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About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.

Written by: Vickie Sullivan  |  August 01, 2009

Blockbuster Books: 3 Ways to Write a Bestseller

Originally published for RainToday.com

Unless you’ve been living on another planet, you’ve heard the conventional wisdom about how books can launch you into the big (or bigger) leagues. Yet, most books sputter along for a few months and then are quickly forgotten. That happens because the majority of books don’t seduce the market with a compelling angle. Based on my unscientific research into bestselling books, below are three ways to make your book stand out in the crowd.

1. Tap Into a Feeling That needs a Voice

Every audience and every market segment has hidden opinions that need to be expressed. They feel judged. They feel oppressed. A book provides a safe way to say, “Hey, you’re not alone.” And when you tap into that hidden little place in people’s hearts, you become their hero. When you personify a belief, you’ve created a phenomenon.

My favorite business example is Who Moved My Cheese? This book was written when the majority of the workforce was in shock over sudden changes. It acknowledged the shock, tapped into the confusion, and gave readers hope that there was indeed a new cheese station.

Another example in the speaking world: Larry Winget, the pitbull of personal development. This man has gone from nondescript motivational speaker to bestselling author, to even starring in his own television show. His secret: his books speak a truth in a hilarious way. His style of observational obnoxiousness taps into that hidden frustration all of us have with the stupid things other folks do. He says things that we want to say but can’t get away with. Larry makes it safer for us to laugh at the stupid things people do, while reminding us what not to do.

The common denominator: prior to their bestselling books, both authors were relatively unknown in the mass markets. Both were good, but neither was outstanding or had celebrity status. And that’s why I like this strategy. It is one of the best ways for lesser-known authors to burst onto the scene. If you are unknown, writing about what is not being discussed is your ticket to the spotlight. This angle paves the way for branded personalities to take off.

2. Explain the Mystery

When an extreme event occurs — good or bad — everyone wants to know what really happened. Giving the inside scoop to things that we desperately want to make sense of is a great path to a bestseller. This is why so many true-crime books are written about high-profile murders or serial killers.

The best example here is from the world of politics. Bob Woodward used his fame from Watergate to write numerous bestselling books about a wide variety of political controversies. Why we bought them: he had access that we didn’t. He knew how to get the nitty-gritty details that would help us understand what really happened and why. He gives us insight into perplexing situations (such as presidential elections and wars), helping us make sense of it all.

On the business side, an excellent example is Kevin and Jackie Freiburg’s books Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success, which explains the meteoric growth of a colorful company. Published over 10 years ago, the book has sold over half a million copies, and sales continue at a respectable 2,000 copies per month. Not bad for first-time authors.

Again, these consultants had access we didn’t. The Freiburgs used Southwest Airlines as an example of unorthodox success and launched a “business as unusual” platform (and two more books) as a result. This is a great strategy for lesser-known consultants to get traction for their ideas. It’s also proof that you don’t have to go to the dark side. Extreme success can be just as popular as massive devastation.

3. Give a Sneak Peak

We all love to peak behind the curtain, to be the fly on the wall. This strategy is similar to explaining a mystery, as both focus on the inside scoop. The difference is this path is the role and the motivation. Instead of being a reporter solving the mystery, the author is part of the action. With mysteries, readers want answers and understanding. With sneak peaks, they are simply curious.

This angle is a popular form of fiction. Remember The Nanny Diaries? It was a bestseller because so many people wanted to know how the other half parented their children. Remember The Devil Wears Prada? We wanted a glimpse into the glamorous world of fashion. Both bestsellers allowed access to fascinating places.

From a business side, my favorite example is Stanly Bing, the pen name of Gil Schwartz. Schwartz is the executive vice president of corporate communications for CBS, and by becoming Stanly Bing, he gave his readers a hilarious and scathing look at what happens in the executive suite. His books became bestsellers because we’re curious about the world of cigar-smoking, jet-setting fat cats.

If you are any kind of “former,” this strategy is the way to go. And you don’t have to go the tell-all route either. Any glimpse into the absurdities — and face it, every environment has them — is good enough to make this work.

Do It Right

Like many other industries, the publishing world is in turmoil. The pressure on price and the rise of on-demand and online publishing are just a few of the problems facing this noisy market. But one thing is for certain: blockbuster books are still being written, published, and sold. So if you’re going to write “the” book, go for broke. Think through these strategies and pick the one right for you. You might be surprised by what happens next. Good luck!

Filed Under: Content Marketing


About Vickie Sullivan

Vickie Sullivan is internationally recognized as the top market strategist for thought leaders, professional speakers and B2B professional service firms. Specializing in brand and message strategies in crowded markets, she has helped thousands of talented people outsmart their competition since 1987.