EVENT REPORT What Makes a Bestseller?

Larisa Villar Hauser shares what she learnt at the recent SCBWI London Industry Insiders 'WHAT MAKES A BESTSELLER' event. Grab your notebook - you'll want to write down the excellent tips she offers.

On Tuesday 13 June 2017, SCBWI London Industry Insiders hosted an event to explore the question WHAT MAKES A BESTSELLER? The panel included Barry Cunningham, Managing Director of Chicken House, Stephanie Thwaites, agent at Curtis Brown, and Robin Stevens the best-selling author of the Murder Most Unladylike series. Industry Insiders’ Mandy Rabin hosted the event and led the panel in a question and answer session.

From left to right: Stephanie Thwaites, Barry Cunningham, Robin Stevens and event organiser Mandy Rabin. Photo credit: Larisa Villar Hauser.

So … what DOES make a bestseller? Is writing a bestseller down to hard graft and a canny sense of audience? Or luck? Are bestsellers just the creations of clever marketing teams? Or celebrities who sell masses of books on the back of fame? These and many other questions were asked and answered at the event. The good news is that there are only ten very simple steps to ensuring bestseller success … and here they are for those of you who couldn’t make the event. See you on Oprah!

1. MAKE ‘EM LAUGH (or cry). Kids are unconstrained in their reading and respond to emotional delivery more than literary quality. If your reader is laughing, crying, angry, scared … s/he is going to keep reading and spread the word.

2. HAVE A GREAT HOOK Make it easy for kids to tell their friends about your book by having a clear, simple and awesome HOOK … it makes the job of your agent, editor and publisher easier too.

3. DO ONE THING REALLY WELL. Standout characters, gripping plot, sparky dialogue, cutting edge concept. Doing one thing really well gives the reader a reason to be engaged and keep on reading - and something to rave to their friends about.

4. HAVE AN (AWFULLY) EXCELLENT VILLAIN Mrs Trunchbull, Voldemort, Cruella de Vil. Nothing gets kids talking more than a truly nasty villain.

5. MAKE THE STRUGGLE BIG so that your characters work hard to tackle the risk, danger or threat. High stakes and big conflict.

6. Making your characters work hard is one thing, but try to WRITE LEANER, FASTER, KEENER so that the reader doesn’t have to work hard. Although kids can be very forgiving if there is something in the story to keep them going, make it easy: avoid long sections where nothing is happening.

7. DON’T CHASE A BIG ADVANCE Huge publisher expectations can kill a career.
Big advances add huge pressure to sell lots of books. If you don’t earn out your advance it may be hard to get another contract … and your bestseller might be your third book, not your first.

8. GET OUT THERE. Feet on (play)ground help sell books, so don’t let introversion get the better of you. Do school visits. Bookstore readings work too. Network, do interviews. Publishers have to work hard to sell books … and so do authors.

9. BE CANNY (or better still, get your publisher to be canny for you). Bestseller lists are relative and can be manipulated. For example, few YA books are released in hardback, so if yours is … there you are on the bestseller list!

10. The next bestseller is something no one thought of yet. A new perspective. A new voice. A boundary pushed. It’s actually impossible to accurately predict which books will fly off the shelves … there is so much that isn’t understood. So don’t follow a trend or try to figure out a gap in the market. Just WRITE THE BOOK YOU WANT TO WRITE.

Featured image credit: Larisa Villar Hauser

Larisa Villar Hauser works as a freelance translator of TV scripts/treatments and marketing materials. She writes middle grade fiction and is in the early planning of a new story. By volunteering as joint London Network Coordinator, Larisa hopes to spread the SCBWI 'lurv' – and get unshackled from her desk.


A M Dassu is a member of the Words & Pictures editorial team, she manages the Events team and SCBWI BI events coverage.
Contact her at events@britishscbwi.org

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