Friday, July 20, 2012

Analyzing the Dynamics of a Blockbuster Bestseller By Jacqueline Seewald

Analyzing the Dynamics of a Blockbuster Bestseller
By Jacqueline Seewald

Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James is the latest blockbuster bestseller. Women are buying it in droves. What made this initially self-published novel go viral? As a writer and a reader, I’m particularly interested in analyzing the phenomenon that causes certain novels to become instant bestsellers by previously unknown authors. What makes such novels so unique? And in fact, what do they have in common? Over-the-top sex and/or violence? Something so outrageous and/or controversial that it catches the public’s attention and awareness? Perhaps.

I discussed this with a college-educated woman who fits the “Grey” demographic. She showed me how she had the novel set up on her I-pad. She is the mother of three small children, ages seven to two. She works part-time outside the home, is always busy and sleep-deprived. Yet she is finding time to read “Grey.”
I asked her: “What appeals to you about this book?”
She appeared embarrassed by the directness of the question. “I was curious I guess. It’s not my usual taste in books,” she explained with a shrug. “I’m not into S and M. And the book isn’t even well-written.”

Nevertheless, she did pay $10 for the opportunity to read the novel as an e-book.  Others are buying the trade version for $15.95, putting the novel at the very top of that bestseller list along with the other two books in the trilogy and ahead of a Nora Roberts novel.
I also discussed this with an older woman, a respected bank manager who had purchased the novel in print. She told me that she was enjoying the book and had recommended it to several fellow workers. Word of mouth clearly sells books.

Because the novel had gone viral as an e-book, the author was able to get an agent who sold the entire trilogy to a major publisher. The division of prestigious Random House that brought this novel out in print is Vintage Books. Ironically, they claim to focus on publishing “quality literary fiction.” This struck me as particularly interesting since “Grey” has been described as erotica—translation soft porn aimed at female readers. It’s also been noted that the novel degrades women. Is this the average woman’s secret sexual fantasy? Or are women now buying the novel mainly out of curiosity because there has been so much notoriety? Getting publicity seems to be crucial for sales of any novel. The big publishers still have the ability to promote and distribute a novel successfully, something small indy publishers do not.

Writing a quality book is something I always have as my main goal. But few know about my novels or read them. My latest novel DEATH LEGACY received excellent reviews from both BOOKLIST and PUBLISHERS WEEKLY. It’s a romantic suspense mystery thriller, and those who have read it said they couldn’t put down. Yet sales are meager. Libraries are apparently reluctant to order it regardless of good reviews. And libraries are the main buyers of Five Star/Gale novels.
 We come back to the initial question. What makes a particular novel stand out so that it sells well to readers? Must it be outrageous? Over-the-top in sex and/or violence? Or are there other reasons?  Is there any way to analyze how to write a bestselling blockbuster? What do readers most enjoy and value in novels? I continue to ponder these questions. Your views, comments and opinions are valued 


Gail Lukasik said...

I share your curiosity and frustration. I've thought long and hard about why a book becomes a best seller. My conclusion is it's a matter of luck.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Gail,

In some ways, it does seem to be a crapshoot. You just never know what will become the next big seller with the public. But lately, books that are outrageous in some way seem to catch publicity, word of mouth etc. I'm thinking this is a trend. Specifically, I wonder about the more recent novels like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Hunger Games. Even The Help is in many ways controversial.

LJ Garland said...

I hear you and I've wondered the same thing. I've heard Grey is going to become a movie now, with these sales, it's sure to be a blockbuster. Controversy is probably a common factor is the books you listed, but what about the ones like The Notebook? It wasn't controversial, just heartbreaking. GWAH! Who knows? I agree with Gail...LUCK! It's just whatever happens to strike the public's fancy at that second. LOL

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I may be over-analyzing it. I can't say. I tend to look for common factors but certainly luck must enter into the mix. I recall Robin Cook claiming that he read and analyzed bestsellers and that was how he eventually managed to write Coma. But I think it is a bit more complex than that or we'd all be on the bestseller list!

Alice Duncan said...

I, too, share your curiosity and frustration. I know for a fact that Jacqueline and Gail write fabulous books -- but they clearly aren't blockbuster best sellers. I don't understand. I've never understood, and I expect I never will. Personally, I don't want to write erotica. Maybe that's why we aren't best sellers, guys. How depressing.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Alice,

Since I read and enjoy your novels, I know they are quality fiction worthy of a large following. So I guess we are back to the question of whether a writer has to create extreme fiction to get noticed.

Anita Page said...

