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Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Biggest Bestsellers Paperback – Apr 10 2012

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (April 10 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812970950
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812970951
  • Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 1.8 x 20.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 227 g
  • Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #420,025 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


“Passionately and thoroughly entertaining....Hall examines 12 of the most successful novels of the 20th century and ‘reverse-engineer[s]’ them, mining their separate defining qualities and their comparative appeal to readers…Referential and cleverly elucidated, the book raises many good points about the precise methodology of bestselling novels.”
--Kirkus Reviews
“Fascinating. Every would-be writer, and every knowledgeable reader, should read this book. It brings a valid understanding to publishing phenomena that seemingly were unexplainable. With this book, you see the forest and the trees.”
“I learned more about fashioning a bestseller from Hit Lit than from any other book, or any experience, I’ve encountered in my thirty-five years as an editor and publisher. Even established and successful authors need this guide.”

About the Author

James W. Hall is the author of seventeen novels, four books of poetry, two short-story collections, and a book of essays. He’s also the winner of the Edgar and Shamus awards.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x9bb97360) out of 5 stars 30 reviews
38 of 39 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9b2f1c24) out of 5 stars How to Write Bestsellers for Fun and Profit April 10 2012
By takingadayoff - Published on
Format: Paperback
What if someone with years of experience analyzing literature took a dozen blockbuster bestsellers, broke the novels down to their component parts, and figured out what they had in common? Is it possible to reverse-engineer the stories to see what makes them popular? Can we predict what books will become bestsellers? Could you use the data to construct your own bestseller?

Hit Lit contains some of the very elements you'd expect to find in those blockbusters - a tantalizing premise, the promise of a secret revealed, some familiar stories, and the chance to learn something new.

James W. Hall, a university English professor, recruited a group of students to read (or re-read) twelve super-bestsellers, novels that sold millions even before movies were made of them (and movies were made of all twelve of these books). They analyzed the books the way they normally deconstruct Henry James or Jane Austen classics.

They found that the bestsellers were similar to each other in many ways. They were often small stories told against sweeping backgrounds (Gone with the Wind, The Hunt for Red October), and they featured heroes who acted without spending a lot of time thinking (Shakespeare's Hamlet could never be a bestseller, apparently).

Hall came up with a list of elements he says are common to all the books they studied, but it seemed to me that there were plenty of exceptions to the rule. (Aren't there always?) Though he claims to have found that little time is spent on backstories and references to the characters' pasts are few, some of the books are quite heavy on backstory and reflective heroes, such as The Bridges of Madison County. In the spirit of Hit Lit, I read first chapters of several of the books Hall analyzed and found that The Godfather, The Dead Zone, and The Hunt for Red October all relied heavily in the opening chapters on explaining the characters' pasts.

On the other hand, what we normally think of as "good writing," - elegant sentences and flowing prose - is not a requirement for bestseller superstardom.

So, as you may have suspected, there's no list of elements that can either describe all bestsellers or can lead you to bestsellerdom. Hit Lit will probably not make you a better or a more successful writer. However, analyzing the books along with Hall and his students may make you a better reader as you consider just what it is you like about certain favorites.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9b2f2dd4) out of 5 stars Revelatory journey into the world of bestsellers April 15 2012
By BLehner - Published on
Format: Paperback
Have you ever wondered why certain books make it onto bestseller lists, or even more so, why some books will rank high in sales for decades? In Hit Lit James W. Hall takes a closer look at twelve such novels from the last century, presenting the common features which propelled them into the realms of bestsellers.
Looking at the selection of American bestsellers of the 20th century, from "Gone with the Wind" to "The Da Vinci Code" the selected books seem to be a rather wild mix and I was curious to find out what they could possibly have in common and how these similarities make them some of the most read novels of our time. From the rather obvious such as being unputdownable fast paced tales with contentious topics and colossal characters doing great things, to the not quite as conspicuous such as the importance of geography, religion and sexual encounters this was a both surprising and insightful read.
Engrossing, informative, and accessible, which shouldn't be taken for granted when it comes to authors dissecting literature, this is a truly fascinating view on the bestseller-making parts bestsellers have in common - though ultimately a great book will always be more than its individual parts. Admittedly I would have loved a broader approach to the topic and not just the focus on American bestsellers, then again maybe such a book is already on the author's to-do list. I certainly wouldn't mind!
In short: Revelatory journey into the world of bestsellers!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the NetGalley book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9b2686a8) out of 5 stars An Interesting Look at What Makes Books Sell July 28 2012
By Julia M Nolan - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
To start with, I thought it was pretty good over all. James Hall (the author) studied 12 bestselling books that were published in the last century and tried to find common aspects that all books had that made them mega sellers. (And he was looking at megasellers, not purely bestsellers, as well as break out books - books written by previously not very well known authors, so that only the book - not the name on its cover - explained why it became a huge seller.)

