5 Feb 2015 10:12am

How to write a bestseller

Laura Powell asks a panel of novelists and publishing professionals the million dollar question: how do you write a bestseller?

It has taken six years, one failed past attempt, three rewrites, 11 rejections from publishers and countless wine-fuelled editing sessions with a group of friends I met on a creative writing course... But finally, in July, my first novel is going to be published. Sales are projected to be a conservative 5,000 paperbacks and, if I divide my advance by the number of hours I spent writing and editing it, my earnings amount to about 22p per hour. Deduct from that my literary agent’s fee, tax and other stoppages and I’m left with enough money to pay for roughly two months’ rent.

Nonetheless this is a positive outcome – and one I am very grateful for – when you consider that only 0.2% of writers who complete a novel manage to secure representation by a literary agent, according to an unscientific but plausible calculation by novelist Stephen Leigh. Super-agent Judith Murray, who represents Sarah Waters and is among the best in the business, received roughly 8,000 manuscript submissions in 2013. Of those, she took on 15 authors and successfully placed (industry language for selling a book to a publisher) just five.

No doubt many of those unpublished novels are just as accomplished – but some manuscripts are unfashionable at a given moment, some are too similar to a novel an agent is already representing, or sometimes the agent or publisher reading it is just having a bad day.

Yes, there are well-publicised success stories: Samantha Shannon earned a six-figure advance after penning her seven-book fantasy series, The Bone Season, while she was at university, and the film rights were snapped up soon after.

Eimar McBride spent nine years scouting for a publisher for her debut, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, which went on to receive critical acclaim and win six major literary awards. And of course Harry Potter was rejected umpteen times before Bloomsbury published it.

Those, however, are the lucky exceptions. Of those writers who are published, a 2013 study found that only 11.5% earn their income solely from writing and the average salary of a career novelist was just £11,000, well below the UK minimum income standard of £16,850 recommended by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Most novelists have day jobs too. Even Of Mice and Men author John Steinbeck ran a fish hatchery to top up his income.

But as Leigh puts it: “The publishing business is not a lottery and there are no odds”. Rather, he believes it is up to the writer to make their own luck and set apart their book, then make it stand out in the literary agent’s slush pile of unpublished manuscripts. Our panel of top literary agents, booksellers, novelists and critics explain how to do exactly that.



 SJ Watson, author of Before I Go To Sleep, which was turned into a film. His second novel, Second Life, is published this month

“Ideas are everywhere because stories are everywhere. Newspapers, magazines, overheard conversations, books, blogs, libraries, coffee shops… You just have to stay open to them. The tricky thing is recognising potential. The best ideas are magnetic. They attract other ideas to them and then gradually something exciting begins to build. But there is no hard and fast rule on what to do with an idea beyond that.

"For every writer who plunges straight in as soon as they get the ‘tingle’ that comes with a good idea, you’ll find another who spends months planning everything out. Try what feels right, and if it doesn’t work try something else. Having said that I think it’s a good idea to hold off beginning to write until you feel the compulsion is starting to really build. That way your enthusiasm is more likely to carry you over those early bumps in the road.”



Samantha Shannon, author of The Bone Season, a seven-book series that earned her a six-figure advance

“Some writers plan in great detail before starting; others just jump in and see what happens. I’m somewhere in the middle. I’ll have the skeletal outline of the plot and all the important events and twists in my mind, but I never go in with every single scene planned out. That would take the excitement and discovery out of writing.

"It is possible to over-plan. You can become so weighed down by little details that you never get round to telling the story. Or sometimes you can plan something in detail, only to discover that when you come to write it down, it just doesn’t work. You have to allow for the fact that characters don’t always do what they’re told.

"Ultimately, you should go into your novel with a completely open mind. Experiment with different forms and styles. Mix up genres. Don’t be scared of being different. And whatever you do, don’t let anyone put you off what you’re doing. Constructive criticism is great but you’re never going to write something that pleases everyone. Trust your gut.”



Joanne Harris, author of 14 novels including Chocolat, which became an Oscar-nominated film

“The prospect of filling a blank page can be scary – but all writers, whether they are new or not, overcome it in exactly the same way: by just carrying on writing.

I like to begin my books with an arresting opening sentence, although it doesn’t always come immediately. Often I just riff on the page until something useful comes along, after which I delete everything that came before it, and carry on from there.

