More on the Break-In Novel

As new authors we want to write both a break-in novel and a break-out novel. In my last post I touched on what a break-in novel is, but for clarification, let's define both:

Break-In novel: The one that presents the fewest obstacles to publication. The one in which your writing shines the brightest. The one in which the genre and subject matter are closest to what seems to be selling right now. (Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent)

Break-Out novel: A book that makes dramatic leaps in sales over peers or even ahead of our own previous work. . .breaking through to new, more powerful ways of story construction. (Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel)

Here's how I distinguish the two. A break-in novel is the book new authors need to help us begin to establish a wide readership. And a break-out novel is one that makes our books stand out from the rest of the competition.

As new authors, ideally we would like to accomplish both a break-in and break-out with the same book. That's an ideal.

But in reality, I'm learning as first time authors, if we want to sell our books, we have to find a way to attract readers. We need to write a book that breaks us into the flooded market. Obviously our names will not draw readers. In fact many of us stick to authors we like the best and hesitate to pick up someone we don't know for fear of disappointment.

Since our name alone won't attract readers and may even discourage them, what will compel someone to pick our books off the shelf and give the first page a glance? What factors cause a reader to take a chance on a new author?

Let's think about what makes us take a chance on a new book:

  • Reading a great review on the book

  • High profile marketing

  • A beautiful cover

  • An endorsement from a favorite author

  • A back cover blurb that hooks

  • The genre, setting, time period fall within the category we love most

As we're striving to publish our first books, we have to give weight to the break-in factor if we hope to establish a readership. Now I'm certainly not advocating that we all drop our WIPS and start writing Amish fiction. But I am learning I must evaluate what is most marketable within my genre and begin there.

What factors make you take a chance on a book? Have you thought about how those factors apply to your WIP? Will your book attract a large enough readership?


  1. I am so excited! Your post popped up in google reader!

    I love this post, but it frustrates me at the same time. I'm scared that I MIGHT write that original, unique novel that agents claim they want only to find out that the publishers think it's too original and won't sell.

    I feel there are many contradictory statements out there from the professionals in the publishing industry. How do we "break in" in that environment?

    I'm sorry if that was way too honest of a statement.

    Again, I'm so excited that your post popped up in my reader. I hope mine popped up in yours. :)

  2. I'm just re-reading through Writing the Breakout Novel and Donald Maass emphasizes word of mouth as the #1 way to increase sales. Most readers don't read reviews, mostly just us writers do, I guess.

    I'm actually going to start a post series on preparing for the conference early bird as I re-read his book starting today. Must get to that post.

  3. I am really intrigued by all of this. But at the end of the day I can only write what I have in my heart to pull out. I am trusting that God knows what He has put in there and knows when it is the right time (if at all ( for it to be published.
    I guess what makes me take a chance on a new book is varied. It could be the title, it could be the cover, it could be the blurb. What all these factors have in common is that something about the book (whatever it may be) touches on something in me and I want to know more.

    Great post Jody. I am still praying about your book. Can't wait to hear news :)

  4. I think it's a great idea to write a break-in novel. Hold onto your ideas and WIPs for more complex, original reads and just start making a name for yourself. To me, it's not selling's just good business sense.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  5. I think I'd prefer to write a break-in novel. I think there'd be tons of pressure with a bestseller and I'm not sure I'm ready for that. A steady uphill climb works for me. :-)
    Great post!

    The things that attract me to a new author are a super blurb on the back. Usually I try out new authors at the library, and that's how I've found my favorites. :-)

  6. I'm still back on Monday's post (in my mind) because you really made me think hard! And that is quite an accomplishment for early in the week. Congratulations! :) Thank you for helping me at least peek outside my OCD perfectly-ordered mind to be willing to consider other avenues.

  7. Hi Jody,
    I'm kind of with Tabitha on this one in terms of needing to write what my heart tells me to write, but both she and I write memoir, which is totally different. Elizabeth, on the other hand, writes fiction and her advice is superb. What draws me to a book by an unknown author is the title/cover and the back cover blurb. I don't usually pay attention to reviews.

