What Makes A Best Seller?

Orphan-Train-Cropped1I just read Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. Published in 2013 the paperback version now sits at number four on the New York Times best seller list. Its success is a surprise to its author. This is her fifth book and her other novels have rarely sold more than 10,000 copies. She never expected to sell over a million copies of Orphan Train. Why has this novel done so well? I can think of three reasons. 

1. The novel informs people about a piece of little known American history. At the turn of the century thousands of orphans from eastern cities were sent on trains to the mid-west to be adopted by families.  Some would enter kind and loving homes while others would become nothing more than indentured servants or worse the victims of abuse and neglect.  There have been hundreds of books written about historical events like the settling of the west or slavery and civil rights, but Kline has found a gem of a history story that has rarely been addressed in fiction.  It reminds me of a favorite read of mine from last year The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I believe one of the reasons it became popular is because it is catalogues an important story  that few people had heard. 

2. The novel appeals to various age groups.  Orphan Train is categorized as an adult novel, but one of its narrators is a seventeen year old foster girl living in modern-day America. Although the other narrator is a ninety year old woman, the bulk of the novel relates the older woman’s story of her childhood and teen years.  The book is easy to read and I can easily see it fitting into young adult and middle grade categories as well. Its appeal to a wide age range of readers may be why the City of Philadelphia has chosen the book for its 2015 One Book One Philadelphia program this year. The idea is for the city to come together by all reading the same book. Philadelphia will stage over  a hundred events this coming year revolving around Orphan Train

3. The novel has become a favorite with book clubs, highschool teachers and college professors.  The paperback version contains questions for book clubs. The novel (although I would suggest at times not very realistically ), addresses social issues like foster care, elder care, First Nations concerns (the seventeen year old foster girl is a Penobscot Indian), identity and what it means to be a family.  This makes it appealing to schools and book clubs.  Author Kline says she thinks people are looking for a book “they can talk about.”  Orphan Train fills that bill. If middle schools, high schools and colleges put your book in their libraries or have it on their required reading lists an author is on their way to some pretty good sales figures. 

So if you are looking to write a best seller

1) Pick unique subject matter

2) Appeal to an audience that is wide-ranging in age

3) Target book club and educational institution markets

Other posts about writing…….

Why Adults are Reading Teen Fiction

You’re Killing Me

I’m in the Newsletter of the Pre-Raphaelite Society


Filed under Books, History, Writing

3 responses to “What Makes A Best Seller?

  1. I fully agree! I did the same, but I’m telling of a story which takes place in the future…
    I have now received a contract from a London’s publisher for publishing in English… and the novel was chosen for a movie script…
    I’m also very surprised, this is my fourth novel, very different from the others, but this time I considered the three criteria that you mention!
    serenity 🙂 claudine


  2. gabe

    Can I add something else? You also have to write a really good book. Without that, the rest won’t work.

    I’ll read Orphan Train. It’s sounds like the kind of book I’d like. Thanks.


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