential readerships.

In genre publishing, book endings conform to rules. A literary snob might bristle at having her novels compared to James Patterson or Bella Andre or Danielle Steele. A smart career author delights in the knowledge that someone is telling them that their book seems decidedly commercial.

Your writing should be highly accessible

A novel is more commercial if it reads less like Marcel Proust and more like Janet Evanovich. This doesn’t mean dumbing it down. On the contrary: your goal is to communicate seamlessly to a contemporary reader—no simple task.

Agent Paula Munier wrote an enlightening post on hard-to-describe, hard-to-achieve sentence quality. It’s not enough to tell a good story. Readers should enjoy the ride. It’s sometimes said that literary fiction is more about prose and commercial fiction is more about escape. However, commercial fiction still needs to read faultlessly, and some literary novels turn out to be highly commercial. Why? Read on.

Your story should matter

Being commercial means attaining a universal quality. To the point, readers must be able to relate to your story.

Are you telling a story important only to you, or are you relating a story that readers can identify with on some level?

A commercial novel’s plot resonates with a wider audience. Even if the protagonist is unusual or eccentric or an outlier of some kind, a successful career author shows them to be relatable, just a person like anyone else.

R.J. Palacio’s novel Wonder tells the story of a boy who many people would avoid looking at in the street. Yet reading Auggie Pullman’s tenderly told, utterly moving struggle, we learn and empathize with his humanity (or 6 million bookbuyers did). Such is the power and brilliance of effective storytelling.

Your book should be fast-paced

A breathless quality keeps readers turning pages. Fans of Don Winslow’s explosive thrillers don’t want to stop until reaching the end. A commercial book’s plot hurtles forward, like a speeding train barreling down a track.

Literary fiction readers may not mind puzzling through levels of ambiguity while fans of commercial fiction prefer more straightforward tales. In the New York Times, James Parker wrote: “Commercial fiction is the stuff people want to read, while literary fiction is the stuff they think they should read.”

Box office poison: If you kill a dog or a cat in your book, it’s not commercial. Angry readers often won’t even finish such a book and will be determined not to buy its author’s next.

In an ever-changing creative field, there are exceptions to every rule. Unlikely books—like a collection of short stories by George Saunders—can become bestsellers. Invariably, readers search for evocative, provocative, emotionally compelling stories. They want intelligent, entertaining books with appealing characters.

Writers and agents and editors and publishers work to some degree on gut instinct: they hope others will like what they like. Even so, acquiring editors at publishing houses must convince their bosses that a submitted book has a good shot at commercial success. A career author wants to give them all the ammunition they need.


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