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Sun, sex and short sentences: how to write a bestseller

No one really knows what makes books sell, says The Economist. The more honest publishers openly admit as much – Simon & Schuster boss Jonathan Karp compares taking credit for a bestseller to “taking credit for the weather”. But look through recent big hits and some trends do emerge. Thrillers and romance fare the best. The settings are often exotic: Danielle Steel’s 200 or so novels, which have sold over a billion copies, have titles like Five Days in Paris and Sunset in St Tropez, not A Fortnight in Glasgow. In this, Steele might echo Ian Fleming, who wrote: “I think you will find that the sun is always shining in my books.”

Many of today’s bestsellers also share stylistic traits. “Sentences tend to be short. Really short. And repetitive. Really repetitive. Think Hemingway. On holiday.” Bestselling authors also tend to make the most of any research trips they have done. One of Steel’s recent titles opens with the heroine looking out over Rome, at “Saint Peter’s Basilica and Vatican City, the dome of the San Carlo al Corso Basilica, and to the north, the Villa Medici and the Borghese Gardens”. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code offers such detailed tours through Paris that it’s like “switching on a verbose satnav”. But perhaps the most striking quality of top authors is their phenomenal output. Steel says she writes “until her nails bleed”; the thriller writer James Patterson has churned out more than 340 books, albeit often in collaboration with other writers. That, perhaps, is the key. “Don’t get it right, get it writ.”