Jacquie, I don't think there's a single element that defines breakout bestsellers. In the case of the Larsson books, I think the character of Lisbeth Salander captured the public imagination.

Loretta said...

I think everyone has already said what I was thinking:) I do think the book has to have an element of intrigue that makes people want to fork over the money. Perhaps, part of it is the thirst for something different, something that dares to address a topic most people would like to read about. I think with THE HELP, it had been awhile since the subject of integration had been approached, and done in a pov from the oppressed person's viewpoint. So, that said, if you can find a topic that either takes the reader to a whole different arena, or touches on something controversial, you might have a fighting chance.:) Emphasis on might...because there is that crapshoot feature involved:)

dkchristi said...

I think identification with the characters is key - whether in reality or fantasy. Also, the right radio or television show talking about the book is an absolute... Great literature does not seem to be the public's choice for best-sellers.
Marketing and promotion is also critical. If you have the right author name, the content is irrelevant. author of Ghost Orchid

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Anita,

I read the Larsson books and did think they were over-the-top in sex and violence. However, you are right, Lisbeth is an interesting, different character who readers respond to.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Loretta,

Good points! Different, unique, and controversial all have reader appeal and get the writer attention.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, D.K.,

Building a character that readers can sympathize and identify with is crucial--you're absolutely right. I think of Evanovich's Stefanie Plum. Once hooked on her books, we keep reading them because of the familiar characters and the humor we know will be there. Another important point, the right publicity really matters.
That's why writers try to get on TV shows. It sells books.

June Shaw said...

Wouldn't knowing the answer create a billionaire? I wouldn't have read Gray, but my daughter, who doesn't read much fiction, asked me to get it for her on my Kindle since she couldn't find it in paper. I didn't know about it, but she'd hear it discussed on The Today Show.
Now if only they'd discuss mine...

Jan Christensen said...

It has to be a combination of factors, I think. Timing is important, subject matter is important, marketing is important, luck is needed. What doesn't seem to be needed so much is great writing ability. Think of The da Vinci Code, and now Shades. Actually, that fact is a bit depressing. I'm sorry I brought it up. LOL

D'Ann said...

I have no idea. Since I'm fairly new to being published, I'm just beginning with the struggle to get noticed. I will, however, not read that book, nor go to the movies.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, June,

It is amazing how once the hype begins, it just snowballs. If only we could get it going! What does your daughter think of Grey's novel?

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Jan,

I had a similar reaction to The da Vinci Code. All that info dumping! And we're always warned it's not professional. Yet it didn't seem to hurt Dan Brown's sales one bit.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, D'Ann,

I agree with you. It won't be of benefit to romance writers. It's not a romance novel but rather soft porn. Of course, there are so many writers turning out erotic novels, perhaps this one is better written? Maybe one of the readers of the novel will analyze that aspect for us.

Betty Gordon said...

Jacquie, I share in your search for a best-seller. I agree with all the comments and can only continue to write the best book I can -- good characters and an intriguing plot with a whole lot of luck thrown in.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


I agree. We can only write to the best of our ability and perhaps experiment to develop our talent in a variety of directions. Personal best will just have to do!

Nancy Means Wright said...

I usually stay away from best sellers unless by a writer I've read before and loved. You give plausible and thoughtful reasons, Jacquie, why they're popular. And some people buy a best seller simply because it's by a "big name"--even though the reviews are poor. Or without even looking at the reviews. Well, I think we're all suffering these days because people need money for things other than books. Too bad. I think often of simply giving up.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

These are bad times for writers since the economy is doing poorly and many people have less disposable income. That's why it becomes more important than ever to support our libraries which offer free books to everyone. I don't think we writers should ever give up as long as we have ideas and something to write about.

Cecelia Dowdy said...

I just finished the entire Fifty Shades Trilogy. No, I don't usually read erotica, I mostly read Christian fiction, but, whenever everyone goes ga-ga/crazy about a novel, I have to stop and take a look.

Like yourself, I want to learn how to make a million bucks (or money) off my books. I work full-time and frankly, I'm a bit tired of working, I want to write books full-time and make a living doing that. By analyzing 50 Shades, I wondered if I could figure out what I needed to do to simply land another book contract and try and make a living from my novels.

The novels aren't that well-written, but, I thought the characters were pretty realistic. I did enjoy Twilight, so, perhaps that's why I found the characters so appealing?

I thought the first one was boring for the first few chapters, after that, I was hooked on the first book. Second book had a sagging middle. Third book wasn't as bad as the second, but, not as good as the first.

I know I'm rambling, but, I still wanna make a living from my writing, and, so far, I haven't been able to do that!

Marilyn Levinson said...

