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.
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.
Photo credit: Ramiro Mendes on Unsplash.