Would you rather be a Best-Selling Author or a Best Writing Author?

moneyDan Brown’s new book “The Lost Symbol” will be out in September and the publishing industry is looking forward to blockbuster sales. Last week at the Sydney Writers Festival, it was pointed out that literary fiction doesn’t sell and one of the panel asked authors to ‘please write more books that sell’. After all, it will help you as an author as well as the suffering publishing industry!

So what do we aim for as authors?

One the one hand we want to win prizes, be literary geniuses and praised for our glorious ability with words. On the other hand, we want to make money! (after all, most literary prizes are very small! )

Here are some examples of best-selling authors that cannot be considered “literature”, but are definitely books that are popular and have touched the hearts of millions (and made a lot of money for their authors and publishing houses).

  • Dan Brown “The Da Vinci Code” has sold more than 80 million copies. The movie made more than $700 million at the box office. I have read “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail”, the non-fiction book that the ideas came from, as well as perhaps the literary equivalent Umberto Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum”. I enjoyed both other books, but Dan’s comes out tops in terms of popular appeal!
  • Robert Kiyosaki with The Rich Dad series of books, which have sold over 27 million copies in 109 countries. Robert is a multi-millionaire, and says himself “I am a bestselling author, not a best writing author”.
  • JK Rowling of Harry Potter fame is constantly criticised by literature fans especially for her use of adverbs. But that hasn’t stopped her from becoming the first ever billionaire author and loved by millions around the world.
  • The Chicken Soup for the Soul series by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen is just a bunch of stories told by real people in simple language. Those simple stories have touched hearts in 40 countries and sold over 112 million copies, as well as developing into aself-development franchise model.
  • Stephenie Meyer with the Twilight series. Stephenie is even criticised by Stephen King on her writing ability, but that hasn’t stopped her books selling over 30 million copies, as well as the movie rights and associated merchandise.

There are many literature prizes – the Man Booker is just one of them that I follow. I found this excerpt on the impact of winning the Booker Prize on Yann Martel, author of “The Life of Pi” (which is a great book!).

“…after the announcement of the Booker win, Life of Pi sold 7,150 copies in the UK, making it the bestselling hardback fiction that week…. D.B.C Pierre “Vernon God Little” went from a sale of 373 copies to 7,977 in the week after”

Clearly, literary fiction sells less than mass market popular fiction.

Some of my groaning bookshelves

Some of my groaning bookshelves

Now, I love books of all kinds. I have a lot of literary fiction, stacks of non fiction and many popular fiction novels (although those often get recycled through second-hand bookshops!)

I go to Writers Festivals, I have taken writing courses. I write journals and poetry and have 3 non-fiction books to my name. I have always wanted to win the Booker Prize because of the prestige!

But I have decided that I want to be a best-selling author, NOT a best-writing author lauded by lit fic critics! I want to write well, but not be classed as literature. I want to be popular, not literary.

How about you? Would you rather be a best-selling author or a best writing author?


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  1. says

    I want to be a well-loved author. I quite honestly don’t care to be famous or extremely wealthy or to parlay books into films. If (when) I write a book, I would like it to pay the bills but am ok if I still have to maintain a day job. I know it sounds like I’m shooting a bit low. But really, I think it would blow my mind to be sitting at a book signing or a cafe or whatever, and have a kid come up to me with battered, beloved copy of my book and ask for my signature. That’s on my “bucket list.”

  2. says

    What are the odds of writing a book that sells millions of copies? Not so great for anyone. My goals are 1. Write what I love to write. 2. Write as well as I can. 3. Keep improving. 4. Keep writing.

    Whatever happens, happens. I think planning a career as a best-selling writer is about as sensible as planning to win the lottery.

  3. Ali Al-Hajamy says

    I can’t say I care. I wouldn’t want to associate myself with either group because the people who specifically aim to be best-selling writers seem mostly made up of greedy people who write whatever is currently in vogue just to make money and be liked by all, paying no regard to the quality of the work they excr…*cough cough* I mean, produce, and the people who specifically aim to be literary writers are made up of insufferable snobs who I would want to punch in the nose after five minutes of listening to their prattle. As far as I’m concerned, I’ll write what feels right to me, I couldn’t care less about money, and if someone, somewhere, is reading my work, and if their lives are made somewhat better by what they have read, I am happy. I won’t turn down any money given to me, but that will not be my main goal when I begin to write anything.

  4. says

    If Stephenie Meyer published literary fiction tomorrow it would be gobbled up by her Twilight fangirls. Anything she writes is gobbled up by the Twilight fans. Point is, you have to have fans to buy the friggin’ book and read it, and her millions of sales finance the writers in the article who sold 8,000 copies (rounded off). In a way I think literary writers a selfish; it’s like they only want to write on their own terms and the heck with the publishing industry. How do they expect the industry to sustain itself on literature, huh? Leases and salaries have to be paid somewhere by someone, and it falls on Meyer, Brown, King, Patterson).

    And lit writers have the nerve to slam these writers who help pay their advances, when they should be grateful for commercial writers shouldering everybody.

