Ask Nick: Publishing 201 — Can I Break Out?

Hello, and welcome to Publishing 201—an occasional column in which I'll answer your questions about writing and publishing, so long as they haven't been asked and answered a million times already. There is plenty of 101-level advice out there, and thousands of writers who can repeat it, but very little has been written for writers further along in their careers or aesthetic development. If you have a 201-level question you'd like me to answer, reach out!


This week, a short question generates a long answer.

How seriously should midlisters take the pressure to finally write that breakout novel?

—Mystified in the Midlist

Good question, Misty! The sad, short answer is that any pressure one need not take seriously is no pressure at all. If you feel this pressure to write that breakout novel, you must take it seriously.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you need to sit down and try to write a breakout novel.

First, let’s talk about what a breakout novel is: it’s not necessarily simply a best-seller. I know plenty of best-selling authors—most of them managed it by writing a work made for hire about Boba Fett or whatnot. And, of course, you can always write a best-selling non-fiction about carbohydrates (they’re bad!) or Jesus Christ (He’s good!). A breakout novel is a best-seller, or potential best-seller, that comes from your own imagination and ingenuity. What makes it a breakout is that is captures the imagination of everyone in the publishing process.

Your agent may want you to write a breakout novel, but how many breakout novels has your agent sold?

Today I received in the mail a copy of a novel by an acquaintance.  He published a few novels previously, but this one was from a very large publishing house, and has gotten enough of a push that they sent me a pre-release copy, in the hope I might say something about it. And here we all are! Anyway, Rob Hart’s The Warehouse came along with a fake workplace ID tag and an employee orientation brochure about the eeeevil corporation detailed in the text. So the book not only has all the hallmarks of a best-seller—high concept, larger than life characters, easy read, and the like—but someone, somewhere, said “Aha! This is the one!” and got people along the production chain to go along with it. Book and swag! Even the envelope had the cover of the book pasted to the outside, so that the mail carrier (or Amazon Flex driver!) would remember to buy a copy. Now The Warehouse may yet fail commercially as I am writing these words the week before its release, but it’s already broken out.

Also, I mention The Warehouse so LitReactor has something to link to and someone clicks and buys the book and a few pennies float toward the website and I get to keep my column. See how insidious this all is?

I have another acquaintance who also had a breakout novel, with her fourth book. Her first three books did all right, and they got the “all right” treatment: covers that suggested a small audience of intelligent hipster women, enough advance copies to get a few magazine reviews, an essay or two placed here or there. She was a bit concerned about her career when she sat down to write her next book, and then when she got her cover treatment for it, all her concerns evaporated. I remember her sending me the image and me, writing back excitedly, “Wow, that’s a cover for a boy book!” And the book, which was also a satire about consumerism, fast food, and weight was a hit.

So, about that pressure? The funny thing is that the people applying the pressure are the same people who get to decide which books are breakout novels. They are the pointers, they are the ones who say “Aha!” But why won’t they just do it already and elevate you?

A few things to keep in mind:

Your agent may want you to write a breakout novel, but how many breakout novels has your agent sold? Perhaps the problem isn’t you, but is your agent. They’re not all created equal. Some years ago, there was a bit of a movement among certain fantasists who wanted to be taken more seriously, and so they gave what they were doing a name—interstitial fiction—and claimed to exist in the interstice between fantasy and whatever the good stuff that would sell well and get them profiled in the New Yorker was. These writers were disappointed that their books looked liked goofy fantasy novels, when they really truly were not.

But if you have a goofy fantasy agent, that agent is going to sell your novel to goofy fantasy imprints, and the imprint’s design staff is going to plop a goofy fantasy cover on your book, and call it good.

If they didn’t like being goofy fantasy authors, they should have just gotten an agent who knew how to sell to classier imprints.

If your agent is pressuring you to write a breakout novel, but is not the sort of agent that regularly sells breakout novels, take the pressure seriously and find a new agent. Or stop worrying about your agent’s desire for a bigger fifteen percent slice of your pie.

Or perhaps, Misty, it’s your publisher? Even the biggest publishers produce many more midlist titles than best-selling titles. If publishers could produce best-sellers at whim, they would, and there wouldn’t be a midlist. Bookstores would look like movie theaters, offering fifteen choices at a time, and maybe as many as 1000 titles a year. There'd be shopping mall kiosks handing out the one science fiction novel of the season, the two romances, the single cookbook, etc. So, let’s take a moment and be thankful that breakout novels are hard to create.

Would you rather have 1/500th of the half-million goon audience, or one half of the 50,000 people who’d stand at attention if you hoisted your manuscript up a flag pole?

