How This Debut Author Manufactured a New York Times Bestseller

The secret success behind Jessica Knoll’s first published novel

Photo by PolinaParm. Used with license from Deposit Photos. Edited by Adrienne Cobb

When Jessica Knoll’s debut novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, was published in 2015, the cover with a black rose and bold yellow title played center stage in bookstores across the country. After all, it was a New York Times bestseller.

Knoll’s inclusion on that list was more than just dumb luck, it was a strategic series of steps that ticked all the right boxes to practically guarantee her success, or at least get her much closer to it than the average person.

So what did she do to accomplish this rare feat?

She Paid Attention To What Was Trending

The year before Luckiest Girl Alive was published, the movie based on Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl had hit theaters. The success of the film led to an interest in Flynn’s other works, most of which feature a female protagonist who fits the anti-heroine mold, with plots that incorporate deep dives into their personal history as a way to explain their slightly corrupted psyches.

Specifically, Knoll points out that she paid attention when Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places was published, and she “felt she could write something like that.”

Knoll’s book followed a similar format to Flynn’s. The female protagonist in Luckiest Girl Alive comes off as somewhat unlikeable in the very first chapter of the book, where she imagines stabbing her fiance and has a bit of mean-spirited fun with the hostess of a restaurant. Just as in Flynn’s books, there is a narrative trek down memory lane to expose the tragic backstory of the protagonist and why she is the way she is.

This was part of the formula that made Knoll’s book attractive to publishers. As with any corporation in the business of making money, publishing houses love putting their money on a horse that has already proven to win. It probably didn’t hurt that Knoll had certain similar physical traits to the author of Gone Girl as well.

She Had Unshakeable Belief in Herself

If you read an article by Jessica Knoll herself, you’ll find that she doesn’t hide behind a facade of false modesty. She has always known she was a good writer and truly believed that she could make a bestseller happen.

I am a great writer, a conviction I kept private for fear of sounding obnoxious. ~Jessica Knoll

It’s important to point out that Knoll has spent her entire life writing, even winning awards and scholarships. So her debut novel has a pedigree of plenty of practice with the type of work that solidifies her bona fides as a talented author.

But it takes more than just brilliant writing to make it to the New York Times bestseller list. There are plenty of talented writers struggling to get anyone to even read their work. At the same time, there are plenty of so-so writers filling the top slots of the bestseller lists. Good writing is just the tip of the iceberg. To reach millions of readers, one must add a certain marketing finesse that makes those readers aware of your work in the first place. And Jessica Knoll did just that.

She Played The Game Behind the Scenes

Knoll gamed the system to work in her favor. Specifically, she pulled out all the stops to get people’s attention, from personally writing to influential people to sending bottles of Veuve Clicquot and macaroons to joining the same Flywheel class as a popular newsletter editor of The Skimm, a site that features a book every Friday. In other words, she marketed her ass off.

This is probably where a lot of writers would have balked, wondering if their book had the chops to back up such enthusiastic displays of self-promotion. Then there are those authors who feel that being so proactive smacks of “selling out” or some other such nonsense.

That saying, “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is apt in this scenario. Writing and publishing a book isn’t akin to Feild of Dreams, where if you write it, readers will come. They have to know the book exists in the first place. As with any product for sale, marketing is key. Books are no different. Knoll knew this before she even began writing her book, then put the proper strategy into place to pretty much guarantee its success.

She Started With the Endgame In Mind

Knoll makes no bones about the fact that she wanted to make money with her book. A lot of money.

I want advances that make my husband gasp and fat royalty checks twice a year. ~ Jessica Knoll

To achieve that level of success via books, a New York Times bestseller is a must. Many authors might have resisted the idea of having such a lofty aim for their debut novel. Most of them are happy if they manage to catch the eye of an agent.

Beginning with an astronomical end game in mind forced Knoll to learn what needed to be done to get there, then do it. Rather than write her own great American novel and hope it got picked up, she wrote a “to-market” book that she knew would catch the publisher’s eyes. From there, she proactively spearheaded a marketing campaign that caught the attention of people she knew would exponentially promote her book. And Knoll hasn’t stopped there. She has used the success of that first book to publish another novel, and get into writing screenplays for even more success.

Jessica Knoll exemplifies the importance that catering to the market, both in terms of what it craves (on both the publisher and audience sides of the equation) and making yourself visible. Success rarely happens as a fluke and is even less likely without a lot of behind-the-scenes hard work.

Dominatrix of the written word. I write about writing, politics, race, money, religion, sex — hence the editor of The Third Rail

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