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Do You Think You Have a Breakout Novel?

When considering my interpretation of a breakout novel, for this topic I'm referring to a book that is pre-publication and pulling in a lot of interest from either agents or editors. That's why I phrased it, "Do You Think...?" A breakout novel can also be one that immediately takes off in sales, garners voluminous reviews and climbs the best-selling ranks in very short order. That's post-publication. We've seen some of the self-published e-books do this just recently. But what if you're in the beginning of the query stage and, unexpectedly, you are receiving mass requests for partials and fulls, or are drawing contract offers right out of the gate? You just might have a breakout novel on your hands and not know it, or be sitting there in a daze, unable to fathom what's happening. I think I'm going through this right now, and it's a shock if you're not expecting it or prepared for it. And, incidentally, this goes for agent subs to the major houses, but in that case your agent will know precisely what to do if this happens--it usually means a high initial floor bid or an auction.

Let's say you have, in your opinion, a dynamite query letter, a great first chapter (or front pages) hook, and an intriguing story that holds the readers interest from act 1 to act 3. Let's say you also believe that your concept or premise is original, or so damn interesting that is will compel an agent or editor to read on. This pretty much describes all us writers--we really wouldn't put anything out there if we didn't believe in it. And, unfortunately, we are always ready for those inevitable rejections or non-responses, because this is really how most books are processed and rejected. We expect somewhere around a 10 or 15 percent request rate, which is pretty nuch the norm, unless we've really goofed our query and sample pages.

But what if lightning strikes?

What's lightning in this scenario? Let's say you've sent out 10 queries and sample pages, or a synopsis and three chapters, depending upon the guidelines. If you pull six or more requests for additional pages, or fulls from agents or editors, you can bet this might be one of the first signs of a breakout. If your requests come within a few weeks of submission (ignoring standard response times), you can almost guarantee that you have something very special and you've landed in sweet spot, breakout territory. This mass love would also apply to multiple R & R requests. So you sit back and wait for determinations on your full manuscripts. Then in a very short period of time, days or weeks (again, ignoring the standard response times), you're offered representation or contract offers, out of that same 10 original submissions. If you have, say, four or more contract offers out of those 10, you can rest assured that you have a possible breakout novel. The higher the number of offers, the more solid your conviction will be that you have a winner. If, at this time, you are only submitting to publishers, I suggest you drop what you're doing, put all offers on the back burner and immediately seek agent representation. Without being bragadocious, calmly explain to the agent what's happening. Do this by email--don't call--you're not a client. Yet.

The realization of a breakout can happen in a number of ways other than the above. A publisher, or several can advise you to seek agent representation, if you are without one. Several editors or agents can regretfully pass on the manuscript but give you direct, personal referrals to competing houses or agencies. Some agents or editors might ask you for an exclusive, even though they're not known for this procedure. Just remember that your request rates will be very high in the initial query stage, followed by numerous contract offers. The ultimate decision is up to you--who you're going to sign with. At this stage, it's best if you hold out and submit to your dream agents or top 10 publishers.  If you wish to publish with any of the Big Six, you will need an agent.

My indications came a little bit differently, but nevertheless raised my antenna. I sent out about six query packages, or synopsis and chapters. The first response I had was for a full within one week. After the full, the editor asked if I would agree to some major tone changes. He said the premise and hook were outstanding, but he felt a major personality change was needed for the second half of the book. This went back and forth for three weeks until I politely declined. My second response arrived with a request for a full, as did the third and fourth. I'm still waiting on these at the moment. My fifth response came back with a notation that I'd qualified for a YA distopian novel writing contest, sponsored by the publisher. Thirty days later I was notified that I was in contention for the first place, grand prize slot. One week after that, they told me I'd won, and they offered an advance and publication. My sixth response came back after the award announcement, via a publisher, who offered a contract. My submission process lasted about 50 days, and those were the results for six submissions. Truth be told, I tossed all of this positive news at my agent in bits and pieces as I received them. She hadn't even read the book yet, but promised to get on it and get back to me.

If you're experiencing this type of reaction to your initial queries, congratulations are in order! Does this lead to best-sellerdom? That's difficult to project, since this business is so subjective. But it puts you, or you and your agent in the driver's seat, completely in control of your ride to fame or fortune, or at least, in possession of a book that drew a little spark of lightning. One of the questions we always ask ourselves is, "How can I repeat this? How did it happen and can I bottle this formula?" It's hard to answer because so many variables come into play. It's taken me years to narrow it down and guess at the answer. First it lies in the query, that all important intro to your story. And it's there where an editor or agent can discover it before turning a page. It would have to be concept. An original premise that has that OMG factor. Nothing else can pop off the first page of your proposal better than a groundbreaking concept. If it has "high" concept, well the stars your destination.

Good luck, and breakout from the pack!