Good Better Bestseller: What makes for a Bestseller?


Having spoken to a few authors, Zen Scribe knows why many authors want to write a bestseller. Money is one reason.

Ian McKellen as Gandalf in Peter Jackson's liv...

Ian McKellen as Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s live-action version of The Lord of the Rings. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Writing a bestseller is an easy way to make lots and lots of money, or at least, that is what authors think. Others believe that it is a way to achieve fame. In today’s society, fame is very important for some reason!

Some think writing a bestseller will bring fulfilment. Sure, they do not mind the money or the fame, but achievement is what they are really aiming for.

Instead of designing a roadmap on how to determine the author’s ulterior motives, InstaScribe would rather share information about what makes a book a bestseller.

(Notice: We take no responsibility for the unintended consequences that writing a bestseller includes like paparazzi, pesky fans, unending book-tours and stalkers.)

Real Characters

Perhaps you are one of the millions who read The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. This six-part series has sold more than 45 million books.

One InstaScriber said: I struggle to remember the story-line, but I do remember Ayla. I remember her determination. Nothing deterred her from reaching a goal.

What about, Harry Potter?  Yes, yes, I know we all suffer from CHPOS (Critical Harry Potter Overload Syndrome), but the fact is we can identify with him. When Harry Potter is scared about the future, we feel his fear within us.

Zen Scribe said that his mother won’t forgive us if we do not mention Gandalf the Grey. Yes, he of the Lord of the Rings. Funnily enough there are quite a few people known to the InstaScribe team, who like The Lord of The Rings Trilogy primarily because of Gandalf.

Does your book lack characters, good or bad, who resonate with readers? Zen Scribe says: You shall not pass! (O, and if your good guys are perfect and your bad guys are without any redeeming qualities then, YOU SHALL DEFINITELY NOT PASS!)

Real Imaginary World

In the three series we mention above, Earth’s Children, Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings, the authors created real alternative worlds.

Have you seen the maps of Middle Earth? The attention that J.R.R Tolkien spent to the details are just mind boggling! Named rivers and mountains! Many of these never even “play a real role” in the story but they are there!

You get the same feeling of completeness when you read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Even when the author uses the “real world” as the setting, successful authors make it believable and realistic.

Two examples would be James 007 Bond by Ian Fleming and the Dirk Pitt series by Clive Cussler. The books are full of verifiable geographical data, but the authors do not present it as a geography.


The first Harry Potter was published in 1997. Yet, if you read it today, you do not get the feeling that it is outdated. The book has an internal calendar that is not connected to the passage of time in “the real world.”

Donna Leon writes about police commissioner Guido Brunetti. The commissioner lives and works in the very beautiful Venice. The reader gets a virtual tour of life in this peculiar city. Leon also exposes you to the various culinary delights there.

This series, approaching 25 books, is an absolute delight. The characters are real people, and the descriptions of the city, its canals and the surrounding areas also burst with life. It is clear that the author did not get her knowledge from the flattened out Google Earth version.

When Guido made his appearance in 1992, both the Internet and portable phone were not part of life, and as such, he does not use them. Leon never intended her books to be set in the present day, that is 2014. And as such the commissioner often experiences problems that younger readers, especially, will struggle to understand.

Why does he not Google that? Or, where is his portable phone? These are not issues that distract from the timelessness of books. Once the reader is immersed in the world of the book, the clock that ticks is of that world.

A Bigger Story

Ayla symbolizes humanity’s struggle to survive and overcome the savage elements. In Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings we have the struggle between good and evil. Even commissioner Guido Brunetti is a personification of good fighting evil in its many guises.

Dostoevsky was a master at weaving in underlying theme. The Brothers Karamazov is built around the themes of God, free will and morality. If these themes were not hidden as it were, it would have gone down as a theological dissertation.

In Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Montgomery, hope is a very strong undercurrent that propels Anne to overcome the obstacles that threaten to block her.

Weaving these undertones into the tapestry of the larger tale is not easy. Overdo it and you might end up with a bad sermon. Underdo it and no one will notice it.

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Generally speaking, a long book is a testimony to a weak story line, full of unnecessary subplots and deviations.

Zen Scribe: Nearly all the books we have talked about are a bit thick, but the storyline is streamlined!

Respect the planet and respect your readers. Do not add filler material to your book. The Little Prince is hardly a few pages long, but has already old more than one hundred and forty million copies. Thickness and best-seller-ness are not the same!


We sincerely apologize for leading you to believe that we can guarantee your book turning into a bestseller! It is true that great books share many/all the above characteristics. This does not, however, explain the success of Fifty Shades or the Da Vinci code. Neither of these can be called great literature, some say you can’t call it literature at all!

The truth is that it is nearly impossible to understand the market to the degree that you can accurately predict what will and what won’t be a bestseller.

Keep on trying. Never give up!


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