The Myth of the Overnight Success and What Those Stories Have in Common

Publishing has become a sensationalized industry. Journalists love to write about the death of the business, while those of us in it know it’s a multi-billion dollar industry that’s doing just fine, thanks.

Big stories consume the media cycle: the million dollar advance! the 18-year-old who secures a big publishing deal! and lastly, the overnight success! 

The overnight success is something that sounds great in theory, but deep down writers know it’s a publishing unicorn.

Things like honing your craft, writing a novel over the course of many years, and having a quiet publishing story are the backbone of this business. It’s hard for publishing to get out front of stories because there are so few that blow up and the majority of books are average sellers.

Thinking about Mark Zuckerberg’s book club has most recently perpetuated this myth. Some call it the second coming of the Oprah book club, but no matter what it’s going to move some copies. Whenever a tastemaker or someone in a position of power selects a book to promote (like California by Edan Lepucki) publishers can only react. Publicists are some of the hardest working people in publishing, doing everything they can to get their books noticed. But as soon as someone in that position taps a book as ‘one to read’ things get moving.

There is no rhyme or reason for when many books blow up. If there was a formula, us lit agents would know about it already. Which means there isn’t any tips I can give you to fast-track yourself to success. But we can try to unpack the times it’s happened.

What ‘overnight success stories’ have in common:

-They touch a nerve. Sometimes it’s cultural, political, business, or social–but whatever it is, it has its finger on something. (i.e. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother)

-They fill a gap in the market. The most common case of a book being highly successful is when it does something that no other book has. That’s why books like Station Eleven, The Age of Miracles and The Night Circus did so well. They take our world and put a twist on it: fantasy, magical realism, sci fi. This is the touchstone of many non fiction successes too like 2014’s breakout cookbook Thug Kitchen.

-They’re not always well-written, but they have other highly redeeming qualities. It’s not always The Goldfinch-type books that take off. Sometimes they aren’t the highest breed of literature, but what they lack, they make up for in other areas like character or plot. (i.e. 50 Shades of Grey)

-They tap a market that reads and has money to spend on books. It’s one thing to write a good book, it’s another to make sure it finds readers. And readers that have disposable incomes or a purpose to buy something. A market like the graduation sector is a big one. That’s one of the reasons The Opposite of Loneliness took off in 2014.

-Sometimes they set trends, and sometimes they’re the first to follow–but they’re never the last. New Adult is an interesting case study since we have some space since it took off in 2012. The first few authors continue to be the best selling. (i.e. Cara Carmack)

-They are never the author’s first book. Whether it’s your first book or your fifth, books that have been hiding in your drawer or published, the breakout book is almost never the first book you write. (i.e. Gone Girl)

Q: What keeps you motivated? The work you’re doing or trying to achieve acclaim?

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

26 thoughts on “The Myth of the Overnight Success and What Those Stories Have in Common

  1. To answer your question: the work I am doing, the book I believe in, even the sentences that stay with me. It’s a long, amazing journey. Back to the keyboard.


  2. I have seen an infographic about the breakthrough books in classical literature, and none of them were the first book of the author. Amanda Hocking’s sales skyrocketed on Amazon after she self published her 9th book.

    To answer your question: My alpha readers are my main source of motivation. They keep me on my toes by demanding the new chapters.


  3. It’s always the work that keeps me going, finding joy in the small successes along the way. I truly believe you need one big goal, like seeing your name at #1 on the NYTBL, and then you need smaller goals, small successes you achieve along the way toward that large goal. That’s what keeps me motivated, celebrating the small successes toward my dream goal.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you on a succinct, down-to-earth article on the realistic side of publishing. What really got to me was the section on touching a nerve: those overnight successes are just a combination of factors that make them happen, almost ethereal.

    What fuels me is to establish myself as a writer. Mind you, it’s not achieving fame or fortune, it’s finding myself within my writing and consolidating all the ideas into one voice. This so that I can elevate it later.


  5. Thanks for debunking the myth of the overnight success — that’s one unicorn that needs to disappear. That great first-novel-to-take-off usually comes after an author has cut their teeth on previous stories, novels, or other writing and can get the best out of themselves & make the most of what their editors tell them. And that’s quite apart from the being in the right place at the right time with the novel you’ve worked so hard on.


  6. I am so grateful to have stumbled upon your blog. The tips you offer are incredibly generous and helpful. I love your question: What keeps you motivated? The work you’re doing or trying to achieve acclaim? My response: The work. Some of your tips have taught me that if the soufflé is still in the oven, that is okay! Eventually, it bakes to perfection. Thank you!


  7. Interesting to see the breakdown from an insider. Though, I do wonder how many serious authors honestly expect to be an overnight success. Writing a book is hard enough that I imagine many people with that goal would be weeded out by the time they reach 20,000 words.

    As for motivation, it’s a combination of both for me. Ultimately, I want to earn a living and writing is one of my few options at the moment to get out of basic customer service-level work. However, it also comes with a passion, a need to tell stories, and get images out of my head and on to paper. Imagination can only run wild for so long before it needs to find an outlet.


  8. After I write, I can feel an electric current of excitement run through me. Nothing else I do gives me that sensation. It truly makes me happy.

    On another note, how much is a typical advance from a book deal? How much to authors make? Not the big name authors, but just an author.


  9. Thank you for the reality check about the “overnight success,” and also the insightful breakdown of some recent publishing unicorns.

    What motivates my writing is connection: my own connection to the stories I’m working on, and that wonderful moment when readers connect to them as well. “Sales” just don’t quite generate the same energy, although they are essential to the long-term viability of my creative life. It’s when someone–agent, critique partner, even myself–reads my words and tells me, “I love this writing!” that I’m driven back to the page over and over again.


  10. This is a good reminder to keep things in perspective. Too often I have this mindset that agents are like literary fairy godmothers, and once I find one, I’ll finally be able to quit my day job. While more sales = more readers, I’m more motivated by the occasional email from a reader who somehow benefited from my work: whether by feeling a little more understood or just really enjoyed the story. Those kinds of messages remind me why I keep writing.


  11. Thank you for that post! Although we all know that overnight successes stories are mostly myths, coming from an industry expert reminds us to write the best novel we can.

    What motivates me? It’s the story I’m working on. It coaxes me to keep my pen to the paper, so to speak. Watching the story that has dominated my mind for years blossoming now on paper/screen keeps me going.


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