Dear Jacquie,
A thought-provoking post. I have no intention of reading the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy and I haven't read many of the other popular books that have sold like hotcakes. I can't say for sure why they catch the public's attention. I think timing, good PR, some unique and interesting aspect, and luck all play a part in it. I'm reminded of Roberto Benigni's role in "To Rome With Love." Suddenly, for no reason, everyone's following his every move. And just as suddenly, they aren't.

Ed Mendlowitz said...

If I knew what made a blockbuster novel, I would write one. I have been collecting pieces and premises of fiction that have grabbed me. The opening pages of the Godfather, the Last Supper painting, the weird genius character with the dragon tatoo, the Camel Club characters, Crichton's science lessons, Grisham's lawyers on the edge. There is a formula here but each book has unique characteristics. Someday I'll figure it out - I hope. Oh, and you need great marketing or nothing will happen no matter how great the book.
Ed Mendlowitz

Maggie Toussaint said...


I agree with the sentiments expressed here. Unique characters or fantasy situations people long to experience are great ways to connect with readers.

But the thing is not all of us will write breakout stories. Nothing wrong with writing a good book, a great book, even.

Beyond writing the book and doing promo and signings when the book comes out, viral sales are out of our control, as are reviews.

I wish I had a better answer for you. But bestsellerdom is an area where I have very little expertise.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


Thanks for your insightful comments about Fifty Shades of Grey. I appreciate your analysis.
As for writing fulltime, I will admit I took an early retirement from a good-paying job to do it. My husband encouraged me. I do get paid for my writing, but I'm not getting rich. Still, it's what I always wanted to do--and life is short.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Marilyn,

There are two ways of looking at the Blockbuster from a writer's point of view: you can analyze what makes the novel have such strong reader appeal or you can say as you have, I will go my own way and express myself as an individual. I think both work. Imitation is the only mistake.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Ed,

I think you're right about this. Each mega bestseller has certain unique characteristics that make them special, that make them stand out even if they're flawed. And that is the one thing they do have in common.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thanks, Maggie, for your insightful comments. You are correct. We can't all write the book that goes viral. So the next best thing is to write a quality book that we can be proud of.

Anonymous said...

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal written by James W. Hall a best selling mystery writer titled "Wanna Sell a Million Books?"
> he made these points:
> Hook the reader quickly
> Don't be introspective. For him the characters are not self-absorbed or contemplative. The are pitted against large forces, not characters in conflict with themsleves.
> Protagonists should be mavericks, misfits or loners and come from fractured families and communities
> The protagonist is often deeply in pursuit of the American dream and act against a sweeping backdrop such as the cold war
> Sex sells especially sexual hypocracy
> Religion is another hot-button. The protagonist is an agnostic or rails against religious hypocracy
> Blockbusters almost always include an abundance of facts and information by offering peeks inside glamorous or closed off subcultures.
> He concludes his article with "Women make up 80% of fiction readers."
> Richard Brawer

Jacqueline Seewald said...


Thanks so much for posting this because it is very informative.
Not everyone may agree, but it's certainly thought-provoking.

Art Rosch said...

There's something called The Black Swan Phenomenon. No one can predict
when a black swan will appear, or why.
Suddenly there's a song, a book, etc
that captures a wide demographic and sells like crazy. To think of Robin Cook analyzing best sellers and then turning out his own, well...that
bothers me. Here is my own set of rules:

Ten Cogent and Powerful Tips For New Writers

1. Have an idea. This is not absolutely necessary but it helps. If you don't have an idea, following these procedures will still result in quality writing

2. Have a place to sit. Alternatively, a place to stand will suffice so long as it's
reasonably private. Many great writers with hemorrhoids did their work standing up.

3. Have a device that produces marks that conform to the alphabet of your chosen language. Mate that device with a surface or medium to record the device's impressions.

4. Remain stationary for a long period of time while operating the aforementioned device. The recording medium or surface should be placed to maximize comfort. When the recording medium can't be comfortably placed, many great writers have alleviated their discomfort with whiskey, vodka and tobacco.

5. If you begin with an idea, it's optimum to use the language-marking-device to elaborate upon that idea. If you do not have an idea, it's best to use the language marking equipment anyway, because great success has been enjoyed by authors without ideas.

6. It's always best to put the words in a particular order, using the idea as a guidepost. If you do not have an idea it's still desirable to put words in such an order as to be modestly intelligible.

7. It's okay to have ideas change in mid-writing. If you can't incorporate the original idea into the new idea, start over. If this happens frequently, do the opposite: keep the original idea and all subsequent ideas. Put the ideas into an arbitrary or improvised order. Famous writers like Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs have used this technique to good effect.

