Image: Matthew Loffhagen
For every author who dreams of producing a bestseller that tops the charts for one amazing moment, there’s the writer who wants a book that sells reasonably well for a long, long time.
Ah, the evergreen book, that rarest of things: some are literary classics (Nabokov’s Lolita, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice), others are timeless children’s stories (think the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, or the works of Dr. Seuss), and some are perpetually relevant nonfiction works (such as Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich or Heidi Murkoff’s What to Expect When You’re Expecting). All these works, despite how different they are, are evergreen books – they’ve remained steady sellers for years, and that shows no sign of changing.
So how do you write your own evergreen book? What’s the secret ingredient? Let’s take a look.
A sense of timelessness
The answer is that these books both grasp timeless themes. Since year dot, teenagers have felt angsty, troubled, and misunderstood. The Catcher in the Rye knows this, and it focuses on encapsulating the teenage experience better than any YA novel has since. In the year 2070, disgruntled teens will be reading The Catcher in the Rye on their hoverboards while soaring above the smoldering ruins of the USA, startled by how this old, twentieth-century writer seems to know them intimately.
Similarly, The Lord of the Rings knows that themes of friendship, good vs evil, comradeship, and journeys of life-or-death consequence will forever tickle something primeval in the human psyche. Humanity’s oldest myths are full of Lord of the Rings-style journeys and conflicts – all Tolkien did was pick up on these enduring obsessions and craft an incredibly vivid fantasy world around them. Scholar Joseph Campbell famously picked up on this same pattern and poured it into his influential theory of the enduring hero’s journey, itself outlined in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
You can play this game for hours: think of a famous, classic novel and try to choose the eternal theme. Sometimes it can be easy – Dickens, for example, relies on the human love for a good, old-fashioned underdog story – and sometimes more difficult. Take Lolita – in theory, it hardly seems like a crowd-pleaser, and yet there will always be an appetite for the taboo, for an understanding of the darker side of the human psyche, for controversial topics.The stories that last forever are those that grapple with timeless subjects.Click To Tweet
Of course, plenty of books attempt to buy into eternal themes and are left by the wayside. Fifty Shades of Grey tried to tap into the human fascination with dark desires, but now copies are stacking up at thrift shops and charity shops. People can’t bear to have a copy in their home.
This is because Fifty Shades of Grey has limited resources to offer the reader. It’s poorly written, so it lives and dies by the events of its plot and its insights. Those events are titillating, but that’s a quality with diminishing returns, especially when your popularity brings a taboo to the public’s attention. Fifty Shades of Grey focused public attention on BDSM, but that means it no longer has a mainstream monopoly on the topic.
That leaves insights, and Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t offering anything timeless. If Lolita uses its characters to explore the damage and darkness inherent to the human condition, Fifty Shades of Grey uses its characters to explore the damage and darkness of those characters. The questions it asks have outright answers, meaning that readers and society are left with nothing to chew over.
None of this makes it a bad book, but it’ll never be evergreen. Timeless themes are timeless because they don’t have easy answers – they’re things we struggle with, and evergreen books offer themselves as tools, rather than solutions, for that struggle.
We’ve said before that good YA replicates the experience of its readers – it seldom tells them that things are going to be 100% alright, because even if that’s true, it’s not how they feel, and so it wouldn’t resonate. The same is true for other timeless fiction – offer someone a story that helps them process the unanswerable questions and they’ll love it forever and pass it on to others.
This may sound like a rule for fiction, but it’s also the case for non-fiction writing. If you want to write something that lasts, it needs to remain relevant and useful.
Dig deeper than fads
It can be difficult crafting a work of non-fiction that remains consistently true. After all, things change quickly, especially in our always-connected world. How are you supposed to write an informative book about succeeding in business when companies are constantly being purchased by other companies or else are being overturned by some new tech innovation?
Well, that’s why you neatly sidestep the concrete ins and outs of the business landscape and instead focus on the stuff that’s going to endure. Think and Grow Rich, while not a book explicitly about business, has survived because it didn’t focus on telling readers how to customize their typewriters or how clever telegram use can improve workplace efficiency – rather, Hill went straight to psychology.Evergreen non-fiction is built on enduring logic – the world can change overnight.Click To Tweet
Think and Grow Rich presents a philosophy and tells its readers that it’s the path to success. It’s not a philosophy reliant upon tech, location, wealth, gender, or race – anyone can live by it, and the lessons readers learn will stay relevant for as long as making money is something people aspire to. It does its job, avoids basing its content in soon-to-be-outdated technological or cultural fads, and goes straight to the human root. That’s why it’s eighty years old and still going strong.
The alternative is to update your work as the world changes, but you’ll only get a chance to do that if your initial work was insightful enough to create trust. Some of the most successful non-fiction books which rely on being updated still don’t change that much from version to version – they’re built on rock, so a paint job usually does the trick.
Originality earns permanence
A surefire way to make sure your book stays relevant is to be utterly original. This could mean you’re the first person to write a non-fiction guide to your chosen subject, or it could mean you address a niche or audience who don’t have a lot of content to call their own.
Originality ensures that you set the bar for all future work in your field. Every novel’s teenage magician now has to live up to Harry Potter, and every middle-class detective has to in some way navigate the towering presence of Sherlock Holmes. If you’re writing a self-help book on success, you can’t avoid Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, just as Covey himself couldn’t ignore Think and Grow Rich. These books have to exist in reference to their evergreen forebears, and that keeps the originals in the public eye.Get there first and you’re the benchmark for everything that follows.Click To Tweet
Of course, originality can’t stand on its own – you can have a startlingly original premise or character and nobody will bat an eyelid if your book isn’t up to scratch. Craft has to come before everything.
Water your evergreen
Unfortunately, there’s no quick trick that’ll ensure your book a seat at the evergreen table. It is, like everything in life, a case of hard graft, persistence, and iron will. If you want something to last a long time, you’re going to have to work on it for a long time.
Make sure you’re writing for the right reasons: when you’re in the grim, dark hole of trying to decide whether chapter twelve is necessary or total hogwash, wanting to be famous or wanting some extra cash probably isn’t going to provide the necessary motivation. Believe in what you have to say, and push that boulder until it’s done.Books don’t last without having something to say. That’s where to start.Click To Tweet
Part of this is identifying and overcoming your ego. After all, part of the appeal of an evergreen book is that it becomes your legacy – Joseph Conrad is long dead, but his evergreen books are remembered. Don’t focus on the possibility of eternal life; as soon as any external reward becomes more important than the book itself, you’re lost.
An endless summer
There’s no guaranteed secret to producing a novel that will stand the test of time, but it’s worth doing everything you can to extend your book’s lifespan. Publishers and distributors love evergreen books – they can be relied upon to drive revenue and their sales are easy to predict. Whereas bestsellers spike and fall, evergreen books are the bread and butter of book shops and publishers everywhere, and that can become a self-perpetuating process.
Readers are more likely to give your book a go if it feels tried and tested, and they’re also more likely to recommend it in that cultural context. Get in on this process and you won’t be sorry.
What are your favorite evergreen books? Would you rather write an evergreen book or a bestseller? Let me know in the comments. Or, if you’d rather chase cultural immediacy, check out Understanding Cultural Trends Can Help You Write A Bestseller for more great advice.