Friday, May 7, 2010

What makes a bestseller?

Short answer: no one knows. If vampires could have been predicted, for example, some people might be richer right now.

Last week for my Contemporary Children's Publishing course, my classmates and I were each required to read a bestselling author. One read Eoin Colfer, another Jacqueline Wilson, another Charlie Higson. I read Ann Brashares' SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS.

It was funny reading a book with an eye on why it was a bestseller. THE TRAVELING PANTS was definitely bestselling material, almost from the first page to the last. It was all about females and friendships, so as a female reader I felt almost as if I were invited into a club just by reading. The topics were also of interest, particularly to young female readers: romance, friendship, family, body issues. The characters represented a wide (perhaps stereotypical) spectrum of women (different races, personalities, interests), so there was something for nearly every woman to relate to. But the characters were also flawed and human. The book was divided into very short sections, with cliffhanger endings which kept me compulsively turning the pages. The substance reminded me of a teenage EAT, PRAY, LOVE by Elizabeth Gilbert. The fast-paced read reminded me of Meg Cabot's THE PRINCESS DIARIES.

I was a little embarrassed how much I enjoyed it.

It wasn't great literature. The girls felt a little stereotypical. By covering four characters' lives, Brashares had to spread herself quite thin: much more breath than depth. But in the end, as I told my classmates, had I had the next book in the series, I would have happily kept reading.

Well, that was a mistake.

Guess who has a teacher who's trying to clean out his bookshelves? No, no complaints, really it was quite sweet! I've got my guilty pleasures all ready for classes to end in a few weeks!

Our class didn't come to any conclusion about what makes a bestseller. All of our books were different in major, unpredictable ways. But a few similarities came up over again:
  • Famous authors
  • Series (the author or the story will have a brand, no one-offs)
  • Readable writing (not brilliant, but not dreadful either)
  • Topics which appeal to their readership (Young Bond, adult free lives, romance, etc).
Do you have any guilty bestselling pleasures? Or conversely, at there any bestsellers you've read where you just don't get it?


  1. When I was in grad school I had a similar assignment to read the first three books of a popular YA series. I chose Gossip Girl. Through most of the first book, I hated every single character. But when I got to the end, I realized that while the characters were despicable, they had somehow grown on me. I enjoyed the second book even more and devoured the third. It was definitely a guilty pleasure, filled with scandal and intrigue. The characters were what kept me going, though. As objectionable as some of their actions were, they were also flawed and interesting people. I haven't read any of the other books in the series, but I can understand their appeal: they're pure, wish-fulfilling entertainment.

  2. Sounds quite similar to Traveling Pants, though the TP girls might be a little less scandalous and more wholesome. It's a good exercise, I think, esp for would be authors. I think sometimes we're quick to be judgmental of seemingly pulp authors (or companies pretending to be authors!), but in reality, they can write pretty well. Well enough to get us hooked, at least! So glad I'm not alone in this!

    I don't think I'd ever write a book just for wish-fulfillment sake, but the appeal for the reader's obvious...


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