    I’d choose best-selling: you got fans together or else just write in a journal or publish online for free.

  5. says

    I want to write stories that I enjoy and I want to write ’em good. Ultimately, I want to sell what I’d be proud to have my name on. It might not be up to the standards of literary fiction, but it’ll be mine and I’ll have had fun writing it. Becoming a best-selling author would be gravy.

  6. says

    Like you I used to dream of being a prize winning author but now it’s definitely best selling writer for me. Maybe when I am living in my small and understated mansion in the Med, I will sit down and write that masterpiece…. no maybe not :)

  7. Sam says

    I want to write books that I enjoy writing and that readers enjoy reading. I like creating worlds and telling stories that make me happy, just as I like reading books that keep me entertained and leave me feeling uplifted. I don’t care about critical reception, or about adhering to ‘literary’ standards. Which isn’t to say I don’t care about quality; I do want to continually improve as a writer. But my standards aren’t the same as those of the self-appointed literati. Providing good entertainment and making a decent profit are two big motivators for me, and I don’t mind admitting it : )

  8. says


    Thank you for this post– I’ve had a life-long ambition to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but I’ve gradually started to realize that I’d be delighted to be as rich as Amanda Hocking even if I can’t be as brilliant as Pablo Neruda. 😉 I’m hoping that as I write genre-fiction at break-neck speed some of my literary talent will seep through and provide some high-toned gloss to the fun. 😉

    • says

      Thanks Carolyn – Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose was always my aim – literary and multi-million selling. But I have been trying to reread it and I reckon everyone bought it because of the hype, not because it’s enjoyable!
      I am also aiming more for Hocking these days – please people, sell lots!

  9. says

    I think both can be combined. Umberto Eco cannot be called pop, but he sure is popular. Carlos Ruiz Zafon is also popular, but he is also literary. His words are charming, even in translation. Dan Brown, on the other hand, is a page-turner and you have to stop and reflect on what’s going on otherwise you can finish the book without learning much from it (there’s something to learn from each book – even if the lesson is “do not ever read it again”).

    I aim high in my current novel. We’ll see how it goes.

  10. says

    Definitely a best selling author, I think the answer is pretty obvious. I want to touch and change as many people’s lives as I can with my books and the only way for that to happen is for people to read them.

  11. says

    This article makes some good points and its title draws you in. At first glance I would say I want to strive to be the best I can, but you make some good points. In my opinion, good writing does not have to be complicated. Literature experts and critics to me represent a small percentage of the population. Like others have said I want my reach to extend further than that. Those who read the most widely and get the most enjoyment out of reading, are the best judges of what is good. Just my thoughts.

  12. says

    I am not interested in making a lot of money. If I can please myself, I’m fine. If thousands buy my new book, My Father’s Mistress: Mary Catherine Malone 1740-1813, I will be pleased. It will be published in June. My first book, Papa’s Footprint, is an autobiographical odyssey about a four million year old actor, written especially for my children and grandchildren. I can’t get any of them to read it. But, I like it. I’m happy. They will read it after I am gone. It might be too intimate for them to read while I’m alive.
    I am becoming interested in the marketing aspect, but not much. I write ten or twelve hours a day. I can’t wait to get up in the morning and get at it. Then, my next book will be called, From the Small Attic Stage Behind My Eyes. Good luck with that one. Yes, I do… I live in my head.

  13. says

    Interesting post, but it’s worth keeping in mind that best-writing and best-selling is an artificial distinction given that writing and selling are two separate skills. As indie writers it would be worth learning both, especially when you consider that, however a subject is treated, there are only a handful of stories. When it comes to sales, most of the time the type of book you write has very little to do with it – a publisher will turn down any book they don’t know how to sell.
    Whatever you write, always go for excellence. Look at Agatha Christie – not a great writer, but a great story teller, Michael Ondaatje is both. W. Somerset Maugham, an excellent writer who was once the biggest selling writer in the world.
    In my own work I tend to the view that character is plot, so if you write for the character you automatically have an interesting story, and the rest of it is down to practice.
    If good writing is going to survive, then writing needs to come before selling. So write your book then figure out how to sell it, not the other way around, and this whole indie author experiment can be the bedrock of something wonderful.
    Now – the plug! You can download a free copy of my first book, The Barbarians by Anthony Chapman from Amazon until the 12th.

  14. kevin says

    I am currently in the process of writing my first 3 book trilogy and would love to see reach the heights of some of the books above. It would be nice to see it turned into something more but I would be content knowing my work is appreciated and loved by the few readers readers that may purchase them.


  1. […] It has been written before that John’s books are not exactly literary. Despite that, he is hugely successful by all standards. However, he does not aim to win a prize. He aims to entertain the readers and sell the books. He knows what he wants – and he does it! Click here to read Joanna Penn’s article about best-selling versus best-writing debate. […]

  2. […] It has been written before that John’s books are not exactly literary. Despite that, he is hugely successful by all standards. However, he does not aim to win a prize. He aims to entertain the readers and sell the books. He knows what he wants – and he does it! Click here to read Joanna Penn’s article about best-selling versus best-writing debate. […]

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