  8. I've heard a lot of great things about Donald Maass' book. I'm going to have to check it out.

    What draws me to a new book, is first the cover then the blurb on the back. I recently picked up two books by authors I've never read before based solely on the cover and the blurb on the back. So far, so good! I would go by word of mouth, but sadly, most people I know who read (which are few and far between) don't read the same genres I do!

    Another great post, Jody!


  9. I really like how clearly you defined both of these terms. Before a week or two ago, I'd never heard of the break-in book.
    I really know that you need a great cover for the bookstore to even buy you!

  10. Excellent thoughts/questions as always. I'm attracted to a unique plot and fascinating characters. I'm trying to develop both in my novels.

    I must admit I really want a knock-out cover someday, too.

    ~ Wendy

  11. There are many ways I choose a book to read...recommendation, cover and blurb and I always read the first couple of pages. If it doesn't grab me then I don't buy it. Of course I have my favorite authors, but always looking for new ones to add to my collection.

    Hadn't thought much about "break in" "break through". I'm just out there in writer land writing whatever the muse tells me to. Though you haven't given me food for thought!

  12. Thank you for the distinction b/n break-out and break-in novels. I've seen the term break-out before but wasn't sure what it meant.

    What makes me take a chance on a book? Several factors - genre, name recognition, the standard things. My dad told me when I was a kid that Winston Churchill supposedly said that if you pay $10 for a book and only learned one thing, it was worth the $10. I've applied that principle very liberally through my career (and have a couple of thousand books, too). So, if I think I'll learn even one thing, I fall pretty quickly for the purchase.

  13. Whew, so glad I don't have to drop everything and write Amish fiction!

    Factors that make me take a chance on a book?

    --back cover copy that grabs me
    --historical fiction
    --a theme or idea that attracts me

    I wrote a novel based upon an historical event in Minnesota history, poured my heart and soul into it, and at the end of the day...editors liked the writing but didn't buy it because the subject matter was delicate.

    The next novel I wrote was based upon an historical event in Minnesota history, and I poured my heart and soul into it, and at the end of the day and editor bought it because the subject matter was just what her readers like.

    It was a good lesson.

  14. I usually read books that have been recommended to me by someone I think has the same taste in reading as I do. I have, though, bought a book off the bargain table because I was intrigued by the blurb on the back. It ended up being a great book, and ten years later, it was one of Oprah's book club books. It made me wonder how many incredilbe books get looked over because they aren't marketed properly.

  15. I'll take a chance on a book by an unknown author if I like the back cover copy and there's an endorsement-type quote from a name I recognize. If so-and-so likes it, then I'll give it a chance.

    I think it's easier with some genres to find out what readers expect and write toward that goal. However, I write women's fiction and I still haven't been able to put my finger on the "norm."

    For now, until I can sit down with editors and agents to ask, I'll keep writing my stories the way they come to me with the best craft possible.

  16. For the most part the back cover blurb is what will make me consider buying. Sure, title is interesting, but I want to know what I'm buying.

    The other day I picked up a hardcover book where the blurb was on the fly-leaf. It sounded good to start out with, but by the time I'd flipped to the back flyleaf to finish reading the blurb, I had lost interest. That's such a short time to get and hold someone's attention!

    Makes me do a lot of thinking about my own books, and reminds me that writing a great story is only the beginning. You really do have to write a great backcover blurb and a great tag line and a great ... whatever it takes to get the book into the readers' hands.

  17. Those factors you mentioned make me want to take a chance on a book. Primarily it being in a genre I love to read. Then I definitely go for a good blurb on the back (still have to look at that regardless of how beautiful the cover is) and I like to hear good things about it. If I hear a book being talked about over and over again throughout blogs or in interviews sometimes I'll take a chance in it.

    As far as my own writing, my biggest task at this point is writing my best and writing in the genre I love so that it's show in my writing. Then I think marketing will be my next best ally.

  18. You make a great distinction here!

    Factors that influence my book choices:

    #1 - A great TRUSTED review. WORD-of-MOUTH from someone whose mouth has proven reliability tops all else.

    The other factors have little influence, though a poor back-of-the-book blurb is a DISincentive.

    And actually high profile marketing can also work against it for me. Too much hype makes me question the content. What can I say? We are all jaded.