Anyway, lots of publisher hits aren’t breakout novels, but are instead biographies about, say, some sexy billionaire (he’s good!) or the President (he’s bad!). Is your publisher actually producing breakout novels, or are they keeping the lights on with non-fiction, Instant Pot how-to guides, and the one book from fifty years ago that every high schooler has to pretend to read in order to graduate? Back in the early 2000s, I met this guy who drank himself out of a career at the enormous conglomerate that is publishing my latest novel—see, time for another insidious link—and he told me a secret, which I’ll now tell the world. “You know what our real best-seller was, Nick?” he asked me. Then he answered his own question: “That stupid fucking map where you can stick the state quarters in. That’s why the lights are on at the [very famous oddly shaped building in New York] today!”

Is your publisher pressuring you for a breakout novel, Misty? Can your publisher point to a writer within ten years of your age and in your genre that they broke out in the past three years? If not, perhaps you should take the pressure seriously and look for a new publisher. Or stop worrying about how profitable your publisher wants to be.

Or, is the pressure internal pressure? “I must write a breakout novel!” Well, must you? Must you really? Breakout novels are generally of a type, and it’s the same type as many midlist novels. You know—high concept, larger than life (and increasingly, slashable) characters, plenty of wish fulfillment, short paragraphs and chapters to make the pages turn quickly. Cue some goon who only reads two books a year excitedly burning through your book late tonight. “Wow, this Misty person is putting pictures in my brain!” they think as they read in bed because they’d heard it was good to read a book instead of watch TV. “And I’m almost done with it already! My third-grade teacher was wrong! I am a good reader!” Now cue half a million goons! Congrats, Misty, you’re rich!

But the trick is to get half a million goons to read your book, and not one of the other ninety choices in your genre that are coming out the same month…or any of the other ninety choices in your genre that came out every month for the past twelve months. Then there are those other genres of fiction and non-fiction, the centuries of backlist titles, dollar books on Kindle, TV, mobile games, going outside, Netflix, talking to one’s spouse etc etc so on and so on.

Perhaps, Misty, for you, being one of a thousand writers trying to get a piece of that half-million goon audience, is a sucker bet. A best-seller is by definition a book purchased by people who do not purchase more than a couple books a year. A thousand authors trying to sell to those half million people means that most authors sell only a couple thousand copies.

It’s a hard trick, that breakout novel. You can write a novel that might lead to some agent or editor or publisher saying “Aha, that’s the one!” but you cannot control what these blessed finger-pointers will do or if the goons will pay attention. What you can do, however, is break out via other means.

 Let’s say you can identify a much smaller audience of, oh, fifty thousand readers who might love your stuff. And let’s say your work is uniquely written, examines the human condition in an unusual way, or is just “out there” enough that 50,000 experienced readers will really really like it.

And let’s also say that those 50,000 readers walk into bookstores to browse, and see only stuff for goons and precious little for themselves.

They’re waiting for you, Misty, to write a novel for them. They’re waiting for you to raise your freak flag just so they have one to salute.  Would you rather have 1/500th of the half-million goon audience, or one half of the 50,000 people who’d stand at attention if you hoisted your manuscript up a flag pole?

Twenty-five thousand hardcovers in 90-120 days ain’t so bad. Most months, that’ll get you a week or two on a best-seller list.

Write your book, Misty.  Make sure your agent wants you to write your book, and your publisher wishes to publish your book, and then find the 0.0083333333333333% of the US population with a few bucks and hours to spend on your book.

Then you will have written a breakout novel, without even needing to break out.

Image of Sabbath
Author: Nick Mamatas
Price: $27.99
Publisher: Tor Books (2019)
Binding: Hardcover, 304 pages
Image of The Warehouse: A Novel
Author: Rob Hart
Price: $22.25
Publisher: Crown (2019)
Binding: Hardcover, 368 pages
Nick Mamatas

Column by Nick Mamatas

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including I Am Providence and Sabbath. He's also published over 150 pieces of short fiction; his work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, and dozens of genre publications and literary journals. Much of his recent fiction was collected in The People's Republic of Everything.

Nick is also an anthologist: he co-edited the Bram Stoker Award-winning Haunted Legends with Ellen Datlow, the Locus Award nominees The Future is Japanese and Hanzai Japan with Masumi Washington, and the hybrid cocktail recipe/flash fiction title Mixed Up with Molly Tanzer. He recently adapted Junji Ito's manga Frankenstein into English, leading it to an Eisner award.

Nick has written extensively about digital culture, radical politics, publishing, and the book trade for Poets & Writers, The Smart Set, Village Voice, Fine Books & Collections, In These Times, and many other periodicals.

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