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The Breakout Novel & Why Publishing is Desperate for the Next BIG Thing

breakout novel, publishing, Kristen Lamb

The breakout novel. All authors want to write one, and all agents want to discover one. Why? Because the breakout novel is the story that tips the scales.

This is the novel that not only ignites avid readers to read MORE, but it also propels ordinary people to do the unthinkable.

It makes them want to read, too!

These stories turn those who normally wouldn’t read a book—unless it was required or there was a test at the end—into book evangelists.

****These people may claim they ‘hate to read,’ but they told everyone who’d listen about Twilight 😉 .

It’s True, Most People Aren’t ‘Readers’

This really isn’t anything new. I know it’s super popular to whine that people just don’t read books anymore.

They’ve been singing that same sappy BS song since I was a kid…during an age when there was no Internet—let alone social media—and cable was for rich people.

Daytime T.V. sucked, all television turned OFF at midnight, movies played at a movie theater (no VCRs), and you had to beg your parents to take you to a video arcade if you wanted to play games.

Yet, even back then, when one would think this would have been the Golden Age for everyone and their mother to be reading books?

It wasn’t.

I was a weirdo because I loved to read.

But just because someone doesn’t identify as a reader doesn’t mean he/she won’t read. It simply takes the right book to hook them and then reel ’em in.

‘Readers’ Have ALWAYS Been Outliers

Before the 20th century, most people weren’t even literate. Reading was a hobby reserved for wealthy people who had the funds, education and free time to indulge in fantasy.

Sure, once humans got into the late 19th century then careened into the 20th, the number of readers increased because of higher literacy rates. That and industrialization increased household incomes and offered the average person more free time.

Pulp fiction got its start with the much-esteemed Charles Dickens and this form of storytelling really picked up traction in the early part of the 20th century.

This type of fiction gave the general public access the larger-than-life stories with exotic and sexy characters.

Ah, but it wasn’t ALL roses and unicorns.

Books still competed with work, chores, radio shows, television, bowling, newspapers, discos, roller rinks, and sports.

Ultimately, the insatiable ‘avid reader’ has pretty much always loitered on the fringes of the bell curve.

The guy with the football never got wedgies. Just sayin’.

This is why most book marketing plans are utterly ineffective (unless one counts wasting a crap ton of time and money). Writers are all looking for the readers.

Where are the readers?

They gear all their social media and marketing to 3-5% of the population (the population who eat through books).

Bad news is this folks. The self-proclaimed avid readers aren’t the consumers that turn books (and their authors) into legends.

Who does?

The 93-95% of literate people in need of being educated or entertained who would NOT list reading on their Top 10 List of Fun Things to Do.

These consumers are the hardest to convert to readers, which is why most writers (and ‘marketing experts’) all go for the low-hanging fruit.

The Breakout Novel Breaks the Rules AND the Bank

The breakout novel is the novel that breaks the rules. These are the books readers never knew they always wanted, and ‘non-readers’ never believed would interest them in the first place.

Often, breakout novels reimagine a genre, mix genres, and/or flip the script on the mouldering tried and true genres.

Bloody Good Idea

For instance, Anne Rice didn’t invent vampires. Vampires have been around a LONG time.

Yes, even before the IRS was created.

Bram Stoker allegedly patterned Dracula (published in 1897) off a real historical figure, Vlad the Impaler. Myths and legends about vampires thrived in Eastern Europe as far back as the Middle Ages.

Though there were countless tales of the vampire as monster, Anne Rice wanted to write a different sort of book. What was it like from the vampire’s perspective?

And Interview with the Vampire was born.

Initially, no one wanted to publish the manuscript. Rice faced countless rejections. No one cared about stories FROM the vampire’s POV.

Finally, ONE agent loved the idea and took a chance, and pretty much all modern vampire stories from The Lost Boys, to True Blood to Twilight can thank Ann Rice.

And this genre upheaval wasn’t only limited to vampires.

