In the ocean there’s a real phenomenon called “rogue waves.” They typically occur far out at sea, and they are, as the name implies, random occurrences. Suddenly a wave can appear out of nowhere, growing to spectacular height. They’re impossible to predict, happen somewhat randomly, and are extremely powerful.
This is about as good of a metaphor for bestsellers as I can think of.
It’s very very tempting to look back on bestsellers as preordained phenomenons, but I really don’t believe that’s the case. There are some books, like Harry Potter, that pull off the Beatles feat of being both extremely good and extremely popular, but for the most part when we point to whatever it is that made something more popular than all the rest, we’re just wearing our hindsight glasses.
When you look at megabestsellers… let’s face it, a lot of them are headscratchers. There are books that undeniably tap into something compelling, but the more books you read, big and small, the more difficult it is to pinpoint why the big ones become big and some small ones stay small.
There are more sophisticated and more accessible and more edgy and more simultaneously sophisticated/accessible/edgy books than Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Why was that the one to take off?
There were a whole lot of dog memoirs before Marley and Me. Why that one?
Even the paths don’t match up. There’s a spectrum, from “A lot of people saw it coming and the publisher paid accordingly” books like Twilight, to “Where did that come from?” books like Fifty Shades of Grey.
Why do some books seem to ride a golden path and some clobber their way to the top?
How do these things happen? How do some books achieve a wave of momentum all the way through to megabestsellerdom?
Ask the waves.
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Art: The Ninth Wave – Ivan Aivazovsky