How do some books stay on the bestseller lists month after month and sometimes, year after year? Until recently, I thought a great deal of luck went into their success. I still believe that some luck goes into it, but in a short examination of titles that linger or resurface on the lists I noticed a trend.
This may not come as any big surprise to you, but from a craft perspective it felt like a revelation to me. Allow me to explain.
On the surface, a book needs to have an engaging plot and interesting premise. These elements alone can satisfy readers, and some readers even seek books that only appeal to this level. I think of this as the sensory or physical level. I’ve heard some refer to books like this as dessert: quick, tasty, but unable to fulfill long term health requirements.
The next layer is about the emotional journey or arc of the characters. When characters are flawed, complex, and sympathetic the reader enters into a deeper level of intimacy with the text because he cares. Strong characters activate the emotions of the reader, vesting him in the story. Books that delve deeply into this level while satisfying the sensory level tend to inspire a lot of recommendation, buzz, and may even make them worthy of book club discussion.
There is one more layer, however, that I think makes the difference that keeps books on the bestseller lists for the long term: the thematic layer. When an author explores themes that challenge the reader, when she uses allegory or symbol, when she might even change the world view of the reader, the book enters the realm of the timeless. These are the books that are read over and over again, that are given as gifts or sit on end tables in guest rooms, that are recommended widely and read by children and grandchildren with the same energy and enthusiasm as their elders.
I believe that this comprehensive symbiosis of elements that satisfy the reader at the sensory, emotional, and intellectual levels keeps books on the bestseller lists because it keeps books in the hearts and minds of those who read them. It is a tall order, but one that I suspect almost all writers aim for.
What books have you read that satisfy these layers? What books have not only kept you turning pages, but have also nourished you at a deeper level?