The concept of casting monsters and creatures as the hero (or even anti-hero) EXPLODED in novels, television, film, and pop culture after Interview with the Vampire skyrocketed in success.

Boys Just Wanna Have Fun

J.K. Rowling reimagined Young Adult Fantasy when she decided to cast a young boy as her protagonist. Agents told her this was a terrible idea, because ‘boys didn’t read.’ And tween and teen boys definitely didn’t read.

***Maybe because all the YA books were girl books? Whatever. *rolling eyes*

Rowling, despite pressure to change Harry into a female protagonist, simply stuck to her guns and kept pressing then—BAMMO—the legend that is The Harry Potter franchise was born.

This success opened the YA door wide, and the genre took off.

Harry Potter was a breakout novel that not only redefined the genre, but it inspired everyday people and got them excited about reading.

The ‘NON-READERS.’

They’re the folks who’d rather be stuck in the DMV with no air conditioning than be forced to read a book…BUT they own every single Harry Potter (in hardcover).

😉

50 Shades of WHAT?

As much as this pains me, Fifty Shades of Grey is traditional publishing’s last big breakout novel. The trilogy wasn’t discovered by a literary agent, rather it was picked up then rereleased by Vintage Books in April, 2012.

As I mentioned earlier, breakout novels will often defy convention and reimagine older, existing genres for a modern audience.

E.L. James certainly did NOT invent erotic literature, but her series certainly sparked renewed interest (and a LOT of controversy) in an old genre.

But let me remind you, Fifty Shades of Grey was the last massive breakout book for legacy publishing (and they picked it up only after it was successful as fan fiction then self-pub).

This means the market has gone over SEVEN years with no new breakout author.

That isn’t good.

Things Have GOT to Change

I recently blogged about the dismal fate of Barnes & Noble. Borders is long dead and B&N is no longer a baller. The independent bookstores haven’t had long enough to return to full strength.

This is scary.

The Big Six got in bed with the big bad wolf box bookstore and gutted their author middle class. NY publishing also never changed how they did business, and thus linked their survival to these mega-stores.

With their MASSIVE overhead and grossly inefficient methods, they had to have those multi-million-dollar preorders to keep the lights on.

But Elliot Management Corps. will be closing those giant B&N stores and they will be replacing them with smaller stores more reminiscent of the old days of B. Dalton.

Those guaranteed orders to fill ginormous twenty or thirty-thousand square foot stores are going away, and the mom-and-pop and indies aren’t yet healthy enough to make up that differential.

This spells serious financial trouble for what remains of legacy publishing. If they ever needed a breakout novel (author)?

NOW is that time.

Amazon’s Got a Bad Moon Rising, Too

Sure it was all fun and games when they weaponized writers against our former masters. They allowed everyone and anyone to publish (and I’m, personally, very grateful for that). But, this created a very different problem.

We NEED gatekeepers. There were over a million novels self-published just last year.

Of that number, how many do you think paid for professional and rigorous content editing and proofing?

This ‘Dump the Slush Pile in the Reader’s Lap Plan’ isn’t going to work. It’s already failing. If the major publishers who actually vet books collapse, then Amazon will take a massive hit unless they can figure a way to sift through those millions for books that are even readable (let alone any good).

I am glad Amazon is opening brick-and mortar stores, but they are smart-stocking these stores using algorithms. Part of that is a really good idea (one NY maybe should have thought of using).

Certain books/authors are more popular in certain areas (e.g. Tom Clancy is super popular in Florida, likely because of the dense population of retired vets).

It makes sense to see what is selling best in what state, city, etc. then use that data to decide what earns a spot on shelves.

But this method of stocking is rife with pitfalls.

Algorithms can be juked, and are gamed all the time. In fact, Amazon spends a ridiculous amount of time and resources combatting those cheating the system (largely China).

It’s one thing when Amazon is contending with ebooks and no physical copies are involved. But what about when those books are printed?

