Publishers Marketplace 'automat' section has a story lifted out of Newsweek mag about David Balducci. The guy has writted 16 best-sellers . . and get this. . . according to Newsweek, hardly any critic thinks Balducci's books are good.

So it occured to me--if you were a big publishing house, could you literately take a manuscript out of the slush pile (and assuming it had just average talent) groom and preen that script/writer into a mega hit?

Personally, I'm thinking of Clive Cussler. I read all of his novels, I'll admit it. And I walk away dissatisfied every time. All of his plots have vast potential. But his slam-bang style of writing is just so sterile. No color. No true sensations. Just wham-bang, and go to the next impossible feat.

But I wonder: did Cussler's Raise the Titanic hit the right editors's desk on the right day, at the right time, with the editor in the right mood? Did the book make the author? Or did the publisher make the author?

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I've heard other aspiring authors sing various versions of this same song - that a bestselling author isn't deserving of their success because of the quality of their writing - most specifically with regard to Dan Brown's work. But I think whether we admire the writing or not, the truth is, a bestseller doesn't just happen - there's a reason people buy it in great numbers. And when an author like Baldacci does it again and again, it's not the publisher "making" them into a bestseller, and it's not a fluke. Something in Baldacci's writing is connecting with his audience. THAT'S the reason he and others like Cussler are selling in great numbers.

Instead of speculating there was some sort of publishing magic involved, I think the author who wants the kind of success that Baldacci and others have is better served to figure out what it is in these authors' stories that got them where they are, and then replicate it in their own. Talent's a given when a book has been bought and published by a major publisher. But bestsellerdom isn't dependent strictly on talent. I think it all comes down to storytelling. Pretty writing is a bonus, but a gripping story trumps all.
Very well said, Karen.
I think Dan Brown richly deserves all the abuse he's been subject to: the guy really is a terrible writer. Most people don't know the difference, though, and don't care--which is why, as Lewis Lapham said, you could fit the American audience for literary fiction into Yankee stadium and still have some empty seats in the bleachers.
Talent is not the given. Story telling is, but that, of course, is a talent. It is far more important than much of what we believe is good about writing.
Karen.
Your point about pretty writing vs. storytelling is very good.
Writers are, in general, very hard to please. Readers often have lower standards regarding the writing and the storytelling.

I learned a long time ago that my cousin, whom I love dearly, is not worth anything to me as a beta reader. She enjoys everything she reads. She doesn't nitpick over plot holes or flat characters or even typos. She just enjoys the book. She is my reminder that readers are not the same as writers.

Readers make bestsellers. If readers like the story, they can forgive a LOT of the things that driver writers down that short road to crazy.
No, readers are most definitely not the same as writers. And neither readers nor writers are the same as agents or editors.
I think that novels are much like movies, if you throw enough promotional money at it people buy/watch it and to be honest I think that Hollywood has proved this point by making very average to bad movies with big names (Water world?) and spending hundred of millions of dollars promoting it. So people will watch it even though almost everyone agrees that it wasn't worth the time.
The fact is, if enough people suggest that you read/watch some thing then most people wil, and you can take a pretty average book/movies and turn it into a best seller when the public have never heard of a truly great piece of writing that didn't get the promotional dollars. Also, ofcourse, you have to realize that the vast number of people spending money on movies or general books (as apposed to say, Shakespeare) are not as bright as some one who can sit down and write a good novel (not trying to be big headed here!) and most times a 'pop-art' simple story will connect with more people than something complicated and brain draining like a Len Deighton book. Just because we like our stories doesn't mean the man in the street will! Find a way to make the public want your book, and the publishers will have to get it into print to satify the demand!
You are exactly right, Karen -- couldn't have said it better myself. As for the "if you throw enough money at it, people buy it" argument, it's disproved all the time with highly-promoted books, movies, music, etc. that flop. I'll give just one book example, without naming anybody: a few years ago, two big, big first novels came out within a month of each other. Each had been bought for seven figures, each had huge promotional budgets behind them, each was published intelligently. I read advance copies of both: liked one (and recommended it to people I thought would enjoy it), thought the other was so-so (and didn't). The first book went on to become a #1 bestseller. The other one never made the list. If throwing money around was the sole criterion, then both books would have sailed off to bestseller heaven.
There are lots of routes to best-sellerdom. Here's a good little run-down of some of them:

http://www.usatoday.com/life/books/2005-03-15-bestseller-explainer.htm
Good thread. Jon's reference to the article is useful. An author friend of mine just emerged from the unknown to bestseller status via the promotion (big print run etc) and a Hollywood connection. His other books were excellent, but people just weren't that interested.

The fact is that few good books ever make it to bestseller status. I can think offhand of two: J.K.Rowling and Hosseini. Rowling writes for children and lots of parents encourage reading in their children even if they don't read themselves. Hosseini's books are set in Afghanistan and were politically current.

As for constructing a bestseller: it can be done by tapping into what people want to hear. And then keeping it simple. Attack what people like to hate (CEOs come to mind at the moment), throw in graphic violence committed by some sort of deformed creature, add graphic sex, plus some abhorrent crimes such as serial child sexual abuse and murder, and last but not least, prove that Christ was really a woman or a vampire.

You get the idea.
Dammit, I.J.--you just gave away the plot of my new stand-alone!

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