  19. Although today's post is stunning as usual, I am still waiting on the edge of my seat for your big news, Jody!!!! I have my fruity hat on, ready to throw it in the air for you, girl!

    I had never heard of the break in novel. Thanks for that tidbit.

    What attracts me to a book is a catchy title, word of mouth reccomendation by someone I trust, and content. I usually read a few paragraphs at different spots in the book to see if it's appealing and will keep my interest.

    In my WIP I try to write what hasn't been said before, or at least say it in a catchy, new way that will help my readers and minister to them and make them giggle.

  20. My name will not draw readers? *gasp* I'm shocked! LOL.

    So true. I think if I branded myself within an inch of my life, I'd still need a miracle of magnitude to reach any sort of publishing feat.

    Thank you for such an informative post. I read Maass' book and Rachel's article but until you decoded both was a bit overwhelmed, so BIG thanks Jody!

  21. One factor that influences my book purchasing is the underlying theme of the book as explained by the back cover or inside jacket flap. Not the plot, mind you, but the theme.


    From Nick Norby's novel How to Be Good: "The question [this book] confronts is -- how would a totally good person, a saint, get on in the modern world?"

    From J. Courtney Sullivan's debut novel, Commencement: "...explores with great candor the complicated and contradictory landscape facing young women [feminists] today."

    I hope that the underlying theme of my book (identity, sense of self) captivates my readers as much as it does me... and of course, I hope that I tell a good story along those thematic lines.

  22. Great post! There are a number of things that make me buy a book. I'm pretty open to new authors so if the book has a good hook, and interesting concept, I'm in. Covers help. As do recommendations from trusted sources.

  23. I will give just about any book a chance. After reading a three chapters I will continue, or not.
    I am trying to write my memoirs of our time living in the jungles of Venezuela with a primitive indian tribe. we also had many experiences with the Hugo Chavez regime, including being expelled from the country, wire tapping, military helicopters landing in my yard, and so on. However, it seems christian memoirs are a hard sale for agents.
    Any tips?

  24. The things you listed definitely attract me to books. Word of mouth is huge to me. I write YA, so if I hear a lot of teens are excited about something, I want to read it, too!

  25. This might sound bad, but really, it's the cover first.

    Okay, i do have favorite authors I gravitate towards, but many times I have nothing in mind and am just going to look for a good book.

    When I'm in a store, I glance over the covers. I am a romance novel junky, so a book that shouts "ROMANCE" in the cover, then the title, will get a serious consideration for me. (Side note: I bought a book once because both the cover and title screamed romance, and it was not. Highly irritating, I must say)

    SOMETIMES I'll skim the back cover, but so many times it gives too much away. So an endorsement by an author I know, especailly one that writes romance, will spur me on to buy it.

    Then, it's alla bout the story. If I loved it, I'll look for the author next time. If it was so so, I might not read another one for a while until I see another beautiful cover and awesome name. If I didn't like it at all, it would be hard pressed to get me to read one again (although I might take a chance on one if I find it for $0.50 at a garage sale or at the library for free...)

    :-) I'm not, like, opinionated or anything now:-)

  26. For me, it's always the story blurb. What I know about the story makes me want to read a book.

    A cover might make me pick one up...and turn it over to read the blurb. Marketing, an author endorsement, word of mouth, or a book review will make me consider a book and want to find out more, but are not enough for a purchase decision usually.

    I only like excerpts for authors that are new to me, because it gives me a chance to see whether I like that author's voice. If I'm familiar with the author, I don't read excerpts--because they ruin the reading experience for me--and the blurb alone will tell me if I'm interested in the book.

  27. So funny your comment about Amish fiction. Who would ever think it would be so popular? I am guilty of reading it for awhile.
    What attracts me most is the cover, endorsements from book clubs,etc. and the blurb about the plot.
    One of my favorite books, Peace Like A River had all three. The picture alone had me good.

  28. If one of my favorite authors recommends a book, I usually try it because they both write the same genre. Other than that, the title and cover usually grab me.

    I think we have to stay on top of the types of stories that are currently selling well in our genre. It really doesn't matter if it sold well three years ago!