Rise of Plagiarism & Counterfeit Books

A recent New York Times article What Happens After Amazon’s Domination is Complete? Its Bookstores Offer Clues is the stuff of author nightmares:

Amazon takes a hands-off approach to what goes on in its bookstore, never checking the authenticity, much less the quality, of what it sells. It does not oversee the sellers who have flocked to its site in any organized way.

This has resulted in a kind of lawlessness. Publishers, writers and groups such as The Authors Guild assert that counterfeiting of books on Amazon has surged. 

David Streitfeld, via ‘The New York Times’, 6/23/19

It’s also being speculated that China Lit is hiring workers who are able to speak English, then using them to convert older successful books into ‘new’ ebooks.

The workers take those mothballed titles I mentioned in the B&N post—the ones that hit the New York Times and USA Today best-seller lists a couple decades ago—and they’re copying the story but changing the titles, then names of places and characters and enough wording that the plagiarism software doesn’t detect the forgeries.

Then, the books are loaded on KU as NEW titles…and this is how they’ll bankrupt the whole shebang.

Careful What You Wish For

Amazon got what it wanted and brought The Big Six to its knees, but now? They’re going to have to get serious about policing what they publish.

Amazon, much like what remains of legacy publishing, NEEDS a breakout novel. The reading world is desperate for a new book (or series) that is evocative, innovative and exciting to come along and revive those of us who’ve all but given up.

…and maybe inspire the next generation to read something other than text messages.

That Breakout Novel Could be YOURS

The problem with the past ten years is that learning better ways to market and advertise a book has taken over learning how to even WRITE one.

As a result, the overall quality of books has suffered.

When big publishing (rather the multi-media conglomerates in charge) kicked the author middle class to the curb, many authors quit writing. Others gravitated to self-publishing and indie.

Those authors who made it out with their backlists did well (REALLY well) self-publishing…until readers ate through their entire catalogue.

Now, many are struggling to write novellas, to be included in anthologies and put out short works to keep the fan fires burning. They’re overloaded trying to do it ALL on their own.

Like the rest of us, they just want to write great books.

These older authors came of age in a paradigm that gave them TIME to create. They had TIME to research, time for revisions and time for thorough edits without the pressure of churning out stories like a Play-Doh Un-Fun Factory so they ‘wouldn’t be forgotten.’

***FYI, no one forgot James Michener between books.

Alas, there is something to be said for books that take TIME to write, and the way things are?

Quality will only go down even more…if that’s even possible.

Hot Pocket Novels & Microwave Fiction

The indie, self-pub Amazon model has made it to where authors can’t take their time. They can’t write a book a year, or every eighteen months and make a living.

Many of those who are still traditionally publishing have chosen to also become hybrid authors (publishing other works via self-pub or indie). They have to in order to make a living.

But I think the novelty is wearing off (or hope it is)

Readers are growing weary of microwaveable fast-food fiction. Authors who initially could write to demand are burning out.

NY isn’t fooling anyone with ‘James Patterson’ releasing zillions of books every year. There are only so many good ghost writers, and those folks are wearing out, too.

That and the fans (okay maybe just me) are getting tired of stories that lack consistency in voice and quality. I enjoy James Patterson’s books, but I gave up because I never really knew what to expect.

Not to mention the generation of fans is aging out. Sure NY can keep hiring ghostwriters for the mega name brands, but those readers are aging out as well.

I’ve actually started reading classics because it’s increasingly harder to find books with a pre-digital age level of quality.

Granted, breakout novels can be fast-drafted (Fahrenheit 451), but a Harry Potter or Dune or an American Gods takes TIME.

Unless a new breakout novel comes along, the industry as a whole will suffer.

***Which is code for ‘opportunity.’

I do believe the pendulum will soon swing back to a semblance of sanity (and I have ways we could accomplish that but leaving for another post).

Forget the Money

For anyone reading this who wants to be the author of that next breakout novel, here’s some advice. Money is WONDERFUL, but too many people are fixated on profit at the expense of product.

The secret to success? Look at any market and see what’s missing and fill the need. And the world NEEDS more fantastic books.

