Stories that sell – readers tell us

I’m a great follower of the Sunday New York Times book section – not only the reviews but the best seller lists and other regular columns. I look for ideas and trends and book recommendations.

TBR: Inside the List included a brief item called FLOUR, SUGAR, BUTTER commenting on James W. Hall’s book about best-selling novels. The following bits stood out:

  • “Three of the common features [of best selling novels] … are maverick heroes, high stakes and hot sex.”
  • “One ingredient not necessary in a best-seller … is graceful prose.”
  • And here, Hall is quoted directly. “The novel is a blue-collar form, and the language of best sellers reflects that legacy.”

I also cut out the NYT list of No. 1 books from one to thirty-five years ago published in early April.

  • 2011:  Toys – James Patterson & Neil McMahon
  • 2010:  The Help – Kathryn Stockett
  • 2007:  Nineteen Minutes – Jodi Picoult
  • 2002:  Everything’s Eventual – Steven King
  • 1997:  The Partner – John Grisham
  • 1992:  The Pelican Brief – John Grisham
  • 1987:  Fine Things – Danielle Steel
  • 1982:  The Parsifal Mosaic – Robert Ludlum
  • 1977:  Trinity – Leon Uris

Guess what? Readers chose maverick heroes, high stakes and, in most cases, hot sex.

Now, combine that with my recent historical fiction survey. What did 805 readers tell us? They love great stories. When asked about the genre they read or what detracts from historical fiction or their favourite authors – the data and comments point to a desire for great stories. What more maverick heroes with high stakes can you find than Philippa Gregory’s Elizabeth I or Sharon Kay Penman’s Eleanor of Aquitaine or Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe or Diana Gabaldon’s Jamie Fraser?

In the right proportions, flour, butter and sugar makes mouth-watering shortbread. Food for thought.

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2 Responses

  1. I’ll definitely agree with maverick heroes and high stakes, but hot sex is notably missing in any number of authors who always make the best seller lists, the best examples being John Grisham and Lee Childs. Has anyone ever done a gender-specific servey on this? My guess would be that male readers prefer your first two categories, but could care less about the sex.

    1. Interesting theory, Miriam. Perhaps I can ask that on the next survey! Or perhaps James Wall who wrote the book about best sellers has a section on male/female differences.

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