What Makes a Book a Bestseller?

Photo credit: Eckhart Public Library on Flickr
With the release of The Hunger Games movie just a few weeks away and the internet still buzzing with J.K. Rowling's big book announcement, it's unsurprising really, that many of us have bestsellers on the brain.

Over the course of the past decade, we've seen huge explosions of book fandom, of so-called "overnight successes" complete with hoards of raving fans that would make a rock star proud. We've seen Harry Potter become a household name, Twilight fans battle it out between sparkly vampires and werewolves and The Hunger Games open up the door for a slew of popular dystopian novels.

But what do the bestsellers have in common?

For the sake of not slapping you with a ridiculously long post, I'll stick to comparing two: Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. Upon first glance, these novels may seem to be about as similar as Twilight vampires are to Dracula—Harry Potter is a middle grade novel about a boy wizard who ultimately has to save the world from the very evil Lord Voldemort and The Hunger Games is a young adult book about a girl who enters a fight for the death in order to save her family and ends up fighting for a much greater cause.

Upon closer inspection, however, these two books actually have quite a bit in common.

How Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are similar:

  • Memorable, flawed characters. I wrote an entire post about my love for flawed characters in which both Harry Potter and Katniss were mentioned, so I won’t go through the entire thing again, but in short, flawed characters are infinitely more believable than their perfect counterparts and memorable characters can truly make a book special. What would Harry Potter be without Dobby, Hagrid, the Weasley twins, Filch or even Umbridge? Or The Hunger Games series without Cinna, Prim, Haymitch and Effie?

  • Detailed world-building. There's a reason Universal built Harry Potter land and it isn't just because castles are pretty. The wizarding world J.K. Rowling built is simply incredible—from the moving staircases and talking portraits in Hogwarts, to the creepy old shops of Knockturn Alley and the wonder of platform 9 3/4, I can think of few people who read Harry Potter and didn't want to visit.

    The world of The Hunger Games —although certainly not on anyone's vacation list—was built just as carefully so that Panem didn't seem quite as far-fetched as it might have without the proper details. Everything from the craziness of the Capitol with their ridiculous priorities and fashion trends to the specialization of the districts and the mysterious District 13 rang just true enough for suspension of disbelief.

  • Great evil to fight. From a frighteningly powerful mass-murdering wizard with a devout—and decidedly twisted following—to a powerful president who smells like blood and roses, there's no question that Harry and Katniss had very powerful and evil figureheads to fight throughout their journeys.

  • Very high stakes. With the fate of the entire world (both wizarding and normal) on Harry's shoulders and the people of Panem depending on Katniss—failure for these two characters is unfathomable. If they lose, they won't be the only ones to suffer—everyone's fate depends on their success.

For the sake of brevity I'll stop the list there, but let's continue this discussion in the comments:

What other elements do bestsellers (these or others) have in common? What do you think makes a book a bestseller?

20 comments:

Susankayequinn said...

I think you've covered it! I would rank order Stakes as being most important, but what makes a bestseller is that it has EVERYTHING going on in spades and then some. Great post!

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Susan! I didn't list them in any particular order, but I think you're right--bestsellers often have all of those elements and then some. 

Hope you feel better!

Daniel Swensen said...

I don't know from Hunger Games, but the impression I got from Harry Potter is that it also had relatable themes. The younger readers grew up along with Harry and could  relate to what he was going through with every new chapter in his life.

Great post, Ava.

Ava Jae said...

That's a really good point--the Harry Potter phenomenon went on for over a decade, so a lot of people literally grew up with Harry and as you said, went through chapters of their lives around the same time Harry did. I don't doubt that that kind of connection played a huge role in the devout following that the series gathered. 

Joseph Eastwood said...

Great post as always! I agree fully with what you said, in fact I can't think of a good book that doesn't have those points covered! (:

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Joe! With the exception, perhaps, of the "evil" factor (as some genres don't deal with "evil" in quite the same way), I'd say most of the elements cross over the a large portion of popular books, and for good reason. 

Kittyscorgi said...

Another Fab blog. Thank you.

Ava Jae said...

Of course! So glad you enjoyed the post. :)

ClaudiaPutnam said...

What makes a book really take off is that smart people and stupid people can agree on it, or agree to disagree. IE, it's not SO stupid that the smart people just cringe to death, and it's not SO smart that it's over the heads of the not-so-bright. Dragon Tattoo is another example. So are Macs and iPhones, in another realm. Or Hondas. Bestsellers are happy-medium phenomena. 

Joani Plenty said...

Woooow.  That was great!  As I read I mentally made check marks on my WIP or thought about where I could improve, lol.  Thank you!!  

Ava Jae said...

Interesting thought--the happy-medium phenomena. I like that and can definitely see how it applies to Macs and iPhones. 

Ava Jae said...

Thank you, Joani! Glad it helped! :)

Amberr Meadows said...

You nailed it, Ava Jae. Nobody should get bummed out, though. Although we see these few successes, there are even more failures. I tell anyone who wants it to keep trying. If it's a passion, discouragement need not extinguish it. 

Rhiannon Paille said...

I've always said that a bestseller is contingent upon three things. It's when the right book is written by the right person and published by the right publisher. Simple as that. Sort of a fate/destiny thing. 

Ava Jae said...

Agreed! I firmly encourage people to do what they love. Even if you don't make millions off it, does it matter? You're doing something you enjoy, and that's what's important. You haven't lost a thing by trying. 

Ava Jae said...

Interesting thought. Thanks for commenting, Rhiannon!

Laura Lee Nutt @LauraLeeNutt said...

I haven’t read The Hunger Games, shame on me, but I have read a number of bestsellers. You hit some great points, and many of the first that come to mind for me. Another I’d add is that bestsellers don’t try to fit into the mold and current trends. They are what they are, unabashedly.
 
Bestsellers also tend to really test a heroes character. Their authors make them face the worst in themselves and ultimately, usually, triumph over it. In this, we get to see their most heroic qualities, and this ultimately gives them what they need to defeat the great villain and save the world.
 
A bestseller isn’t afraid to hurt its hero, expose him for what he is, and let him grow into the character we all rave about.
 
Thanks! Great topic!

Laura Lee Nutt @LauraLeeNutt said...

Forgot to add, Donald Maass has some good thoughts on this in his Writing the Breakout Novel. It's definitely worth a read.

Ava Jae said...

All fantastic points! I especially like what you said about bestsellers not trying to fit the mold. I often hear about a book being the next Twilight or Harry Potter but in the end, it's never any of those things, it's it's own phenomena. 

Ava Jae said...

Ah yes. I haven't read Writing the Breakout Novel but I enjoyed The Fire in Fiction which he also wrote. I just might check it out--thanks for the recommendation!

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