Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Breaking Out

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 07•13

Jessica Page Morrell©

Associate with all the smart, funny, talented, creative people you can, learn to write beautifully, but don’t stay locked in your room to do it: go out and try new things, meet new people, have a wonderful, rich, compelling, and interesting life — and then tell me about it in the most beautiful prose imaginable. Jeff Kleinman

  A few years ago at the Willamette Writers conference I was talking with an agent, asking her if she’d heard any good pitches. It was Saturday morning and she was feeling hopeful since it was early in the game. So we chatted a bit, and talked about how the publishing industry has been undergoing changes over the years and she mentioned that it seemed that editors were either looking strictly for category books or the next unusual blockbuster novel. I asked her for an example and she mentioned Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones which has also been purchased by director Peter Jackson.

Later I was talking with author Julie Fast about the biz as she prepped for her workshop on writing a bestselling nonfiction book. She’d been attending all the editor and agent panels and had jotted down their comments about the state of publishing. I mentioned that I wished beginning writers would keep in mind that the so-called rules for getting published are different for breakout and superstar writers than they are for break-in writers. And I’ve been thinking about this ever since.

If you have an urge toward storytelling or writing the newest how-to book and also want to hit the big time, here are a few things to consider. Let’s start with a few definitions. At the bottom of the publisher’s catalogue are backlist titles. These are older titles that aren’t red hot sellers but are kept in print because of steady sales and include lesser-selling genres like Westerns.

      Midlist is a publishing term that means the titles occupy the biggest part of a publisher’s catalogue. These books are dependable sellers but not best sellers. If an author is called a midlist author it means he or she hasn’t written a bestseller yet, but his or her sales are good enough to justify publishing his books and buying more books from these authors. While the majority of books published are midlist, the majority of book sales don’t come from midlist because the big bucks come from best sellers such as the Harry Potter books. While being a midlist author might make some writers feel like Cinderella’s stepsister with big feet, the reality is that most midlist authors can make a living at it and can hope that perhaps after a few books or half a dozen books that they might break out.

Breakout means that a published author pole vaults from so-so sales of maybe 10,000 or 20,000 to mega sales. Dan Brown is a good example. After a mediocre career as a musician and composer in L.A. he returned to New Hampshire and a teaching gig at his old school and began writing. He sold three novels and two humor books, with small sales for all. Then his fourth novel The Da Vinci Code was published in 2003, sold 60,000 copies in the first week in print and skyrocketed to the top of The New York Times bestseller list. It has gone on to sell over 70 million copies. Needless to say, that’s a big time break out.

Generally a breakout book is somehow extraordinary. If you are like me and could not get past page 20 of The Da Vinci Code because the writing is lackluster at best, you’re probably wondering what makes a book break out. Often the book has a super tantalizing hook, creates strong reactions in readers, and is high concept, meaning that the essence of the story can be whittled down to a single sentence, can be understood by anyone, and the story or book idea explodes with meaning and intrigue. Both Lovely Bones and The Da Vinci Code are high concept.

The good news is that publishers are always on the lookout for breakout writers because they’re generally already polished or at least reliable writers and because they can buy their titles cheaper than they can buy from the big dogs. Breakout is synonymous with up and coming and can refer to memoirists, authors of how-to books, and novelists. In other words, they have the potential to become superstars and garner mega sales.

What gives a breakout author an edge is if they have an established platform such as a web site and other ways to attract readers and if the author is easy to work with. So turn in your manuscript pages on time and accept editing suggestions gracefully. These writers understand the business and will help all they can to boost sales. Other ways of breaking out include winning or being nominated for awards, sparkling reviews, and garnering a blurb from a household name such as Stephen King.

Sometimes a breakout will occur when an author switches genres as in the case of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Haddon who is also a poet has written a number of children’s books. Everything about Haddon’s book is highly original especially the voice, that of an autistic boy and the puzzle about a dead dog at the center of the story. It also won several prizes and will be made into a movie.

A breakout book means the author has somehow upped his game with meatier or more sizzling or original content. Sometimes an author hits the big time and breaks out after only one or two books such as Jeannette Wells’ The Glass Castle or Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Both books are memoirs.

Then there are the super star authors whose names are synonymous with bestseller. These are the folks that publishers put their money behind in printing thousands of copies, paying for multi-city book tours, and creating bookstore promo and display items. Publishers will also lavish money on promotions for breakout authors, but most often books break out because of word of mouth sales, winning awards, or being chosen by a major book club such as Oprah’s or ABC’s Good Morning which chose Lovely Bones. Often a publisher will be caught by surprise when a book breaks out and will rush more copies into print and start the promo machine rolling. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is a good example of a break out book that has caused waves of success and recognition. Another is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Both are being made into movies.

Celebrity books are another sales category and include writers such as the Clintons. Publishers will also lavish big bucks behind selling their books because of name recognition.

The superstar category are the writers who have sold millions of books. No matter what they write, and that means even if it’s drek, they will land a book deal and the publisher will print thousands or millions of copies. These big dogs include the late Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, Ann Rice, James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and Nicholas Spark. You can also throw in best-selling authors like Dean Koontz, Catherine Coulter, Diana Gabaldon, George R.R. Martin and Norah Roberts into this crowd. Typically their name on the cover guarantees sales and their books often are often turned into movies.

Now, my list of mega stars is probably short–writers I’ll read no matter what they publish. My latest mega star is Jess Walter. Some of these authors write great books, some of these authors write a mix of great books and so-so books. It does you no good to compare your writing to any breakout because your writing needs to be better than theirs. Which is the point of this column.

One last thing. Often when I’m teaching a workshop a writer will pipe up with an example from Thackeray or Henry James or Faulkner to dispute some point I’m making about craft or rewriting or getting published. Here’s what I think: there is no one right way to write, but there are thousands of ways to write poorly and make mistakes in your career. While all authors are wise to read the classics, you’re wiser to read breakout books and puzzle out what sets them apart from the author’s previous works and try to somehow emulate them.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

4 Comments

  1. Jennifer says:

    And the game continues to change because of indies who break off from the pack and go it alone, mostly with flat results. I don’t advocate one way or another. The “business” of being a writer is difficult and requires heaps of perseverance. Ultimately, the craft is most important. Thanks for this clearly written assessment.

  2. The superstar category are the writers who have sold millions of books. No matter what they write, and that means even if it’s drek, they will land a book deal and the publisher will print thousands or millions of copies. These big dogs include the late Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, Ann Rice, James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and Nicholas Spark. You can also throw in best-selling authors like Dean Koontz, Catherine Coulter, Diana Gabaldon, George R.R. Martin and Norah Roberts into this crowd. Typically their name on the cover guarantees sales and their books often are often turned into movies.

  3. Olivia Ashe says:

    You didn’t mention why Twilight was published.

  4. Olive,
    That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?
    Because no one had written about vampires and virginal love from a strange Mormon angle.
    Because a publisher knew that even if the writing is tragically bad, that with enough promotion, crappy stories can sell.