The Secret to Writing a Commercial Hit

Here’s the answer to the question nearly every aspiring author has asked (whether they admit it or not): How do you write a bestseller?

Well, I’m going to tell you how.


The answer is: You can’t.

Well, duhJJ, you might say. Keep your head down and write your own bookthat’s what everyone says.

That’s all true, of course. But it doesn’t stop all of us (agents and editors included!) from trying to find/write The Next Big Thing. Surely there’s a secret—a trick! If we could just crack the formula, then surely we can game the system. Funnily enough, this is what my fiancé believes. He’s more math/science-inclined than I am; in addition to being a doctor, he also has a business degree and his religion is statistics. He thinks that surely, if we conducted a big enough study of all the “hits” in publishing, we could reasonably extrapolate what the next one might be.

Well, yes…and no.

He might be the more mathematically/scientifically-inclined one of the two of us, but I was an English major, and was therefore trained to think analytically. He might study facts, but I studied (and continue to study) culture, and our processes are astoundingly similar. Take the evidence, analyze it, and form a conclusion. However, where he and I differ is in the belief that whether or not said conclusions can predict an outcome.

A few weeks ago, there was an interesting piece in The New Yorker about How Frozen Took Over the World. The conclusions reached were more or less what I’ve laid out—namely that no real conclusions about what makes a hit can be reached—but there were some interesting bits of information that I think can be applied to writing a “successful” book, the most important takeaway being:

Story is king.

A lot of my writing posts here at PubCrawl have dealt with Story (here, here, and even here to some extent); in my opinion, it is the most important part of writing. The craft is secondary to the choices a writer makes in telling the story. In fact, when I was an editor, a writer’s ability to craft a perfect sentence was secondary to the writer’s ability to keep the pages turning. I could forgive a lot of flaws on a sentence level if I just needed to know what happens next. (Cough, The Da Vinci Code, cough.)

In my years in publishing, I gradually came to the conclusion that I fell a little bit more on the commercial side of the literary/commercial divide. Of course, literary vs. commercial is a false dichotomy; you can have a literary novel that is also commercial. But when I was a young English major at NYU, I just assumed that “literary” (whatever that means) meant better in some unquantifiable way.

But that’s not true at all. Over time, I came to understand that if a premise didn’t hook me, then all the Proustian or Joycean-levels of writing could not save it. If I wasn’t interested from its opening pitch, then a book would have to overcome a subconscious obstacle in order to grab my attention. Simply put, I was more interested in what a book was instead of what it was about.

Which brings me back to Frozen. The article mentions “buzz” or “word-of-mouth”, an elusive thing that contributes so much to a work’s success. What is Frozen? It’s the story of a young woman who has to save the kingdom—and her sister—from a fearsome power. The most commercial and/or easily digestible (which does not mean “uncomplex” or “simplistic”) works can very easily be simplified into a single, powerful sentence.

A boy discovers he can do magic, and that he is fated to save the world from the darkest wizard who ever lived.

A young woman falls in love with a young man, only to discover he is a vampire who might kill her.

A young woman will do anything, including kill other children on national television, to save her sister’s life.

A terminally ill girl falls in love with a boy who also has cancer.

I just described Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, and The Fault in Our Stars, respectively. I don’t think it’s coincidence that John Green’s most successful title to date is probably the easiest of his works to describe in a “high concept”-style pitch. That is, in effect, what “high concept” means: an easily digestible premise.

People have decried the “literary value” of each of these works (and some for justifiable reasons), but even if Stephenie Meyer had been world’s finest prose stylist, it still wouldn’t have diminished the intrinsic commercial quality of Twilight. A good story is a good story, whether the writer is “good” or “bad”. And that, I think, is the the secret to writing a commercial hit.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments!


10 Responses to The Secret to Writing a Commercial Hit

  1. Erin Bartels Jul 7 2014 at 7:58 am #

    Maybe I’m the odd duck out, but I will give a lot more time to a novel with fine prose and an obscure story than I will to a bestselling commercial novel with mediocre prose. I’ve started a number of recent hits at a bookstore to see what the big deal was and for some I couldn’t even get past the second page. I suspect I’m in the minority on this. 🙂

  2. Erica Jul 7 2014 at 8:42 am #

    I think this can be taken a step further: What makes a story great/memorable? Characters. That’s what set those stories apart (HP, Twilight, HG, and TFIOS) from others like them. Without interesting characters, I can point you 10 different stories with “a boy discovers he can do magic, and that he is fated to save the world from the darkest wizard who ever lived” or “a terminally ill girl falls in love with a boy who also has cancer.” That’s why knockoffs of trendsetters aren’t nearly as memorable. They have the story/plot but not the characters/heart.

  3. Anna-Maria Crum Jul 7 2014 at 10:39 am #

    Excellent post. I agree with your analysis. For me story matters more than theme. When you concentrate too much on theme, the characters and story can suffer. I want to bond with the POV character and experience the story through their feelings, reactions, and decisions. When prose gets in the way of the storytelling, you lose your audience. It’s like an airbrush painting. If your first impression is the technique, then it fails as a work of art. Viewers should see the object first, and then later, appreciate the craft.

  4. Traci Kenworth Jul 7 2014 at 8:33 pm #

    This makes the most sense of out anything I’ve read as to the “secret.”

  5. david henry sterry Jul 8 2014 at 8:52 am #

    Dull & obvious

    • M.M. Jul 18 2014 at 12:23 pm #

      Rude and uncalled for. But you probably already knew that.

  6. Susan Jul 13 2014 at 10:38 am #

    This article reminds us all of several points, which we need to keep in mind when writing a story.
    Simple, easy to digest information which clarifies the ‘high concept’ pitch.
    It makes a difference, so thank you for taking the time to remind us all, why these things are important to our story.
    Good article!

  7. Sarah Jul 14 2014 at 9:25 pm #

    But isn’t part of good writing the good story? If I’m seeing how something “is written” I feel like I can’t become completely absorbed into the story itself.

    This is why I don’t like books that have a lot of narration as suppose to dialogue. Though that’s my opinion. Assuming the dialogue is written naturally, and not saidisms.

    if it can be summarized into a sentence, yea thats a bonus.

Leave a Reply to Erin Bartels Click here to cancel reply.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.