Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office, CA
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I’ll bet my title caused you to scratch your head. How can writing the proverbial breakout novel be the kiss of death? Let me explain. . .
Whenever I hear a writer talk about writing his breakout book or, even worse, when he turns in his manuscript and announces that it is his breakout novel, I cringe. Bravado is a good thing, but an announcement like that borders on tempting fate–if we believed in such a thing.
By way of definition, a breakout book is the book that takes the author to a whole new level. Malcolm Gladwell might define it as the tipping point. (Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point is a must-read, by the way.) It’s the line between the “before” and the “after” of a writer’s success. Many writers never have a breakout book. Some because they seem permanently stuck at a certain level of sales. They might even be classified a solid-seller, and there’s nothing wrong with being a solid seller for a whole career. Others never have a particular breakout point because their upward sales trajectory and their career grow at an even pace. A writer couldn’t ask for more.
A few writers do achieve that breakout book, and it’s a wonderful thing to see. Lately a number of debut authors have hit the scene and broken out of the pack immediately. I think of J. K. Rowling with Harry Potter, Kathryn Stockett with The Help, and Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows with Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Other writers have written for years before finally hitting the breakout, like Books & Such’s own Karen O’Connor, who broke out with Gettin’ Old Ain’t for Wimps after decades of being a writer with “solid” sales.
So why do I have a problem when someone announces he or she has just written a breakout novel? It’s because a breakout book is an event. It can’t be orchestrated. It’s more akin to a miracle than to a marketing plan. Do you suppose that when Bruce Wilkinson turned one of his sermons into a tiny gift-sized book called The Prayer of Jabez, he announced that he’d penned his breakout book? Not likely. What happened with that book took everyone by surprise.
I don’t think we can plan our breakout, nor can we predict it. I suspect that when we announce this is the one–the breakout book–it probably isn’t. Call me superstitious, but that pronouncement might even be the kiss of death to the breakout book.
What we can do is write the best book we can possibly write, each and every time. Just as if it were our breakout book. That’s the part of the process we can control. Then we need to do everything we can do to get it in the hands of readers, but after that, it’s out of our control. The truth is, a breakout book just happens. And like a miracle, we watch in awe and fall to our knees in gratitude.
Am I right? Wrong? Does anyone have a system for making the wished-for breakout happen? What kind of breakouts have you observed?