Insights from Hit Lit .. and author James W. Hall

What writer could resist the title: Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers?

Having just finished this book, I’d like to share a few notable insights. Bear with me as this will likely require more than one post.

Here’s the first quote, one that James Hall includes from another author, Michael Korda who has written about American bestsellers.

At least half the books on any given week’s bestseller list are there to the immense surprise and puzzlement of their publishers … That’s why publishers find it so hard to repeat their successes – half the time they can’t figure out how they happened in the first place.

Aha … perhaps this is why my agent and I are having trouble finding a publisher for my novels!

Hall organizes his book to reveal twelve features of hit lit. The first feature is “An Offer You Can’t Refuse” – essentially tricks of the trade that make a story so compelling the reader can’t put it down. What are these tricks?

A novel must:

  • entertain
  • engage readers in a compelling, simple and dramatic premise
  • offer an unfolding story with “one complication after another”
  • include characters “of deep conviction and fervent, stubborn resolve, capable of passions that rise well beyond the normal range of human experience”
  • make the story worth the readers’ time by forging a “powerful emotional bond … composed of one part pity, one part fear”
  • minimize backstory
  • create “some form of serious peril” very early on
  • enhance the tension with “the power of the ticking clock”

Feedback: what historical fiction authors or novels do you think follow these tricks of the trade?

Next post … a few more of the twelve features.

13 thoughts on “Insights from Hit Lit .. and author James W. Hall”

    1. Thanks for visiting and adding to the conversation.
      Hall states quite clearly that the bestsellers he has analyzed are popular fiction not literary fiction. He quotes from a definition of best seller given by Frederic Melcher in 1946. “The term “best seller” was coined and came into common use because it filled a need … to describe what were not necessarily the best books but the books that people liked the best.” According to Wikipedia, Melcher was an American publisher, bookseller, editor and major contributor to the library science field and book industry. For example, The Da Vince Code sold 81 million copies worldwide. I’m going to post about the other twelve features Hall mentions … would love to hear your feedback on their applicability to literary fiction.

      1. My gut tells–although I can’t at present substantiate it–that there are examples of best sellers where one or more of those elements are absent, especially regarding action and backstory.

        1. By the way, I imagine the author is using the term ‘hit lit’ because it’s catchy, not because he’s implying that the bestsellers he has analyzed fit in the ‘literary fiction’ category.

      2. Makes sense. Bottom line, there’s no guessing what will be the next best seller. I’m not good enough to write to the “market” so I content myself with writing to what I like and what moves me, and then try to get as many eyeballs on it as I can before I send it to an editor. Maybe publishers should go back to what they enjoy reading and not try to guess the market either. I’m thinking publishers are acting more committees and printing camels instead of novels.

      3. Thank you for asking. So far, I have two published novels about Richard III in the 21st-century. A third is still a WIP. My website is joanszechtman.com

  1. Shogun is an excellent examples of …an unfolding story with “one complication after another” particularly. But all the points are present in some form or another, even the ticking clock, since his ship is burned before he can leave, and by the time, if ever, another could be built, his men would be no longer any good for the voyage. This is an exception tale: i.e. the primary protagonist, the one the reader identifies with throughout, doesn’t succeed in his goal.

    Dumas does them all superbly, of course!

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