Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Stephanie Garber reflects on what makes a best-seller



What do you think is at the heart of a best-seller?

Best-seller lists are awesome, but I think there are so many different definitions of what makes a successful novel, and I believe that most of them have one common thread.

In publishing, people often talk about the importance of a hook; a fantastic hook can make a book a best-seller. But I think a successful book has more than just a fabulous hook. A hook is what gets a reader to pick up a book and turn the pages, but heart is what makes a reader feel, and heart is also what I believe makes a book successful.

I actually think most books have a heart—a sole idea that guides the story and feeds blood into its veins. However, some books have more powerful heartbeats than others. Some heartbeats are so weak you don’t notice them, while other heartbeats are so bold you don’t stop feeling them even after you’ve finished reading.

Heart is more difficult to define than hook. But I think one way of finding your novel’s heart is by asking: What is the question this story is asking? 

This question, and the depths you go to answer it will define your novel’s heartbeat.





What qualities are readers longing for?

I think readers want to feel when they read. Readers may initially pick up a book because it’s in a genre they enjoy, it’s full of tropes they love, it has a pretty cover, or they’ve seen it all over Instagram. But I don’t think a reader is really going to love a book unless it makes them feel something—wonder, suspense, love, fear, longing, wanting, wishing, anger, empathy, amazement, sadness, joy, disgust, surprise. I don’t know if the feelings matter so long as they are there.

In fact, I’ve been particularly amazed by the way readers have responded to Legendary, the sequel to Caraval. Readers seem to like the parts that break their hearts the most, and I think it’s because those are the parts that make them feel the strongest.



Do you consider your readership’s likes and dislikes, their interests and values, when you are creating your work?

I think I consider all of these things when I’m writing, but they don’t necessarily influence my final decisions. I approach writing as if it’s a treasure hunt and the treasure I’m searching for is the truth—what choices would these characters truly make in these situations? What would these characters honestly feel?

I want my characters to be as real and as honest as possible, and since they ultimately drive my stories, my books don’t always turn out how I originally envision them—or in ways that I think readers might originally want. For example, I chose a new narrator for Caraval’s sequel, Legendary. Tella, my new narrator, was not universally liked in Caraval, and many of my readers were unsure about my choice to make her the main character. But I actually think their ambivalence about Tella made the book stronger. Since Tella was not a beloved character I knew I’d have to work really hard to win readers over to her side. I knew I couldn’t just throw her on the page and assume readers would follow her—I had to fight to make readers fall in love with her.



When you are considering what to write, do prospective book sales influence your decision?

When I first started writing, before I actually sold anything, I used to think about sales all the time. I stalked agents and constantly read their tweets and blog posts about the market. I studied the books that everyone was buzzing about. But my studies never led to selling a book. In fact, they almost held me back from writing Caraval.

When I first drafted Caraval, I was told by more than one person that books with a circus or a circus theme were hard sells—no one was looking for that—and the fantasy market was saturated. Caraval didn’t feel like a safe book to write, but I’d tried to write safe books, which hadn’t sold, and I was obsessed with the idea of a traveling group of performers who managed to blur the line between fantasy and reality. Caraval was the book I wanted to read. So despite the appearance of the market and various agent wish lists, I liked to believe that if I wanted to read it others would want to read it as well.

I still think it’s good to be aware of what’s selling, but I don’t usually consider it when choosing what I write. Instead, I try to find the idea that I’m obsessed with, because I believe that if I’m passionate about something, I’ll find readers who feel the same way.




Do you ever discuss the market with your publisher? 

I talk to my publisher all the time, but I think the only time my publisher and I have discussed the market has been when we’ve talked about cover art. With Caraval, I really wanted a cover with a girl in a dress. Sadly that trend was on the decline, so my publisher didn’t think that sort of cover would work in the current market, which I totally understood.

Other than that, the market hasn’t really ever come up. If anything, my publisher just encourages me to write the best book I can, which I’m really grateful for.



How do you plan your social media campaign to reach your intended audience? 

I’m a fangirl. I have lots of favorite authors and books that I love. So when sharing information about my book I try to think of what I would want to know. If an author I love is writing a new book, I want to know when it’s coming out, I want to know what it’s about, I want to know what the cover looks like, and I want to know if she has a playlist or a Pinterest board. So I always try to share those types of things.

I also try to respond to readers as much as possible. It’s not always possible—if I responded to every reader who tweeted me, commented, or messaged me I might never find time to write. But I know what it’s like to put something in the world and be met with silence. So I try to engage readers when I can—I don’t do it as part of a campaign, but I like to do it because I think it helps readers feel connected.



Did you consider water-cooler discussions or intentionally build a cliffhanger into the end of Caraval?

I honestly didn’t realize I was writing a cliffhanger at the end of Caraval until readers started calling it a cliffhanger. I was just trying to open up the story and let readers know that a sequel was on the horizon.

I want my books to wrap up at the end and feel complete, but I also love hinting at more. I think the best stories are the ones that leave you thinking about them long after you’re done reading. So, while I don’t set out to write cliffhangers, I do like creating epilogues that beg new questions and hopefully make readers wonder about what might be coming next.




As an author, what are some of the other ways to promote your work and yourself?

Promotion is difficult. Sometimes it feels like saying, “look at me, look at me,” over and over again. So promotion used to be really challenging for me, until I adapted the fangirl attitude I mentioned above. But promotion still exacts a toll. I want everything I share to be fun for my readers. So I put a lot of the creativity I would normally put into my writing into my promotions—I try to make my pictures magical and bright, I try to make my giveaways fun and exciting.  When I have signings I try to come up with games, so that readers who attend my events feel as if they are a part of something that is an extension of the world of Caraval.

When I’m not promoting, I’m still online, but not as much. In fact, right now I’m on a Twitter hiatus, because while I think Twitter can be great for promotion it’s not always great for my mental health or my writing, and ultimately I think those things are more important.