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?