8 Tips for Writing a Bestselling Book

Elizabeth Butcher

As a senior English major, I’ve taken several creative nonfiction writing classes at Duke, during which my professors have encouraged us to seek out small local publications in Durham or Chapel Hill in the hopes of being published. I approached this event at the Franklin Humanities Institute (How to Write a Best Seller, on October 17, 2019) seeking to learn more about the publication outlets available to aspiring authors and the plausibility of writing something marketable within a rapidly accelerating media landscape.

W. W. Norton Senior Editor Tom Mayer and bestselling author and anthropologist Kelly Alexander spoke for over an hour about publishing from the editor’s perspective to a mostly academic audience. Here are some of my take-aways from the conversation:

  1. Craft a book proposal that stands out to publishers.
    Publishers are looking for books that purchasing platforms will be excited to showcase and readers will be excited to buy. Mayer received over 500 proposals from book agents last year and 100 manuscripts from unrepresented writers who were “enterprising enough to find [his] email.” Of those, he published 12 books - this is the average number he publishes every year.
  2. Unless you are extremely famous or have an earth-shattering story, make sure your book is good enough to stand on its own legs.
    The book should demonstrate your storytelling abilities. Use an active voice instead of a passive voice. Your prose should be clean and compelling. Your arguments should be crisp, energetic, and thrilling.
  3. Write a book that starts conversations.
    You can’t start a conversation if no one understands what your book is about. Excessive jargon holds you back, but the academic who has expertise in their field and who can also write beautifully for a general audience will make an excellent author.
  4. Your book should be relevant to the current cultural moment.
    Your words should either be urgent in the national conversation of now or you should say something that hasn't been said before. Try to write to reflect the language of a new generation (are you the next Betty Friedan?).
  5. Understand your audience.
    “Author platform” is a term often used to describe your built-in readers. Whether you are a known quantity on Twitter, an expert in your field, or a newcomer to the media community, make sure you know which readers you are targeting and that you are crafting your book for them. Mayer advises, “Understand the magazine and media environment and how your book, personality, message and platform fit into those environments.”
  6. Write a book that can compete with other forms of entertainment.
    Not only does your book have to compete with other books, but it needs to appear more attractive than other forms of entertainment. Your book has to be more compelling than ESPN or Game of Thrones. It has to make a person want to stop clicking through television channels and Instagram posts and thumb through its pages instead.
  7. Familiarize yourself with the publishing business and build a network.
    Find out which agents represented your favorite authors (don’t forget to check if the authors mention their agents in their acknowledgements!) and send them your best pitch. Build a network of prominent academics and public figures who will support and endorse your work.
  8. Accept that the publishing business is unpredictable and that success is relative.
    Book publishing is a long process. When the final product is accomplished, understand that there are many factors you cannot control that may impact your book’s reception. It may come out at just the right time, or unintentionally strike a controversial note. Controversy can motivate sales or detract from them. At the end of the day, be realistic about your expectations and be proud when you are able to meet or exceed them.

Want to learn more? Watch the full event video below:

Elizabeth Butcher is a fourth-year undergraduate at Duke's Trinity College of Arts & Sciences. She is studying English and Psychology and hopes to pursue a career in entertainment post-graduation. She currently works in events support at the Franklin Humanities Institute and has recently begun writing for The Chronicle.

Elizabeth Butcher