How to write a bestselling book.


“There are more books being published every year than the year before,” the man tells an audience of 80 aspiring authors. He wears a brown sweater vest and blazer. His tone is grim. The audience rustles—is this good news or bad news? 

“…and these numbers are exponentially increasing at a rate that readers are not.” 

Ah. Bad news, then.

I went to WDS this summer, and as well as breaking the world record for the most number of people dressed as dinosaurs, I attended a workshop with Jeff Goins. It was titled, “Your Big Book Idea: How To Write A Bestseller.” 

He shared his bestseller formula with us (and it really is a formula, like algebra!) and I took a lot of notes, so I could share it with you.

Jeff Goins is a blogger turned author. He wrote a bestselling book about how to make money as a writer titled, Real Artists Don’t Starve. He ran online writing workshops for ten years. He retired that part of his business and now runs Fresh Complaint, a book production agency. 

I don’t know much about how to sell books. I know how to write them, but that’s different. I was an author way before I started a blog, and sometimes I feel like I’m walking up an escalator that’s going down. 

But first, what even is a bestseller? Goins shared some stats to help define it:

  • Most traditionally published books don’t sell more than 3000 copies in their lifetime.

  • Most self-published books don’t sell more than 500 copies in their lifetime.

  • So, a bestseller is simply a book that sells more than most other books in its category.

  • That's it.

And to make a book sell more than other books in its category, he says, it has to be interesting

The main point of the Jeff Goins seminar is that all books start with a great idea, whether the author knows it or not. His premise is, you need to start your book with an idea that challenges your readers’ assumptions. 

Here is Jeff Goins’ formula for an interesting book idea:

Everybody thinks X, but what’s actually true is Y. 

“Attack the taken for granted!” Jeff Goins pleaded with us. “Pick a commonly held belief, and then find a way to disagree with it!”

He had some great points. And despite his tone, there was hope in his message. “Books are shared ideas and emotions,” he said. “A book is an invitation into transformation.”

I agree wholeheartedly. Writers connect human beings to each other through shared consciousness. And when we share our writing, we are literally creating our culture with stories and ideas. This is world-changing stuff.

But every attempt I’ve made to think up a good idea ends up with headaches, neck pain, and angst billowing over a blank page. My brain doesn’t generate ideas, it makes connections. My thinking is non-linear: I’m a listener, an observer, a collector.

I have a highly associative, spirographic way of thinking. I am constantly connecting everything to everything, creating an infinite interrelated cosmos of sensory details and observations. 

So in the workshop, when it was our turn to “come up with an idea”, I blanked.

Writing helps me stop thinking. I write to give voice to the right side of my brain, to transmit consciousness without logical language, so my scenes and stories evoke more than my conscious mind can predict or “think up”. 

As I write those non-linear connections out of details and observations, I avoid overwhelm, because I’m not consciously doing anything. My mind relaxes, the way my fingers relax as I’m knitting. 

I relate to Flannery O’Connor, who said, “I don’t know what I think until I read what I write.”

Eventually I managed to scribble an algebraic idea into my notebook: 

Everyone thinks that you have to think up an interesting idea for a book, but what’s actually true is that you have to stop thinking in order to find an interesting idea for a book.

Anyway, that’s my first draft. This workshop really made me reflect (again) on Henry Lien’s mind-blowing workshop on diverse story forms and structures, and how culture is created through story, and how bestseller formulas may or may not be reinforcing the mainstream status quo, and how “attack the taken for granted!” sounds when we think about the decision to overthrow Roe vs. Wade, and how maybe we need to try another kind of bestseller formula, or maybe try no formula at all, or what would happen if there were different people making decisions about what gets published in the first place?

Please leave a comment, and let me know what you think about bestselling books, how to come up with ideas, linear vs. non-linear thinking, or anything else this brings up.

Sarah Selecky

Photo credit: Ramiro Mendes on Unsplash.

Write a list. (A writing tutorial).
Story structure… and staying alive.


Kasey Corbit

I was so glad to read the rest of this post because when I saw the formula my brain cramped. I am a lot like you: connecting, collecting, writing to quiet my mind and find what’s true.

That said, I do think there’s a lot of formula in storytelling and the stories that stick with me the most are ones that somehow played with it. There are a couple of short stories and flash pieces I’ve read in the past year that my kind keeps flicking back to in part because the surprise in it was so good. So maybe he’s right. But I don’t know that any kind of intentional disruption comes at the idea stage (depending on the way the writer accesses that state). Maybe it’s a consideration for revision? Along the lines of, what am I saying here? How can I flip expectations? 

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Julie Gabrielli

Yes! I was also thinking this comes in revision, as well as in feedback from readers of drafts. I, too, love a good surprise that shifts everything. (no pressure - haha!)

