The Making of a Bestseller — Donald Maass’ Take

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. His agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He is the author of The Career Novelist (1996), Writing the Breakout Novel (2001), Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (2004) and The Fire in Fiction (2009, and Writing 21st Century Fiction (2012), and former president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.
Maass believes that the New York Times Best Sellers List is today a two-tiered list: commercial fiction with short runs, and a different kind of novel altogether that runs for much longer.  He expands on that in the following comments.
Have you noticed a pattern in your many years in the publishing business of what books have a good shot of making it to bestseller status? If so, what do you think they have in common? 

I’ve written a book entirely devoted to that subject Writing 21st Century Fiction (Writers Digest Books, September 2012).   What’s interesting is how in the 21st Century literary fiction has started to sell at blockbuster levels, spending a year or more on the NY times best seller list while thrillers (say) stay on the list for only a few weeks.  Why is that?  Boiled down, such fiction does what both literary and commercial fiction do well: It tells a great story and also is beautifully written.
Many books that aren’t that well written top bestseller’s lists, because of a good story. What, in your opinion, makes a story good enough to earn word of mouth sales? 

A good story alone isn’t enough.  The are plenty of terrific commercial stories that sell only moderately well.  To reach top best seller status, a novel must also bring beautiful writing.  Now that doesn’t mean beautiful imagery, which is the quality that many commercial writers think of as bestowing “literery” status on a novel.  Beautiful writing is many things.  It’s parallels, reversals, symbols, a rich story world, meaning in the form of theme, and more.

Besides a good story and great writing, what do you think helps catapult a book onto these coveted lists? 

If you look at novels that run on the best seller list for one to two years, they’re all highly personal.  They spring from an author’s unique experience and liberation from genre (and literary!) rules and conventions.  Sure, you can say that The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a romantic story.  It is.  But it’s told from the unique perspective of a Chinese American boy in Seattle during WWII.  Is The Art of Racing in the Rain merely a dog story?  No, it’s the story of a single dad’s struggles and dreams, narrated by a warm, loyal and self-sacrificing friend.  Even transparently commercial stories like The Hunger Games or Game of Thrones are written with plenty of literary craft.  
What will not catapult your book onto best seller lists is traditional publishing, e-publishing, promo budgets, self-promotion, Facebook, Twitter, your blog, glowing reviews, movie deals, reading groups or anything else outside the covers of your novel.  Traditional publishing often fails to make best sellers of sure-fire bets.  Self-publishing has produced best sellers, sure, but few.  Reviews are seen by hardly anyone.  
Movie deals are invisible to the public.  Movies, if made, hit theatres long after books have become best sellers.  Reading groups get on board only late in the game.  Facebook and Twitter…please.  If that’s all it took, becoming a best seller would be easy.  No, it’s your stories–or rather, the personal passion you bring to them, the degree to which you set yourself free from fear, and the power of your telling.  That’s what lifts novels to the best seller lists.

Wings of Glass, now available for pre-order 

On the cusp of adulthood, eighteen-year-old Penny Carson is swept off her feet by a handsome farmhand with a confident swagger. Though Trent Taylor seems like Prince Charming and offers an escape from her one-stop-sign town, Penny’s happily-ever-after lasts no longer than their breakneck courtship. Before the ink even dries on their marriage certificate, he hits her for the first time. It isn’t the last, yet the bruises that can’t be seen are the most painful of all.When Trent is injured in a welding accident and his paycheck stops, he has no choice but to finally allow Penny to take a job cleaning houses. Here she meets two women from very different worlds who will teach her to live and laugh again, and lend her their backbones just long enough for her to find her own.