Friday, 18 October 2019

Predicting viral content - how likely is it you're writing a bestseller? by Lu Hersey

What's the first question most people ask when you tell them you're a children's writer? 
'Oh, like JK Rowling?' 
Smile. Be nice. Definitely don't growl. 

As it happens, my entire family (including me) loved JK’s books and were caught up in the zeitgeist, buying them and reading them as soon as they were published. Likewise Suzanne Collins. Her books might be brutal, but they’re also really good.

You're probably thinking, so what? My books are brilliant too – what made theirs so blooming successful? It’s not always about quality of writing. I find some of the 100 top selling writers (not mentioning names... *coughs* Dan Brown) almost unreadable, but millions of people obviously disagree.

But what actually makes a bestseller? There are lots of books on how to write one, but do they tell you anything useful? A quick look at what really hooks in the public can be very interesting. 

My eldest daughter worked for a (now defunct) train travel company, where part of the remit of her job was to make their social media communications go viral and save the company money on advertising.

A thankless task. Middle aged men, earning far more than she was, telling her to make the business an overnight sensation by creating viral tweets and videos. Of course none of the management had a clue how she was supposed to achieve this, and she tried to explain, time and time again – it's just not possible.

You can’t predict what’s going to get carried on a social media wave and what isn’t, because it seems to be totally random. I’ve had two tweets go viral (getting thousands of retweets) in all the time I’ve been on twitter, and it was a complete surprise both times. The first one was a really stupid dinosaur joke. The second was a tweet about the Oxford Comma. And basically if I was intent on marketing my brand, neither of those tweets was likely to encourage people to buy my book.

Of course there’s a whole world of social media stars out there who have millions of followers on Instagram and YouTube and are marketing their chosen brand really effectively. Simple things like how to put on makeup, diet, exercise or wear clothes (probably specific clothes, and none of them to be found in my wardrobe) can get you way more followers and much more money than most of us ever earn from writing books. But they represent a tiny minority of all the people trying to become social media stars - who knows what singles them out?

And I'd never even heard of him until now... 

There are similar success stories in the book world, where out of the blue, books have gone stratospheric. A look at the top 100 bestselling books OF ALL TIME in the UK makes for a very interesting read.  Just sometimes, a writer catches the public imagination and something strange happens – EVERYONE buys their book.

Interestingly, this isn't just about publisher spend. Celebrity authors get far more of the publicity and marketing budget than other writers, and you see their books stacking tables and shelves in every supermarket and bookshop. But (perhaps strangely on this basis), David Walliams isn’t on the best selling authors of all time list, unlike Stephanie Meyer, a Mormon from Utah who self-published those vampire stories before she got a publisher. Not sure it’s appropriate to mention EL James in a post about children’s books, but again, a self published author who hit a zeitgeist. 

Mean...but who cares about writing style if you're in the top 100 all time best sellers?

And there’s always the possibility your book will go viral in another territory. Take the interesting case of Claire McFall, a Scottish children’s writer who isn't that well known in the UK (despite having won the Scottish Book Award twice), yet she’s a superstar in China. The Independent once described her in an article as The Most Influential Writer You've Never Heard Of, after her (translated) Ferryman trilogy went viral, each book hitting the Chinese top 10 and collectively selling several million copies, making her a top selling author throughout China for the last three years running. She has a film deal in place and everything – the stuff a writer's dreams are made of.

Claire McFall at a book signing in China

So what’s my point? I don’t have one really. There are thousands of writers and a few make it big. A massive publicity budget from your publisher might help, but sometimes the public just like something. Like the Gruffalo, His Dark Materials, or the Very Hungry Caterpillar. Or Ferryman. The good news is a very high percentage of top selling authors write children’s books.

Incidentally, it's not all about fiction. Eats, Shoots and Leaves is up in the 100 best sellers of all time too. So maybe, like the Oxford comma, punctuation is the way to go…

Lu Hersey


Chris Vick said...

Great blog, Lu. We all dream, we all wonder. I suppose the question for all of us is: are you trying to writer a 'best-seller?' In one sense we all are; we'd all love to have the recognition, money and champagne. But in another sense, probably not.n FAQ is 'are you rich' and my usual response is": no, and if I wanted to be I probably wouldn't writ ehte books I do.' I've toyed with alaternaitves to what i do, e.g. writing MG/funny and/or MG/magical, as they seem to do quite well. But I think we all probably end up writing the book we want to write, with the story we are pasionate about don't we? Even if it is against the wind, in terms of current market, trend and taste.

LuWrites said...

You're absolutely right, Chris! If only I could write something I know is more commercial and stop writing myth based kitchen sink paranormal books the current market isn't interested in! Guess I can always aim for posthumous success... :)

Sue Purkiss said...

Well, isn't that list interesting? Particularly surprised by The Lovely Bones at no 19.

LuWrites said...

Yes, Sue - some of the 100 all time best sellers are really surprising - and actually so are some of the books I'd really expected to see on there but weren't!

Andrew Preston said...

Noticed 'Wild Swans' by Jung Chang at number 96 in the charts.

In the list of thanks/credit inside the front pages is the name of a long ago aquaintance of mine. I was aware that he'd worked at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

I noticed when reading the book, that Jung Chang had also worked there.

I asked him if he'd met her. What looked momentarily like a grimace passed across his features as he replied that he had been her boss. She was always asking for time off to do her writing.

LuWrites said...

Guess it was worth it for her at least... :)