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Diane Ferguson

Interesting! I feel I have a similar connecting brain which is why I always journal before I start writing, to empty it out. (Julia Cameron's three pages). It's also why I like novel writing; I don't have to come up with new ideas every day. I find my interest in stories are the relationships between people, and the relationship with the self. I have a tendency to pick topics that make my protagonist choose between compelling options, and in so choosing, fulfil a theme of the book. However, my stories (hopefully) also recognize that there is no one right answer to anything, and that everything lies on a spectrum. You can only make the right choice for yourself.

As I'm approaching the end (hopefully) of this forever novel, I'm starting to think it might be good to write several short stories, generate some fresh ideas. Novel writing has been good, but also constraining. (I still have a day job!) I was just reading a book I bought a year ago, Tarot for Writers, by Corrine Kenner. I think it might be interesting to work with, along with your story prompts, to generate new ideas. And I really want to try out Lien's 4 act structure, for the short story. That really peaked my interest.

I'm thinking about a a novel I started writing a number of years ago before I ended up diving back into my first novel.  Now I'm not sure if I should continue with that novel, or start something entirely new. I'm excited about the possibilities. But writing this response made me realize, I really want to do some short stories while I'm querying my novel. (Also thinking of Alan Watt's 90 day novel course for when I do dive in. Thanks so much for all the great connections at Centered!)

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S.Portico Bowman

Sarah: Thank you for this post. I’m a newly minted, hot off the press first time novelist. 

I could write a book in response to your post, but instead maybe I could be on your podcast, because what I’ve found out is although I don’t want to like Amazon, I almost have to like Amazon, because the sweet, beloved indie bookstore that I  love, can be quite rude when I  want my book on their shelf. I now understand why. They are overwhelmed. I heard the statistic is 1,000 new books a day. They don’t have room for all of us. It’s a protection mechanism to be rude. But, then how do people find my book? 

One book buyer seemed excited that my second book has aspects of magic realism: “it’s a trend,” she said.

But like you, I can’t write to formulas and trends. I can only write the book I must write. I have three to write.

Then there’s my cousin I met for a coffee before my reading at the Vancouver Public Library. On the way there we talked about her return to the symphony, and the theatre, you know: that kind of cousin. But once seated for coffee, she apologized for not reading so much anymore, “But you see,” she said, “there‘s a new game on my phone. It takes a lot of time. I win monuments.”  My book can't give her monuments.

And then there’s the publicist we paid for. I could talk a very long time about why that was a good, and very bad idea. 

And I could talk for a very long time about why now in our age of “influencers,” it’s all about feeling famous, when all we really want is to feel whole. 

And that’s why I write. 

I think a best-selling book is one book that got sold. 

We all know how hard the book was to write, and beautiful, and fulfilling, and we know to have it published means there are at least three hundred other submissions that didn’t. 

So, one book should be enough. But our amygdala’s aren’t set up for that. Our instinct is to win, and compete. That’s the fast way for me to lose my way because I’m writing to connect, to mySelf, not win, but I forget that when I see others winning.

And mostly I’m feeling like one lucky needle in the haystack, but what about the woman I met in the Seattle airport. She’s spent ten years looking for a publisher, but they all want her to have 10,000 followers. She told me about the book, The Death of the Artist. It’s all about how big Tech has  us “count” success. This has become a real obstacle to creative experience. I get that. And she bought my book. 

But everyday I’m grateful I was not thirteen and navigating social media. I’d have never made it. But now I’m navigating it on behalf of my characters who deserve to have their story read. But it takes a lot of time. Time I’d like to spend writing.

So maybe we could talk about all of this. Because although I’ve sold more than one book, on behalf of my amazing publisher Netta Johnson at Stonehouse Publishing, who is living her dream, along with her writers, I’d like to sell a few more.

We could talk about that too. 

But mostly, I think, like you, I don’t know how to sell books. I’ve spent all my energy learning how to write one. 

Alison Pick has been my mentor for many years, so I’ve not had to enroll in your programs. But if I didn’t have her, I’d be right there. 

And yet I’m super grateful to be here right now. Your post hit the spot this morning. 

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Sarah, this is fantastic. Thank you. I love this post for so many reasons, the main one being that it has inspired me to pick up a pen again! I remember the exact moment I stopped writing. There was a lot of pressure & I blanked. I’ve been feeling super itchy to write the past few years and, after reading this, I’m going to start! 🙏♥️

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Julie Gabrielli

Wonderful post! I was diligently taking notes -- "challenge readers' assumptions," etc - then came your surprise response that resonates with me so much more. It's a leap of faith to write with no (or few) preconceptions, but the material is always more evocative, richer. One writer I love calls a first draft her "discovery draft" and I'm going to use that from now on. 

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Melanie Ormand

Thank you, Sarah, for helping me realize I am not alone on this authorial adventure. 

I, too, am a spirographic creator but didn't know it until I read your "spirographic way of thinking" - I process my aligning my thoughts, ideas, concepts as if along a clothesline. Or so I thought until reading your words. Spirographic implies living, growing, evolution and isn't that what the most memorable tales encourage? Wow. Meat for a wonderful week and, for, a vegetarian, that's food for a long while. 

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