Some of the aspects I thought weren't very relevant, IMHO. (For instance, he mentions religion as being critical to the book - which I find kind of interesting as religion only played a very minimal role in, say, Gone with the Wind . And sex also was key, according to him, despite that I don't really remember it being all that important in, say, The Hunt for Red October. Plus, these two elements are so prevalent in novels that it would be hard to find one that didn't even have a hint of sex or religion, you know?) But I do think that he made a lot of really solid ones including:

1. To become a mega-bestseller (vs. just a decent seller), you need to appeal to people who don't read books on a regular basis. (Or at least don't buy books.) Even if every single person in the US who normally buys books bought a copy of your book, you wouldn't sell as well as any of these books did. So you need to appeal to a group beyond the regular book buying contingent. This means that your book can't have super fancy, hard to understand language, or elements that would mostly appeal to a serial reader. (For instance, a super unique plot is going to appeal more to someone who's read thousands of books than it would to someone who only reads once in a while. The same is true for vivid imagery, lovely writing, etc. None of these might hurt, but it's not going to make for a mega-seller either.)

2. The characters in these novels are rarely self-reflective. They act. They don't sit around and think and feel and discuss their place in the universe. They go out and do stuff.

3. Most of these novels are movie friendly (and were eventually made into movies). This may not be necessary for a mega seller (as most sold well prior to having movies based on them), but...if you want a bestseller, it may make sense to ask, "Is this the kind of thing that would make for a good movie?" If the answer is no, then you may not have a mega-seller.

4. It hits hot buttons. Virtually every novel covered hit some kind of hot button that was a big deal in the day. (And generally still important now. Valley of the Dolls is really the one exception to the "still relevant now" rule.) Essentially, a novel that doesn't cover any bigger themes isn't all that interesting to most readers. (Even if it covers them crudely, like The Da Vinci Code.)

5. There are almost always intricately described worlds which the viewer may not be familiar with. Whether this is a town, a secret society, or the ante belleum south, readers seem to like learning something new. (Or at least feeling like the author knows what they're talking about.) That world building and research matters!

Looking at books that are too new to be covered (Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games) I think that most of these actually meet these criteria fairly well. So there may be something to these rules, such as they are. Not that I think that writers should write to them. (As there are a lot of books that ping all these boxes and yet still don't become best sellers. And there are a lot of good books that don't sell all that well and are still desirable.) But I think that it's definitely work a read for someone who is either trying to write popular literature or just wants to know what makes people read.
26 of 32 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9b268690) out of 5 stars Disappointing on a number of levels July 10 2012
By Beth Quinn Barnard - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I looked forward to this book -- what novelist wouldn't want to learn the secrets of building a bestseller from a lit prof who doubles as a successful commercial novelist? But I found the book disappointing on a number of levels. The first disappointment was that I found very little new in this book -- no lightbulb over the head insights that prompted me to say, "Ah, hah! That's how it's done." Many good books have covered the same ground. The second disappointment was the selection of bestsellers reviewed -- the only 21st century novel included was published in 2003 and the rest -- with the exception of a 1991 title -- were published from the 1930s to the 1980s. All of those books were bonafide bestsellers in their day but taken as a whole bear very little resemblance to the current bestseller list. The third disappointment was Hall's failure to grapple with genre in any way. While bestsellers tend to transcend genre, most commercial novels fall into one of the standard genres -- romance, thriller, mystery, fantasy, horror, etc. -- and to ignore how they fit into the needs of their category leaves out a large part of the story of their success. Finally, the organization of the book is irritating -- twelve chapters based on the twelve key elements that all twelve bestsellers demonstrate, with each chapter broken into many smaller, subheaded parts. Hall adds in a short, summing up chapter -- a recap -- that is the most useful page in the book. But if this book is written for fiction writers, the structure makes it difficult to extract the significance for practical purposes. And if this book is written for readers, they're treated to a choppy structure which leaves them feeling that they've been exposed to lots of potentially interesting information but not the important thread that would tie all those insights together.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9b268a50) out of 5 stars Insightful analysis, entertaining voice, and American perspective Sept. 5 2012
By Society Nineteen - Published on
Format: Paperback
Hall's long and expert experience as reader, writer and teacher informs this rich, educational and entertaining book.

Other Amazon reviewers have captured its strengths, and I won't repeat all of their comments here. Instead, let me just mention something I think is very important: that this isn't just another discussion of bestsellers, or just another series of hints on how to write them. The book shares its insights as a series of brief "keys," but those insights themselves are nuanced and complex.

For writers, the book offers a perspective devoid of cheesy "hints" or "secrets" and focused on the deeper if more difficult to imitate elements of great storytelling. For readers, it provides fun and fascinating insight on why books that seem both tremendously different and, in some cases, rather silly are not just bought but remembered. But its appeal goes beyond those two obvious readerships. This is an exploration not just of books and publishing but of the American imagination, about what resonates for us beyond and despite the dividing lines of class, age, and gender. In that sense, Hit Lit is of great interest not just to us book folks, but to anyone fascinated by our fascinatingly complicated and contradictory national character.