What Are Your Thoughts? I LOVE Hearing From You!

I miss the days authors had TIME to write incredible stories. Do you think the digital age’s relentless pace is harming the industry?

Do you think there is a way Amazon (and others) can reestablish some form of sifting process? Establish gatekeepers again?

I love hearing your thoughts!

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I have to free up space on our servers. All my classes are detailed and average 2-3 hours. These are On Demand classes you can watch at your leisure and have fun while you learn (for classes, scroll down).

****For NEW classes, look in the footer.

This not only is to help you guys get the training you need (affordable summer school), but it will open up room for the new recordings of new classes.

Please take advantage of the sale! I rarely drop prices this low.

After July 17th, these classes will no longer be for sale (and will be slated for deletion).

Some, I will offer again later in the year. Others? I won’t be offering again the same way (will be likely splitting them into two classes because they ran long).

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  1. I don’t aim for traditional publishing and as a full-time drudge worker who tries to eek out a few minutes a day to write, I’m not much of a model for the hard-driving indie author publishing multiples a year, either. And writing isn’t my only artistic dream either so I’m further divided. So I guess I’ll just keep plugging along, learn my craft well, and give it a shot as I can. I would assume the odds of a breakout novel ARE in favor of those who write prolificly, because sooner or later, they’re bound to score.

    • Jerry Furnell on July 13, 2019 at 1:46 am
    • Reply

    I’m appalled that people plagiarise Amazon books. What a risk then to self-publish there. Years of work, dreams, can be stolen. No thanks.
    I’m finding it hard to find a good new book in the library too. I’ll bring ten novels home and barely make it past the first ten pages in nine of them before putting down saying, rubbish.
    I disagree with nine out of ten publishers who thought the work was good enough to print. My feeling is that the publishing industry is desperate to find a good book and so they print anything that even smells like a chance in the hope that if they fire enough bullets, one will hit the target.
    Good luck, everyone. I hope your work finds it’s way safely into the hands of millions of appreciative readers.

    1. Yes, but I will add a caveat. They have to write good books. The first books might be rough but they need to be improving. I’ve seen writers churn out series of 7, 10, 15 books and every one of them unreadable.

      Self-publishing certainly has benefits. I self-published my book on branding, “Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.” Even though I had one of, if not THE best agent in NYC, no publisher would touch it. They were too afraid of social media. But at that time I had a good 400 blogs under my belt and the book was edited by top editors and vetted by pros.

      My fiction, “The Devil’s Dance” was published by a small press who went under shortly after the release. I got my rights back then redid it with a MUCH better cover and top blurbs then self-published it.

      Some of the best books in the past ten years have come from self-pub (e.g. “The Martian”, by Andy Weir).

      Unfortunately, too many are essentially slapping up a first-draft with a cover. They’re not improving and, because they are “published” I find many of them unteachable. They’re proud they have ten books under their belt, but fail to note that they’re selling twenty copies a month (of TEN BOOKS).

      The old method with gatekeepers FORCED writers to learn the craft unless they wanted to shell our 10-20K on vanity press. This new way, where publishing is so easy, has made it where too many are playing Literary Lotto, hoping that, like 50 Shades, it will take off and be so popular no one will care about the poor quality of the writing.

      Not to dismiss E.L. James or her readers. She certainly knew the pulse of the audience of the time and she filled a niche no one else was even really taking seriously. But, when traditional picked up the book, they could have at least done some solid edits. It gives the impression that if we just get triple 7s readers won’t care about “nit-picky” things like grammar.

      Thus, we have countless writers banking on the 50 Shades Effect.

      I think if writers would slow down, get off the hamster wheel and focus on learning to write well then write GREAT books? Their books would stand out like a gem in a pile of gravel.

