February 18, 2022

4 Qualities of Bestselling Books

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Part of the reason I became an editor and a book coach is because I’ve always been fascinated with what makes things work—including books. At a young age, I started asking, Why did I love this book so much? How did the author win me over?

I started noticing patterns at the micro level—ways that authors could string together a beautiful phrase, such as one of my favorite lines from Jane Eyre: “A ridge of lighted heath, alive, glancing, devouring…” Sentence diagramming in college was a treat. But things got really exciting when I realized you could break apart and analyze books the same way!

For over a decade now, it’s been my job to identify and describe these patterns in great books. I nerd out about story arcs, creating frameworks, and organizing information in Tables of Contents. I love learning these best practices and then helping authors apply that information to their own books.

So when I started coaching authors, I started asking myself, How do I help them not just write a pretty good book, but a great book? How do I help them write perennial sellers—books that will sell well and continue to sell for a long time? My first instinct was to look for the patterns I saw in other bestselling books. By now, I’ve analyzed dozens of bestselling personal development books. Here’s what I found.

Bestselling books have a distinct audience.

This is the first, most foundational piece of a bestselling book idea: Knowing who you’re writing for. But why can’t your book be for everyone? Maybe you think, “But my topic literally applies to everyone! If everyone read my book, the world would be a better place!”

And that might be true. But the reality is that not everyone will read your book—in fact, most people will not. That’s true even for the all-time bestselling books of the world. So our job is to form our bestselling book idea to attract the people who will be advocates for your book, the people who will be your champions and cheerleaders. These people will be the apostles for your book, sharing it with their friends and creating a chain reaction of people who buy and read your book. That is how you’ll maximize sales for your book.

Your distinct audience can be defined with two factors: Who the audience is, and what problem they have.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain clearly identifies her distinct audience as introverts themselves. Her audience is defined by who they are.
  • In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo’s distinct audience is people who feel overwhelmed by the stuff in their lives, who struggle with maintaining a peaceful and clean environment. These people are defined not necessarily by who they are, but by the problem they have.

You can read more about how to identify your book’s distinct audience here.

Bestselling books solve a sticky problem.

No matter who your audience is, you have to address a deeply felt problem that they have—a problem so pernicious and complex that your audience is constantly seeking a solution. This is what keeps your audience up at night. I call these “sticky problems” because they’re not easily solved; they’re often multi-layered—lots of smaller problems adding up to one big mega problem.


  • In Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande is writing to help people understand the complexities of long-term care for the elderly. Everyone who has had to watch a parent or grandparent get placed in a living facility knows how complex and often heartbreaking this problem is. It’s exactly the kind of thing that keeps people up at night—especially because they know that someday, they’ll have to consider their own long-term care.
  • Daring Greatly by Brené Brown tackles the sticky problem of shame—and, more broadly, our cultural avoidance of vulnerability. It’s complex because shame is both deeply personal and universal. We all know what it’s like to feel ashamed, and to armor up because of it.

Learn more about the right and wrong problems for your book to solve.

Bestselling books offer a novel approach.

Bestselling books not only address a sticky problem; they promise a compelling, novel way to solve that problem. Often these books introduce a framework or model to follow. They’re able to hook the reader (catch the reader’s attention) by promising to solve this terrible, sticky problem for them—and then they deliver with their novel approach.


  • In Atomic Habits, James Clear tackles a sticky problem that most people encounter: having too many bad habits, and failing to create good habits. His novel approach is he offers four “laws” of habit-making. That’s it! Just four! Wow, I feel better about fixing my bad habits already.
  • Marie Kondo in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, mentioned above, introduces her KonMari method: a three-step process for decluttering your life.

For more information on how to inform & inspire your reader with your novel approach, read this post.

Bestselling books break through the clutter with simple genius.

Think about a friend who is struggling, and imagine that you’re looking for a book to help them. It’s likely that your friend is encountering a lot of resistance to fixing that problem—so you don’t want an academic tome that will bash them over the head with all the logical reasons they should stop having that problem. Of course not! You want a book that gives them easy, practical, no-brainer solutions. That is the mark of simple genius.

Simple genius is often found in both the quality and strength of your writing, and in the organization of the book itself.


  • Donald Miller’s book Business Made Simple is a perfect example because it is really is, well, simple! He takes the complexity of running a business and delivers super short, practical chapters that guide you through all of the pieces you need to be successful. It’s written like a daily devotional. Every day, you learn one more little piece about building your business.
  • Mindset by Carol Dweck doesn’t necessarily use the organization of the book to deliver simple genius; she delivers it in her clear, practical writing about her novel approach, a growth mindset. Carol walks the reader through what having a growth mindset looks like when we are children, and how it might show up in marriage or at our jobs. Through the power of her clear writing and strong examples, you can understand and start to apply a growth mindset to many areas of your life.

Learn how to make it impossible for your readers to fail in this post.

If you want to write a self-help or personal development book, think about how you might integrate these four qualities into your own idea. And I’ve created a handy tool to help you with that!

The Bestselling Book Idea Scorecard

The bestselling book idea scorecard is a tool you can use to see if you’re on the right track.

Get the scorecard here.

In column 1, you’ll find a description of what it looks like when you’re at the beginning of the journey with your book idea. For example, I meet a lot of first time authors who tell me that their book is for everyone. I understand the appeal of that mindset, but this a clear sign to me that they have some work to do to identify their distinct audience.

In column 2, you can see what it looks like when you’re in the midst of figuring out that component of your book idea. For example, many authors who know how to catch a reader with an exciting hook, but after that, they’re not really providing anything fresh or new for their reader – so they would be in column 2.

Column 3 describes book ideas that have these pieces figured out. These books make us so happy. They’re the books we want to recommend to friends and give away as gifts because as a reader we’ve been positively impacted by this book, and we want to pass that joy on to our friends. For example, these books all address a sticky problem that is a constant pain in our lives and we are hungry for solutions.

If you haven’t already, read through the scorecard and rate your current book idea, or one of your book ideas.

Next week, we’ll dive deeper into defining your distinct audience and talk through even more examples!