What makes a best-seller?

As a Chinese philosopher once said, may you not live in interesting times. This was meant as empathy, since “interesting” signified social chaos and a decline of objective standards. Well, we live in an age of declining standards, just look at how many colleges are abandoning the SAT as a qualifying entrance exam.

Part of this wider social decline is any standards for what constitute quality writing. Today’s writing mirrors today’s Hollywood movie-making, which is to say that popular fiction has become puerile, obsessed with sex and violence, formulaic, populated by off-the-shelf stock characters, and utterly boring and predictable. 

I just read a brief article which proclaimed that 99.999% of every book written today (meaning every novel), will sell no more than 100 copies in the author’s lifetime, and zero afterwards when sales to friends and family dry up, while only 5,000 sold would make it a “best-seller”. This is certainly true. Forty years ago, when this writer was an editor for a fiction publishing house, no more than 50,000 books were being published annually. Today, that number has hit 1,100,000. And is still expanding. It seems everyone who can type a word today is putting out a novel, expecting publication to follow. But it is harder than ever to get published, and is almost as likely as winning a lottery.

Yet some people do get published. After years of writing breath-taking prose and wonderfully inventive plots, with enough rejection letters to plaster a wall from publishers who never glanced at my manuscripts, this writer is now published by three publishers. I have not produced a “best-seller” (at least not yet), but here are my modest observations on how this works:

First, ask yourself which you would rather do: sell a lot of trash in the style of what the Beatles’ disdainfully labeled “paperback writers”, or write something enduring that will make your life worthwhile and potentially attract a modicum of attention after you are gone. In this writer’s humble opinion, you cannot do both. Let’s face it: trash is what sells. In regards to sci-fi, this is no longer 1960 when a generation obsessed with science and the race to the moon produced an explosion of first-rate science fiction. Books like that no longer sell and can rarely find a publisher. Today’s average reader is more concerned with social issues than with hard science, with political correctness on Earth than with alien life. And books now must compete with video games and YouTube.

The publisher I worked for forty years ago even then had formulas for what they wanted to publish. If none of the avalanche of unsolicited manuscripts that arrived daily fit the bill for what the publisher wanted, and none ever did, then the publisher simply assigned the task to an in-house editor. For example, “Police stories are hot this year. Go write me a book about how what it’s like to be a policeman.” And that’s what the publisher published, with the editor using a pseudonym, all the unsolicited manuscripts going into the trash for a nice little bonfire in the parking lot, most of it unread.

Large publishers do the same thing today, except their criteria are much more stringent than 50 years ago. And if you expect them to put any money into advertising your book, their criteria will be precise down to the last period and what art is on the cover, and what message you are subliminally delivering. Best of all, if a movie is a blockbuster, then the publisher, which often will be owned by the same media corporation that produced the movie, will then write a book about the movie, on order from corporate HQ on-high. This is the best way to write a best-seller—fulfilling an order from a billionaire movie producer as part of their merch campaign.

But for mere mortals who are not writing on contract like a short-order cook, even if you are willing to share your minuscule portion of the profits with an agent, an editor, a proofreader, and even paying your own way to book-signings, your mss will still be rejected unless it checks off every box on the big media publisher’s list of prerequisites: no hard science; no strong male characters; a “rainbow” cast of good-gals (with one or two good-guys for “balance”); a dystopian collapse of civilization, zombies or vampires (preferably both, either separately or merged); the usual cast of evil white male villains who collapsed civilization, with either English or German or Southern White Trash accents; a horse-chase or a car-chase, or at least a rocket-in-space chase a la Star Wars; blue or green matriarchal peace-loving AmerIndian types who are “one with Nature” a la Avatar; and of course last but most important: a strong female lead who never holds a door open for anyone, most especially men, and never smiles, and who must be pictured on the cover holding a huge sword or futuristic gun (preferably both) and would never in a million parsecs be seen in the vicinity of babies or kids.

And if you actually do have aliens in your book, they had better be Just Like Us. Because today’s average reader doesn’t want her/his/xir’s moral Weltanschauung challenged by aliens who are actually alien any more than his/her/xir’s knowledge of science, since 2 + 2 = 4 is now a microaggression to the average reader of popular fiction. So hard science better not be in your manuscript. Oh, and the writer had better be something other than “a cis-gender male”, i.e., a normal man.

And for you who think that for popular selling it really makes a big difference what you put on that blank screen that will go between the covers, provided you can check off the laundry list of PC prerequisites… As case in point: a male member of a local writers’ club recently wrote a detective story. The fellow is a lawyer by profession, which means he can’t write a coherent sentence if his life depends on it and this was his first book—not to insult him, he’s a great guy and a friend and deserves everything good. But following the “algorithm” approach to writing, which begins with the principle “If you write for men, you’ll go broke,” he decided to self-publish. Rejecting putting anything on paper, and not wanting to waste his time with traditional publishers, he went straight for Kindle. He wrote his book in about a week (okay, maybe two) and it took another week to get his book on Kindle, giving particular attention to the cover. The cover had to have a picture of an adolescent girl, with angel-like wings, and a hint of down-and-dirt, in short, a cover aimed at sixteen year old female readers of .99c Kindles on cellphones. He then hired a team of middle-aged women who specialize in talking up Kindles on Facebook. Three months later he had made $53,000 in sales. My book, The Selk King, took me four years to write. It’s aimed at highly educated men who know both Conan and Plato. It has not made $53,000. My top-seller, OTOH, a sci-fi pot-boiler titled “Frenzy”, took me only three weeks. It was great fun writing, but there’s no philosophy in Frenzy, just fun characters and lots of action.

Well, that about says it all. Physical book publishing today is big business, and large publishers are almost always owned by one of the big six Hollywood media monopolies, actually one single monopoly for all practical purposes, and therefore push the Hollywood PC agenda, usually in conjunction with their other big media venues, which includes large teams that talk up their bad books on social media. If you are not part of the PC crowd, and write true books of quality that you hope will outlive you, and not crappy Kindles that will vanish with yesterday’s news, then my advice is to avoid the cellophane corporate media publishers, or any other publisher infected with the PC virus. The age of novel-writing as a gentleman’s occupation with books published by small, part-time, non-profits run by retired gentlemen who just want good literature to see the light of day, is long gone, while the age of self-published junk is rising exponentially. But thankfully there are still a few publishers around who are not contributing, by marketing their trash, to making the present age more “interesting”.

My upcoming titles:

Arktos has bought the rights to two of my unpublished manuscripts. One is JIHAD BUBBA, the funniest sci-fi novel you will ever read about life in a “Woke” near-future. The other is SJWS & THE PC CULT, a sociological and historical analysis of “Wokeness”. Click here to keep up with the latest updates on both titles Arktos Publishing – Upcoming Titles. (scroll down)

Terror House Press has bought the rights to several other books. One is THE GLOW, a Stephen King type horrornovel, previously unpublished. The others are the entire 3-book series the ADVENTURES OF MAGGIE, THE RADIATED LESBIAN NUN. This is a semi-political, sociological, sci-fi satire. Click here: Terror House Press – Coming Soon then scroll down to “To Be Announced” where you will see all four of these novels listed.

Don’t forget my third publisher, TWB Press. QUANTUM MARLOWE is already available on their site, a novel about a quirky detective who gets caught up in multiple quantum universes as he investigates a murder. Click here to buy QUANTUM MARLOWE now: http://www.twbpress.com/ In many ways, I consider Quantum Marlowe the best book I have ever written.