Trying to Write a Bestseller Is Like Fishing for the Tournament

At the back of Encore Books in Mechanicsburg, PA, floor to ceiling shelves held the bestsellers.  Each week, one of the managers would change out the titles, pulling a couple off, reordering them, adding a couple back in. 

Then, just after college, I was bored by the bestsellers. I was just finding my voice as a writer. I was enthralled by the way that writing both sped up and slowed down time. I could not get over how much could change in one poem with the exchange of one word for another. I was in love with the process of writing.

Now, though, when I have my own books that could be shelved in those highly sought after sections near the front of the Barnes and Noble near the Nook display, I’m not so bored anymore.  I’m intrigued, and if I’m not careful, I can become obsessed with how to write a bestseller.

But I resist that urge because if I’m writing just to sell books, I’m writing for all the wrong reasons. As P says, writing to be a bestseller is like “fishing the tournament.”  Suddenly, it’s not about the love of water or time to relax or the sheer sport of catching a big fish – it’s about winning and competition.  Those things can be fun, but if that’s all we love, then the fishing is spoiled.

Of course, as writers, we want people to read what we write, and we need to make a living, so we want our books to sell. These are reasonable, healthy things.  They are part of the work we do.

Yet, when our work becomes about readers and sales, when we lose track of what we need to say in favor of what some expert suggests we say, when we sacrifice our style or our voice or our perspective because a popular face says we need to write “this way” to garner more readership,  then, we’ve sold out.  Selling out is not what happens when we write something popular; we sell out when we write TO BE popular. 

And it’s not just books either. We do it in our blogs when we think we have to write only a certain number of words in this kind of format with this number of bolded passages. When we think we have to be only a niche blog or spend hours analyzing our posting times rather than writing.  When we let platform trump our work.

See, as I know it, the only reasons to write are personal ones. If we are looking for acceptance or praise or affirmation from our readers, we are burdening them with something they cannot give us.  Our readers don’t heal our wounds. 

No, we need to write because it is what makes us feel alive, what gives us peace, what helps us think, what lets us disappear, what makes us who we are.  All the rest – sales and readers, views and subscriptions – that’s bonus.  It’s the writing that matters.   Even when all we catch is a tiny little fish. That little fish can feed thousands. It will always feed us.

Ever feel lured in by the numbers – sales or views? How do you combat that tendency?


  • Rachel

    I couldn’t agree more, and I’m seeing it happen to me with my own writing. Worrying about building an audience based on anything other than saying what I wanted to say was paralyzing me–so I wasn’t really blogging at all. Which isn’t to say I have to blog, but I want to. I’ve just been posting things that I think are important without regard to topic or length–just something I want to share, and I’ve added more followers and had more comments and likes in a few days than I did in months. These are the first posts that I’ve written without regard to platform or brand.

    People will read your stuff if they like it, and people can spot a phony a mile away. If you write with your whole heart, it will resonate with readers.

    • Andi

      So good, Rachel – “People will spot a phony a mile away.” I don’t want to read formulas or false wisdom. I want to read people’s lives. Thanks for that.