The Bestseller Experiment: can you deliberately write a blockbuster book? – The Guardian (blog)

Everyone may have a book in them, but what about a bestselling one? It would seem obvious that the big-name authors are going to go straight to the top of the charts, but periodically a book comes out of nowhere that captures the imagination — and the public’s money — to become a break-out hit.

But is there actually a formula for writing a bestseller? Mark Stay and Mark Desvaux think think there might be, and they’ve given themselves one year to make it happen.

Stay has some form in publishing: he works for Orion and has writing chops, having written the screenplay and resulting novel for the movie Robot Overlords, which was released last year.

His partner-in-words, Canada-based Brit Desvaux, has aspirations to write and is, in Stay’s words, “the only person I know who can describe his job as ‘dream coach’ with a straight face”. This means that he is a blend of life coach, entrepreneur and broadcaster, who says things like: “If you can dream something, if you believe it can happen, than you can make it happen.”

Together they have launched The Bestseller Experiment, which isn’t just them hunkering down for a year to write a book together – that would be boring. Instead, they are running a weekly podcast alongside their collaborative writing efforts, bringing in recognisable voices from writing and all aspects of publishing. As Stay puts it: “We’re going on an adventure. Come along with us – write your book at the same time as we do.”

Mark Stay and Mark Desvaux of The Bestseller Experiment


Dreaming big … Mark Stay and Mark Desvaux. Photograph: Supplied

Podcast guests so far, and forthcoming, include authors Joanne Harris, Joe Abercrombie, Michelle Paver and Maria Semple, plus editors such as Sam Eades and Juliet Ewers. They are offering the nuts and bolts writing advice (sample from Harris: “Ditch the word aspiring. It’s bullshit. Just write”) and as the “experiment” progresses, the two Marks will bring in agents, publicity people, even experts on creating and formatting ebooks.

But what exactly do they mean by a bestseller? What’s their ultimate ambition? “It would be great to get somewhere in the top 10 of the Amazon Kindle charts,” says Stay. He’s the more cautious of the pair; he cheerfully admits that when they came up with the idea to write, edit, publish and market a novel under the public gaze his first thought was: “This is going to be a car crash.”

Desvaux is more forthright and positive. “I believe we can get right to the very top of the charts,” the dream coach asserts.

The two work well together, and their chemistry on the weekly podcasts is certainly attracting listeners. Their first episode went to third spot in the iTunes download charts and their regular listeners are in the “tens of thousands”, says Desvaux. The gained some global press when they had Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston (also a writer of some renown) on the show, just before the US presidential elections. Cranston labelled Donald Trump a “tragic Shakespearean character” and announced he would move to Canada if Trump was elected (whether or not he’s packing up his Winnebago as we speak, we don’t yet know).

The Brian Cranston episode.

But can you actually plan a bestseller, unless you’re Lee Child or James Patterson? Doesn’t deciding to do it ignore different tastes?

“What we’re trying to do is go through bestselling novels and see if there are any commonalities in there, then see if we can distil them down, apply them to our own writing,” says Desvaux. Stay adds, “There’s always going to be an elusive spark with any kind of creative endeavour, but we want to discover on our journey what makes a bestseller and what, if anything, is common to those books.”

Their own work-in-progress is discussed every week, without them giving too much away in terms of plot and themes. “We do think we’ve got a really commercial idea, though. We’re very excited about it. It’s not going to be a gimmicky book, because people will see right through that. It’s got to be a book that we are both immensely proud of,” Stay says.

Given the popularity of writing books and courses, you can’t help wondering whether the pair couldn’t simply transcribe all the wonderful advice they’re getting and turn it into a hit book.

The two Marks laugh in unison. “We’re already doing that, sending an ebook of interview transcripts to subscribers to the podcast,” Stay smiles. “It’s typical of our business acumen, really, that we’re just giving it away free.”

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