Having said all of that, my advice on where to start would be to begin where it feels most comfortable. Ignore the way other people work. Find your own way of doing things. If a method works for you, then it’s the right method. If it doesn’t, whoever else may use it, it’s not. Experiment. Repeat as necessary.”




Richard Skinner, director of the Faber Academy, author of The Essential Guide to Writing a Novel, and The Mirror

“The first person you should be writing for is yourself – you should be writing the kinds of books you would like to read. But once the first draft is finished, you have to start considering other people. So, the editing process is a kind of paradox. It is a way of making your long piece truly your own, but it is also a way of bringing other people into the equation.

"When you’re ready to start editing, the first thing to do is read your first draft. Don’t make any notes as you read, and don’t start editing – just read it. When you have finished reading your draft, read it again, this time making edits, notes and suggestions on the manuscript. At this stage try not to be too harsh in your judgements.

"First drafts are just starting points and are always messy, so allow for that. The key to good editing is to do draft after draft because you won’t be able to see in one sitting all that needs to be done.”



Clare Conville, co-founder of Conville and Walsh literary agency

“It’s not essential for a first-time novelist to be supported by a literary agent, but it’s very helpful. It is not easy – Conville and Walsh has eight agents, including me, and we get sent more than 4,000 manuscripts a year.

"There are certain things a novelist shouldn’t do when approaching a literary agent. Don’t send a marketing and publicity plan and please don’t tell me that members of your immediate family have read it and loved it.

"I have been sent all sorts of inducements in my time in the hope that I will pick up a particular manuscript including flowers, chocolates and in one instance a cricket-ball. I did pick up Vernon God Little because the author DBC Pierre, who is also a cartoonist, had drawn a very intriguing jacket, but generally all I rely on is good writing.

"Once you’ve managed to find an agent willing to represent you, there are certain ingredients that make a successful relationship. Ultimately, like a marriage, you need love, trust, honesty, and a sense of humour.”



Nigel Roby, owner and chief executive of The Bookseller and We Love This Book

“Choosing a good book cover is vital to sales and it is an area that traditional publishers have a particular skill in delivering.
Wherever the public ends up finally buying a book, traditional bookshops are one of the most important drivers of success and if a novel doesn’t strike a chord in the milliseconds it has to impress a browser then it is lost.

"Online take-up depends on many factors – such as the data behind the book being picked up by search engines – but one of the key ways of spreading the message is through social media.

"Facebook and Instagram, for example, rely on visual appeal. If a cover is striking then chances are that users will spread it around. For good or ill we all respond to visual stimuli. It’s daft not to give yourself the best possible chance.”



 Robert McCrum, associate editor of The Observer, and editor-in-chief at Faber & Faber

“My advice to new writers on how to market or publicise their novel would be to trust their publicist, say ‘yes’ to most things, be available, and don’t expect the moon.
Also, they should leave the country on publication day. And never look at Amazon ratings.
Having several good reviews published simultaneously in major newspapers can make a big difference. A good review by a big name can help, but not always.
Word of mouth is crucial. If blogs and so on contribute to that, fine. But I’m not persuaded that Twitter makes a real difference. How and why books succeed remains a mystery.
How do I select which books to review? Caprice. The best way for debut novelists to make their book stand out from the piles of review copies received by literary editors is, simply, to write a good book and get it publicised well, and early.”


Sally Green worked as the finance director at Parcelweb before she penned fantasy novel, Half Bad. Within 10 weeks of posting her manuscript to a literary agent, she had struck a six-figure deal with Puffin and sold the film rights to Fox 2000. “It does sound a bit ‘as if by magic’, but I promise you I put the hours in,” Green told economia (in the September 2014 edition).
Her second book, Half Wild, is due for release in March.

She’s not alone. Rose Edmunds (profiled in August 2012) quit her 22-year career as a tax accountant, latterly at Deloitte, to write crime novels. And Tim Lerwill, head of commercial at Old Mill Accountancy in Wiltshire, spends his free hours writing a series of children books, based on the farm where he grew up. As he puts it: “Few experiences are more rewarding than an audience hanging onto every word of your book.”

We’d like to hear from ICAEW members who are published novelists. What hurdles did you face? What tips would you offer aspiring writers? Who or what inspired you? We’ll feature the most interesting stories on the website. Send your experiences to us at

Laura Powell




Related articles

Why you should read novels

What you should read next

The best and worst book adaptations

Member profile: Sally Green