On Writing a Best Seller

I have not yet met any actual writer – or any aspiring writer – who does not want to write a best seller.

For that matter, I have never met any writer at all who has ever said to me, “I hope only 10 people read this book.”

The stunningly beautiful best selling author, Elizabeth Gilbert. Image courtesy of: www.elizabethgilbert.com

Writers love readers. Period, the end.

What most writers – and aspiring writers – often don’t realize, however, is that there is not a separate category of writers who write best sellers….and then the rest of us are just there to fill up the bookshelves so browsing readers don’t think the bookstore can only afford to stock one title.

I know this because Elizabeth Gilbert – multi-mega-best-selling author of the international blockbuster hit, “Eat, Pray, Love” – says so.

In her exact words (from the Introduction to her post-EPL also best seller, “Committed”):

In the end, I found a certain comfort in recognizing that I could not – cannot – write a book that would satisfy millions of readers. Not deliberately, anyhow. The fact is, I do not know how to write a beloved best seller on demand. If I knew how to write beloved best sellers on demand, I can assure you that I would have been writing them all along, because it would have made my life a lot easier and more comfortable ages ago. But it doesn’t work that way – or at least not for writers like me. We write only the books that we need to write, or are able to write, and then we must release them, recognizing that whatever happens to them next is somehow none of our business.

I find Gilbert’s words reassuring on all the regular and certain surprising other levels as well.

My writing assistant, looking grumpy because the author won’t let him enjoy books in the way he likes most (by chewing the pages).

For instance, in selling my first book, “Beating Ana: How to Outsmart Your Eating Disorder and Take Your Life Back,” I was (obviously) a complete literary unknown.

Yet my publisher specifically stated in the official offer letter they sent my literary agent that their decision to purchase my book was based in large part upon their belief that I could sell the book.

In fact, here is the actual sentence from the actual offer letter that says this:

After watching Shannon’s media clips and visiting her website, I am convinced that Shannon can create the viral campaign that is necessary to make eating disorder books sell in today’s tough market. 

Gulp.

By the way, my first book was not a best-seller.

For this and other reasons, my intimidation with the whole “how to reach best-selling book status” has continued all the way through the process of writing and now selling my second book.

But then last night, only marginally less unknown than I was with book number one and on the cusp of selling book number two, I picked up “Committed” and read Gilbert’s words:

We write only the books that we need to write, or are able to write, and then we must release them, recognizing that whatever happens to them next is somehow none of our business.

Whatever happens to them next is none. of. our. business. It is the book’s business, and the readers’ business, and perhaps a bit of the publisher’s business (in terms of whether or not they make you a book trailer video or give you store end caps or get you on CNN) but by the time it gets to the shelves (online, offline, or both) it is largely out of our – the writer’s – hands.

Of course, we are writers and we love readers so we do what we can. We google “viral campaign” and do our best to make our publisher proud. We oh-so-casually drop the words “my new book” into conversations with our doctor, the check-out clerk at Target, our enemies and (of course) our friends. We spam our fan list of 10 with reminders that YES our new book is FINALLY available (the assumption being that the wait has been long and arduous for us, but even more so for our treasured die-hard readers).

We attempt to bribe would-be readers with autographed copies or free giveaways or “lunch with the writer” (unless the writer happens to be an introvert like me) or all the extra cash in our bank account.

We set up booths in grocery stores and book shops and Wal-mart if they will have us, sitting there for hours pretending to love people-watching when no one comes over to buy a copy.

But really, what happens next is out of our hands.

When writing a book – or even contemplating writing a book – or even thinking about contemplating writing a book – I am finding it really helps to remember this.

p.s. For extra reassurance and inspiration to go ahead and write and trust the readers will come (all 10 or 10,000 of them) I highly suggest reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Thoughts on Writing:” http://www.elizabethgilbert.com/thoughts-on-writing/

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