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Thursday, March 4, 2010

On Best Sellers

Rob Parnell

The biggest selling book of all time is of course The Bible. Hardly surprising given its place and significance in our history. But, strictly speaking, the Bible doesn't count for our purposes because it's not supposed to be fiction (though some might disagree.)

I want to restrict my study of the bestseller to fiction - because to me, any book about things that aren't obviously real, would have to pretty powerful to inspire millions of people to buy it.

Okay.

Would it surprise you then to discover that the most verifiable bestselling novel, ever, is in fact Charles Dickens "A Tale of Two Cities"?

Surprised the hell out of me. Yep, apparently we've consumed over 200 million copies of this saga about the French Revolution and its affect on English mores.

After that, we're on more familiar ground with "Lord of the Rings" at around 150 million - and apparently this figure isn't skewed by the book often being sold as three books - they're still only counted as one.

The redoubtable Agatha Christie comes in third with "And Then There Were None', which in pre PC times was called "Ten Little Niggers" - a cracking good read with a brilliant twist, written in 1939.

Here we get the glimmerings of one of my first conclusions about writing bestsellers. That from the first three entries what's clear is that so called 'literary' writing is not always what counts. It's emphatically the story that is more important.

This is especially apparent when we look at number five in the list. (The Hobbit is at number four - but clearly Tolkien had the advantage of writing number two.) The fifth bestselling novel of all time is in fact "She" by Rider Haggard.

What? I hear you gasp.

Again here we see another indication that story is king.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "The Little Prince" weighs in next, for reasons not immediately obvious. I mean, it's a cute story about kingship and aliens but 80 million copies? Must have been a slow news day.

Next, at number seven, we're at least not so flummoxed by the news that "The Da Vinci Code" has earned its place in the top ten bestsellers of all time.

I can already hear that rumbling out there. You're wondering about young Harry, aren't you? Patience, please.

Number eight reveals our twentieth century obsession with all things warped with "Catcher in the Rye" - the book that arguably spawned a handful of psychopaths - and to this day I still find impenetrable. I'm often struck by the thought that it really must be about something, though I'm still not quite sure what. Maybe that's its adolescent appeal. (I prefer the more familiar ground of Camus' "The Outsider".)

Number Nine - and one my favorites: "The Alchemist" by Portuguese visionary Paulo Coelho. At least here a profound message is disguised as a great piece of deceptively simple writing.

And what about number ten?

Don't hold your breath, you'll be disappointed to learn - perhaps even disgruntled to know - that "Heidi's Years of Wandering and Learning" by the less than familiar Johanna Spyri takes that coveted spot.

Well, knock me down with a fevver, as they say in London.

It was at this point in my research that I decided that perhaps the focus of my newest writing course should be on modern bestsellers - because I'm not sure there's much to gleaned from all of us running out to recreate Heidi-esque novels. But perhaps we shouldn't be overly dismissive either. There are indeed elements in "Heidi" that are duplicated in all bestselling novels - but you'll have to wait for my latest course to discover them.

So, I can feel that tug on my arm again...

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" comes in at number seventeen, believe it or not - after such evergreen classics as "Anne of Green Gables", "Black Beauty", "The Name of the Rose", "Charlotte's Web" and the other Potter's "The Tale of Peter Rabbit."

I think what's interesting about these bestsellers is that they're probably not the books you were expecting to see.

I mean, where's "The Godfather" or "Jaws" or "Jurassic Park"?

Top ten movie lists tend to feature the most recent films simply because more people exist to go and see movies nowadays - and gross numbers are what count.

But this does not always seem to be the case with novels.

Each new generation still finds entertainment in the well worn classics it seems - but that doesn't explain why so many classics aren't featured in the bestselling novels list.

Of course most so called bestseller lists produced by book retailers and publishers are often self serving. They list the books they want you to buy - and will often feature books they think people should buy, but don't (not in large numbers anyway.)

I will shy away from conclusions at this point.

Think of the above as a preamble to a major discussion on the content, format and structure of bestsellers, which I intend to release soon, entitled, "Rob Parnell's Anatomy of the Modern Fiction Bestseller."

I'm sure it will shed much needed light for you on the issue of what makes a novel a bestseller - and the fact that duplicating it is well within your grasp as a writer may surprise you too.

Look out for my latest course (my first in over a year) in an inbox near you.

Thanks for reading.

Keep Writing!
rob@easywaytowrite.com
Your Success is My Concern
The Easy Way to Write
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