By Mary Gillgannon
One of the mysteries of life is what makes a bestseller. A lot of the list is made up of books by writers who’ve been writing for years and have finally garnered a big enough following to reach that pinnacle. But there are also books written by unknown, and some cases, previously unpublished authors, books that suddenly grab the public’s interest and become wildly popular. Their success is completely unpredictable. They are often not the most well-written books, although they may offer an original twist on a well-known and popular plot. I would also argue that in most instances, they are books the author felt passionately about.
A case in point would be Fifty Shades of Grey. No matter what you may think about the book, no one can argue with the fact that this was a book of the heart. E.L. James didn’t write it with the intention of writing a bestseller, or even with the goal of getting it published. She wrote it because she had become obsessed with the book Twilight and found herself reading it over and over. So she decided to write her own story and began posting it on fan fiction sites. Other Twilight fans read her chapters and encouraged and critiqued and became invested in her story. She did the opposite of what most authors do and developed a fan base before she ever approached a publisher.
There is no doubt her fan base helped catapult this book to its phenomenal success. But I personally think that’s not the only key to its amazing sales history. I think that Ms. James’s passion for her story comes through to readers and that’s why the book has affected so many people, who in turn, have recommended it to other readers and so on.
Part of my reasoning has to do with another runaway bestseller. At the time my first books were coming out, the publishing phenomenon was The Bridges of Madison County. It was the book everyone was talking about. The book that defied the critics and industry prognosticators (and like Fifty Shades of Grey, made a lot of authors absolutely crazy). I remember reading The Bridges of Madison County and thinking, “What’s the big deal?” I discussed the book with my then editor, and when I started to criticize the story and (gnash my teeth over the writing) she said, “I think the book has a lot of passion and readers respond to that.”
That concept was driven home to me a few months later when I went back to my class reunion in Iowa and set up a booksigning in the closest town that had a bookstore. Despite my efforts to promote myself as “a hometown girl makes good”, my booksigning was only a moderate success. The book store manager, perhaps sensing my discouragement, told me that I was actually doing pretty well. She recalled a booksigning with Robert James Waller, years before he wrote The Bridges of Madison County. He had published a book of essays and had a signing at this store. And he sat there all day and didn’t sell a single book. “Look at him now,” she said. “He’s a best-selling author. Maybe that will happen to you.”
Obviously, it didn’t. But I’ve never forgotten the picture the book store manager painted, of an author who endured years of rejection and yet never lost faith in his vision. An author who felt passionately about his story. An author who wrote a book that most critics hated but that millions of readers found compelling.
I know what you’re thinking. You’ve written a book (or books) that you believe in passionately and (pick one): it’s not a bestseller, it sells modestly, it has gone nowhere, no one would even publish it. I have written a several true books of the heart. The first one (and my first book) did get me my first publishing contract, but none of the others have come anywhere close to turning my passion to gold.
Writing a book you feel passionately about is not a sure pathway to best seller status. But in many cases, it is a key ingredient. Readers can tell. They can feel what you’ve invested in a story. They may not love your book and recommend it to their friends, because the magic doesn’t always happen. In fact, it practically never does. But if your book lacks passion, then I believe it has very little chance of rising to the top.