How to Write a Bestseller

016You ever notice that the people who teach how to write bestsellers are not actually writing them? I always wonder about this...

Anyway, as writers, we spend a fair amount of time contemplating, discussing and, yes, taking workshops on how to write bestselling books. We pretty much all want to have our books sell well, and that's the pinnacle. There's a lot of reasons to want that - money is always useful and we'd all love to have lots of readers. I suspect even the most Zen among us would dance a happy jig to hit the NYT Bestseller List.

One of the problems with thinking about writing a bestseller, however, is worrying about likability. Obviously, a bestselling book appeals to a great number of people. So, above and beyond our usual concern that we want our books to be loved and celebrated, we start thinking about getting All The People to love and celebrate our books.

Even though we know that's impossible.

This is on my mind because the novel I finished last week has a difficult heroine. Now, I often have flawed characters. That's part of who I am as a writer. And when I set out to write this book, the story appealed to me because the heroine is unusual and not terribly likable. Okay - she's a hot mess. She's damaged and, as a result, does some pretty awful things.

Predictably, one of my critique partners came back with notes that I was going to have a problem with likability. She cited several things that readers would object to, particularly romance readers.

I started fretting about it.

And reconsidering if I should change some things, haul it back.

The thing is - this IS the story I wanted to write. I knew going in that not all readers would love it, and yet I keep going back to the desire to modify it so they will. As if it's possible to find a way to please everyone.

I have a note pinned up next to my desk: "What would you write if you weren't afraid?" I should make it into a big poster. Because this is all about fear. Being afraid that readers will push back, that the book will fail, that I will fail and not in some tragically romantic starving-in-a-garret way, but in a with-a-whimper way.

And it's all nonsense.

Nobody knows how to write a bestseller. If there was a magic formula, wouldn't everyone be using it? Everyone is guessing and hoping. The best we can do is be true to the stories we want to write.

As long as we obey our feline overlords, we'll be just fine.

Jeffe Kennedy
Jeffe Kennedy is an award-winning author whose works include non-fiction, poetry, short fiction, and novels. She has been a Ucross Foundation Fellow, received the Wyoming Arts Council Fellowship for Poetry, and was awarded a Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Award. Her essays have appeared in many publications, including Redbook.

Her most recent works include a number of fiction series: the fantasy romance novels of A Covenant of Thorns; the contemporary BDSM novellas of the Facets of Passion, and an erotic contemporary serial novel, Master of the Opera, which released beginning January 2, 2014. A fourth series, the fantasy trilogy The Twelve Kingdoms, hit the shelves starting in May 2014 and book 1, The Mark of the Tala, received a starred Library Journal review and has been nominated for the RT Book of the Year while the sequel, The Tears of the Rose, has been nominated for best fantasy romance of the year. A fifth series, the highly anticipated erotic romance trilogy, Falling Under, released starting with Going Under in July.

She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with two Maine coon cats, plentiful free-range lizards and a very handsome Doctor of Oriental Medicine.

Jeffe can be found online at her website:, every Sunday at the popular Word Whores blog, on Facebook, and pretty much constantly on Twitter @jeffekennedy. She is represented by Connor Goldsmith of Fuse Literary.

13 thoughts on “How to Write a Bestseller

  1. Hi Jeffe, Thanks for a great post on perspective. Yesterday, marketing guru Seth Godin posted that “success and failure are merely localized generalizations.” No matter what you do, someone will like it, and someone won’t. I, for one, like your affirmation, what would you write if you weren’t afraid? Maybe, when we face our fears and write anyway, we become more true to ourselves and our readers. Best of luck on your continued writing success.

  2. Excellent post, Jeffe! I just finished reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and loved the way she talks about creativity. She deals a little with this same topic of fearing what people will think and say about our work. I’m trying to stop doing that, but I still have that one leftover nagging question: “What will my mother say?” 😀

  3. Your post made me think of this quote: “You can’t write scared. Always take the risk, and don’t hold yourself back.” — Rebecca Zanetti

    It’s SO true and you are 100% correct. We can’t be afraid to tell the stories deep within us. We will never be able to please all of the people all of the time but we can please ourselves. 🙂

  4. Jeffe! Poetry!? How cool is that? When I see you again, I’m going to recite a sonnet.

    Not sure if novels are where the money is. The way I here it, the big poem is in epic poetry. Rhymed couplets. That kind of thing.

    But yeah, write the books you love. It’ll all work out.

    • If you can recite a sonnet for me from memory, I will buy you a drink! It would be awesome to write an epic poem – I feel sure we’d hit the BIG TIME with that. Totally agree!

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