  2. Also, Hunger Games. She said in an article she was watching reality t.v. and flipping channels to the Afghanistan war. The two mixed in her head. I will never forget that because it’s a perfect example of how creativity works.
    This new Kurt Cobain of fiction will be someone inexperienced who knows nothing about marketing and less about the history of publishing. It’ll be me! 😉 j/k ! ?
    I’m not disciplined enough for all that!
    I read classic literature almost exclusively where it concerns fiction / novels. Sounds like I’m not missing much by avoiding modern authors!
    Although… i like your blog so much i am considering buying your two books soon.
    Omg… I forgot all about Anne Rice and she was the first author I read at 14 and I was obsessed. I might have to revisit vampire chronicles and see if the experience is different when you’re pushin’ 40. Anyway, I can do some ramblin’ comments. I’ll wrap up with:
    Another compelling post by K.L. Hitting the ball outta the park again. Thanks.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly about the problem with self-publishing – too little edits. I have never understood in this day and age of e-books why publishers don’t release their NY Times bestsellers through their own site a month before sending them off to Amazon. Seems they’re still afraid of the internet.

  4. A really insightful article! Amazon now has Kindle Direct Publishing, but it used to have Kindle Scout (closed in 2018 IRC), which was kind of peer-reviewing/crowdsourced platform. But, they probably abandoned it because it wasn’t as profitable as KDP has been proven to be.
    Still, one thing has always bugged me whenever I would hear stories about the books that became big hits getting rejected million times before ‘one agent/publisher decided on a leap of faith’. What’s the criteria? How do can they tell if something is going to be a breakout novel or not?

  5. Spot on as always although I do have one disagreement with you.
    I personally don’t agree that the reading world NEEDS gatekeepers. Frankly what validates those gatekeepers as the source of all taste and skill? The current gatekeepers of the big publishing houses brought us books by Snookie and the cast of the Jersey Shore after all. They routinely publish books where I find many spelling and grammar errors as well as just bad storytelling, I don’t think they’re doing such a good job, so how would another set of gatekeepers do any better?
    I believe we readers are capable of being our own gatekeepers. I can tell in a matter of seconds if a book is going to be something I will like. I abandon books which turn into mindless drek half way through, I don’t need a gatekeeper for that. The gatekeepers told us Twilight and 50 Shades were worth it – they were some of the worst written books I’ve ever skimmed through and then rejected. (YMMV that was just my opinion)
    True, there are more books than ever but there have always been more books than a person could possibly read or sort through. We manage to still find the gems.
    I know what I write isn’t for everyone and may not be perfect although I strive to make sure it is as perfect as I can make it, but someone out there will find it and love it and pet it and name it George (sorry my Loony Tunes background is sneaking through). If I relied on the gatekeepers I’d still be piling up my rejections because I don’t fit what they’re looking for at the moment.
    Honestly no one can tell if they’ve written a great book until the public looks at it and decides that they consider it great. I think we just need to hone our craft, write as cleanly and well as possible and then wait for the court of public opinion to tell us if it was great. The gatekeepers can only tell you what that one editor thought was good or would sell based on their personal bias that week.
    I’m going to go back to writing now.
    Keep up the great blogging Kristen, you’re one of my favorite places to drop in and read.

    1. I think they are going to have to have SOME avenue that has gatekeeping. Sorry. I hate it, too. I was a book that no one in NY wanted to publish. They didn’t believe a social media/branding book could be evergreen. So thank GOD for self-pub. But, at the same time, with the number of books being self-published growing exponentially? They cannot keep dumping the slush pile in the readers’ laps.

      It isn’t good for readers and it is NOT good for writers who take time to do a good job. There are LITERALLY writers out there formatting and publishing first drafts. And they WAY outnumber those who are taking this seriously as a craft and skill. They’ll crowd us into extinction unless we can find another way.

      Readers could be the gatekeeper at one time. But remember 50 Shades was the LAST breakout novel. Why is that? Possibly because it was 2012 (when ebooks and Kindle were BRAND NEW). There weren’t NEARLY as many self-published books. That statistic I cited was a 2018 stat. So in 2018 there were OVER a MILLION books self-pubbed. Readers can’t hope to vet even a percentage of that many books.