8. If you have had experiences that were interesting, dangerous or humorous, you can use them as dressing to fill out the original idea or lack of idea.

9. If you have not had any such experiences, you may borrow them from other people so long as they have not yet appeared in a widely circulated book or story .

10. A tip for young people looking towards a writing career in the future: learn to write with a quill and keep a good quill sharpener handy at all times.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


I assume the idea of writing with a quill was meant to be humorous. Your suggestions made me think of something I requested my creative writing do both at the high school and college level. I would ask them to turn one of their poems into a short story or vice versa. It does sharpen writing ability--without the use of a quill. Thanks for dropping by. Your comments are much appreciated.

Cindy Sample said...

What a great blog post, Jacqueline. These comments are so informative as well. I just spent the week in the Author's Booth at the California State Fair. People were so excited to "discover" a new mystery author (that would be me) since they'd read all the Grisham, Lee Child, and Sue Grafton books. It was quite a revelation for me to discover that so many people had read so few mystery authors.

So I won't be on the NYT bestsellers list but I'll be on the State Fair version. Word of mouth the old-fashioned way. Of course we were by the Cinnabun booth which didn't hurt!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Cinnabun gets me every time! That aroma would lead people right to you. Now you know what to put out on the table to draw people: Cindy's Cinnabuns. Okay, now I'll get serious, as you say, word of mouth is definitely important. Politicians know they have to meet voters at the grass roots level, writers are no different.

Mary F. Schoenecker said...

Hi Jacquie,
On our last stop of vacation & book touring and I'm compelled to catch up with email. Your blog was thought provoking. My middle aged daughter bought "Between Shades of Grey" by mistake looking for the blockbuster "other" Grey. She loaned me the former & said don't read the latter one Mom it's erotica. It is sad, indeed that sex sells and our good books do not.Incidentally, Between Shades of Grey is an excellent debut novel. You would enjoy, Jacqueline.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Mary,

Well, thanks for the information. Maybe more people will buy the better novel by mistake and find themselves in for an enjoyable reading experience. I will check it out. Wishing you a successful book tour!

Susan Oleksiw said...

Your question, Jackie, is the question of each writer's lifetime. Recently I was browsing in a bookstore in Seattle and picked up a copy of Hit Lit by James W. Hall, in which he analyzes 12 best sellers to identify the features they have in common (he teaches this as a course), and he finds the commonalities. In his view, best sellers are not a matter of luck (though I have to disagree with some of that). It's a fascinating book.

The question of Gray becoming a bestseller and getting a NY publisher raises other questions. I do wonder if what we think of as good books (not soft porn) have any future outside a shrinking readership of readers. Whatever the answer, each of us has to write what is true to us.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Susan,

I think your answer is a good one.
As Shakespeare so aptly put it--and he he wrote the bestsellers of his day--"to thine own self be true." Quality and honesty first and foremost! That's what makes writers winners in the longrun.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Just want to leave one more comment here. Thanks to everyone who left a comment, read or is reading this blog. I think a lot of good things have been said here.

Dolna Ray said...

Blockbusters like Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code, Twilight saga, The Hunger Games..... As far as am concerned all of them were very innovative/inventive and quite well written. Yes none of the authors were aiming for say The Pulitzer Prize.... but the writing is competent , lucid and enjoyable.

Regarding Fifty Shades Of Grey.... the writing , character development the ( non existent) plot sex scenes that border from hilarious to downright cringeworthy..... all I can say that FSOG does not really belong to that genre of writing ( ex: Jackie Collins) so bad its good but something unapologetically bad. The unique aspect of this Mummy Porn trilogy was the cover art. It was both enigmatic and erotic ... as well as sublimated. Unlike other erotic romances with sensual cover art the FSOG illustration provides the necessary intrigue without compromising the explicit nature of the book. ( Believe it or not many of us still wont be caught dead reading erotica in public. Browsing through the erotic section in bookstores are still tentative, still furtive. ) The marketing strategies were brilliant stupendous. That and the fact that James was astute enough to capitalize on the popularity of the Twilight saga. FSOG was originally a Twilight fanfic Master Of The Universe. The reputation of the genre of fandom/fanfiction is now tarnished no thanks to Mrs James. There actually are some fanfics out there which are splendidly constructed and so beautifully written that it eclipses Meyer's creation with ease. But the authors wont ever breach the chasm separating fanfiction and original fiction and are contented with the numerous positive . Nowadays good marketing more than good writing, taut storytelling are the ingredients of a blockbuster.