I’ll say this right up front:

The title of this post is complete nonsense

I could have used similar words on the cover of my book on craft to attract those who believe there’s some secret ingredient to bestselling fiction, but I didn’t.


Because, first, I like to think I have a little integrity. And second, the truth is, nobody can tell you how to write a bestseller.


I don’t care if they’ve sold a gazillion books themselves, there is no person on this planet who can tell you how to write something that will rocket to the bestseller lists.

Not even the big New York publishers know how to get their books on the bestseller lists. If they did, every book they published would be there.

I decided to write this post because I was searching the Internet one day and stumbled across a writer’s website that had an article with a title very similar to the one above. So I took a look at the post and, yes, the author had included some good advice, but none of it really had anything to do with writing a bestseller. He had simply used that word to get your eyes on the page.

So I used the same trick here to make a point.

And I’ll bet your adrenalin rose just a little when you saw it, right?

But here’s the thing…


Because it’s completely out of your control.

If you sit down to write a “bestseller,” you are taking a wrong-headed approach to writing. Writing great fiction has nothing to do with writing bestsellers. Bestsellers are, by and large, flukes. Right place, right time. And not all bestsellers are created equal.

I can name a dozen of my friends who do everything right and should be on the bestseller lists, and authors who are and don’t belong there.

When I wrote Trial Junkies, I just wanted to write a great book. I had no idea it would go on to be an indie bestseller. Sure, it was something I hoped for, but I certainly wasn’t rubbing my hands together in anticipation of mega-sales. I just wrote the book I wanted to read and decided to let fate take care of the rest.

So don’t put all your energy into trying to write a bestseller. You should simply write the best book you can possibly write. A book you’re so excited about that you don’t care if you ever make a dime off of it.

I spent many years writing stuff that I knew would never sell. In fact, I didn’t even try to sell it, because I knew it wasn’t good enough. But I kept at it for several years. I wrote story fragments and screenplays and teleplays and partial novels and while I knew what I was producing was not quite there yet, I also knew, with great certainty, that it would be one day.

Sure, I had dreams of being Stephen King or Dean Koontz. We all do. But the reality is that most writers never make it to the lists, yet they still manage to have wonderful careers.
Should you forget about your dreams?

No. Sometimes they’re all you have.

But any thoughts of bestsellerdom should be relegated to the back part of the brain. You have a story to write. And that’s all you should be thinking about.

If you publish it and it manages to reach one of the bestseller lists, that’s just gravy.

So there is no How to write a bestseller.

And don’t ever be fooled by anyone who claims to know the secret. That particular brand of fairy dust just doesn’t exist.


  1. Yes, you’re describing the difference between dreams and goals. My editor keeps saying she wants me to be a NYT best-selling author. Would it be nice? Sure. Is it likely? I don’t think so. But my goal is more realistic. Write the best book I can and put it out for readers. After listening to Neil Nyren at SleuthFest, I’m all the more satisfied to chug along with my indie titles. I enjoy writing them, and I hear from enough fans to keep my ego boosted.

  2. Excellent advice, Joe, as always. On an unrelated topic, I’m back to only receiving digests again. Any idea why? Should I unsubscribe/re-subscribe?

  3. And you didn’t even get into the weird machinations of what goes into becoming a bestseller once the book is out of your hands.

    Like the New York Times list. It’s not even based on customer sales but on a sample of sales to sanctified bookstores, chains and other wholesalers. (called “reporting retail outlets”). (USAToday list is based on customer sales). The list is calculated weekly, so if a book sells a lot over the long haul but never has a strong sales week (ie “velocity”) , it won’t become a best seller. Your book could actually sell more copies than one on the NYT list but your book will never show up there. The number of sales it takes to make the list fluctuate by the week and month. One week you can with with 2,000 books the next week it might take 10,000. It’s all relative. Some retailers, like airports, delay their reporting for weeks or even months, which can dilute your numbers. Pre-orders count towards the first week of sales, but if you book shipped early (mine always did…didn’t have a “hard” laydown date, as they call it, meaning no one can sell your book before the designated Tuesday lay down date…why it is always Tuesday, go figure!), your numbers can be spread out over weeks, thus never giving you a shot as crucial “velocity.”

    And that’s only for starters…

    So as Rob says, recite the writer’s prayer every day: Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change (the system), the courage to change what I can (my book quality) and the wisdom to not drink cheap wine at the end of the day.

  4. I’ve always said, cynically, that bestsellers are ordained before they hit the bookstores. And as stated here, we have nothing at all to do with the ordaining process, and too often, neither does the quality of what has been written before it gets to the Department of Ordination, secreted away in the basement of the publishing houses that deny all knowledge of this process.

    Great post today, Greg.

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