      Sure some great books will come through but again. We’ve got to fix this. I am sick and tired of bad books. I LOVE Audible (though they likely hate me) because I return books all the time. I am sick to death of terrible books (even out of traditional).

      I don’t know precisely how to fix the problem, but I have some ideas that I will blog on later.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment and I SO appreciate your support!

  6. Having read your blog for years before I finally self-published, I was always determined that I was NEVER going to be one of those writers who slapped up a sloppy job and expected people to pay for it.

    My reward: I’ve never had a single reader point out a typo in my 100K novel. I did find one myself after about a year, but it was still grammatically correct. It just didn’t say what I wanted it to (singular, should have been plural), so I fixed it for the ebook.

    I doubt I’ll ever be a big breakout writer, but as long as I focus on producing good books, who knows?

  7. I agree with Edmund’s comment. Gatekeepers have for years kept good books off shelves through their own personal tastes or marketing pressures, etc. Some of the best books I’ve read have been indie published. I’ve had an agent and been trad published, but gaining access to millions of readers will always be a lottery. People will only read what captures their interest and most readers don’t even care about how or who published the book.
    I do agree though that there are too many authors putting up books which haven’t been edited enough. However, in the end, the readers will decide.

  8. Wow…this is very disturbing and inspiring at the same time. It makes me feel like those of us sitting around with books in our heads or in our hearts only have a limited time to be able to see our finished works in the places where many of us currently get our book experiences.

    I have always loved Barnes and Noble…or any bookstore period. I just love the environment. I’ve always envisioned my book being one amongst all the other books on the shelves. Not just published on Amazon or on my website. Being a writer is/was my dream. This is definitely another kick in the pants to work toward making that happen before it’s even harder to accomplish.

  9. Great job outlining the problems! I can hardly wait to see what happens next, and what “solutions” evolve. I always love a good disaster story. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing and learning.

  10. Yes, we need gatekeepers. I am really tired of buying books that are second drafts, if I am being generous.

    At the same time, gatekeepers kept out a lot of fiction I now love. Some of my favorite books are self-pubbed and probably wouldn’t have been published under the old paradigm as they never would have sold millions and millions of copies.

    Kindle Unlimited is actually one of the drivers of so much scamming, and I am not certain how Amazon fixes it. Maybe more like a credit system rather than unlimited free books? If the book is bad, you return it and get the credit back, similar to audible? Not sure, but the huge pool of money that is Unlimited is a huge part of the scammer problem.

    Not sure what the happy middle is. But I doubt it involves algorithms. AI has proven how bad event that is to date.

    • Sarah H. on July 15, 2019 at 1:55 pm
    • Reply

    I COMPLETELY agree!! I tend to lean towards legacy publishing after securing an agent for my novel, rather than attempt to do the marketing that comes with self publishing. I have self published and was so caught up in the excitement that comes with having a book out there, that I completely lost track of precisely how much time is required to sell a few dozen books, let alone anything worth considering a livable income. Yes, the percentage of royalty is higher, but so is the work. I’m reminded of the line MLMs offer to sucker you into joining. It only takes fifteen minutes a day to earn six figures! Excuse me while I go puke. All joking aside, if ANYONE is going to make it self publishing, they either don’t eat, sleep, or anything else other than market. This is evident in the literally hundreds of thousands of books out there that would never have made it past the first round of legacy publishers’ editing.

    While my novella isn’t by any means a best seller, or worthy of even any awards, I thought it would have done much better than it had, all things considered. Instead, it is up against over four million books and is ranked so low that you quite literally have to put the title as well as by and my name to find it. Ah well, maybe a gatekeeper might not be such a bad idea. Though, it is a sad day when B&N is forced to surrender to the big bad wolf, Wal…ahem…Amazon. We can only hope that with this latest change, the current situation will turn around for the better.

  11. And the cycle goes ’round again~

  12. Wow, really novel thinking, if you’ll pardon the pun. This article has really got me thinking.

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