What makes a bestseller?

A P.S. Literary client recently asked ‘what makes a bestseller’?

The answer is: no one knows.

What the industry can predict and learns through experience is noted below. It is the combination of the following factors and the balance of the following factors that makes it hit the charts.

  • Quality Content
  • Timing
  • Publicity
  • Placement
  • Publisher added value/Production value
  • Connection with readers
  • Luck!

You can try to deconstruct it when it happens, but a lot of it the balance between.


St. Martin’s Navy Seals book SEAL TEAM SIX came out (and was rushed to market) after the announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death by the Navy Seals. Issacson’s biography STEVE JOBS came out (and was rushed to market) after Steve lost his battle with cancer. Both saw great success.

Fiction examples are harder to come by. THE NIGHT CIRCUS is one example that using timing. It came out when publishers and readers were looking for something to follow Harry Potter. THE NIGHT CIRCUS is a new adult read for Harry Potter fans.

At the P.S. Literary Agency Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s DEBT FREE FOREVER has been a Canadian bestseller for us because it: a) is a great book for its intended audience and they respond well to it; b) it was released at opportune times of the year: after the debt crash and start of the new years; c) Gail does great publicity on talk shows and has the platform of her two hit television shows on the Slice network. She knows how to talk about the book and get the message across in a 123 way; d) the placement of the book in places like Costco, Walmart and ChaptersIndigo has been front of store and lots of coverage; e) the book’s cover has a sticker tieing her book to her show and the french flaps to increase value; f) readers use it like a bible, refer to it, and keep coming back for more sage advice; and e) it was the right book from the right editor at the right time for the right audience–and came out during the recession when readers were looking for a this book at a good price point.

Does that help? Probably not. But, it gives you an idea of the magic that happens when books fly off the shelves!

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

4 thoughts on “What makes a bestseller?

  1. Could you explain the reference to “french flaps” and why this increases the value of the book? What is “french” about it?


    1. Of course! French flaps are extensions of the paperback cover that fold inside the book. (You’ve probably seen them before.) Not only are paperback books featuring French flaps sturdier and more attractive, but they are also useful because the flaps can be tucked as a bookmark. I am not sure where the French comes from, perhaps that’s where they were first made.


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