  29. Oh my. The comments on this post are as meaty as the material. Like Karen, I write memoir, and I think most of the same principles apply to memoir as fiction: gorgeous cover, enthusiastic endorsements, beautiful blurb... But nothing beats word of mouth, and that includes word of fingers. Reviews are helpful, but if a book gets noticed in a blog -- priceless!

    Thanks for the stimulating discussion.

  30. I don't want the pressure of writing a break-out novel and then having to follow up with another break-out novel. I am in angst enough as it is that my ideas are original.

    In the end, it boils down to this for me: I have to write the story that I want to write. I hope I can always be able to do that, even if I have to bend a little here and there.

  31. When I read, I am sometimes drawn to a book by it's cover before I turn it over and read the back. That's usually how I decide if I want to read it or not.

    I have at least 2 WIP right now. The one I'm currently focusing on is something I feel would be more attractive to a larger range of readers. I write what comes to me and hope it will eventually be the bait that hooks a lot of fish. lol

  32. Hi Jody -

    Genre has a lot to do with my book choices although I've broadened my range since blogging. I love suspense from romantic to political.

    Also, if I know an author, I'm more likely to pick up their book. All of you are at the top of my list. :)


  33. Book awards! I've been working my way through the Book of the Year books and so far, very good! Back cover blurbs and great reviews do it for me too. :)

  34. Jody, I'm with Jeanette. I'm sooo eager to hear your news. Hopefully soon.

    What attracts me to a debut novel are the title, cover and back cover blurb, which are the same things I look in books written by published authors. What strikes me is that these factors are those for which the publisher has final say. However, what makes me buy an author's subsequent books is her/his storytelling ability.

    Since I've been disappointed by some books by "trusted" names, I've become more willing to give a new writer a chance. As a result, I've discovered some great new authors, including Marcia Gruver, Kaye Dacus and Tammy Barley.

  35. You always have such fantastic posts, thank you for that. :)

  36. I go for the cover, myself.

    I had the opportunity to attend a tension workshop by Donald Maass. I now open a possible read to any page and look for tension. If I see none, I know it won't hold my attention.

    Maass is incredibly good and I am working to incorporate many of his methods for building my novels. As to audience - I know who they are.

  37. Hi Jody,
    What makes me pick up a book is a recommendation from a friend, a great review or its a genre I generally like (my favorite is memoir).
    Good luck with all your exciting opportunities!

  38. It's all about the hook, to be honest. I love funny, upbeat romantic comedies and there aren't very many good ones, to be honest. So when I find an author I really like (Rachel Gibson) I tend to stick with her for a while. When I find one I don't like, I forget her name and accidentally end up reading her again later!

  39. A recommendation or good review will definitely help steer me towards an unknown author. I also use the library to try out books that I am uncertain of (and ones that I am certain of, as well, when I can't afford to buy).

  40. Jody,

    The topic of my WIP is fairly unique. To me, it's more the matter of how I'm telling it that will be the deciding factor of whether it makes it. It's one of those things that feels beyond me. I am the vessel only. So, I feel confident, but refuse to get ahead of myself. Until I have a contract in hand, it's day by day, step by step, one foot in front of the other. It sure has been an intriguing journey. I can't imagine not having tried. As for other works and what things keep me turning the pages, I have to admit I've been putting down books that don't hold my interest lately, more than usual, because my time is precious. So, it's got to be an intriguing, edifying read for me to stick it out. Oftentimes, informative, too, because I like a lot of non-fiction and consider myself a lifelong student. :)

  41. Inspirational Historical fiction, I'm hooked. I have no idea about writing a book, but blessed that you are stepping out and following God's leading. I'll be back to learn more.

    Blessings from Costa RIca,
    Sarah Dawn

  42. Sometimes it's difficult to write what's selling, especially if we've honed in on another genre. It can be difficult to change! Author's need to think business sometimes. But it's hard to break from where one feels they're better writers.

  43. I've struggled with this in the past. In fact I have 3 different versions started of the same basic story as I was trying to fit what was selling at the time. An author friend told me just write what you love and someday it will fit what is selling. But if you are wanting to jump into the market sooner you might have to just write the books that are wanted to get a foot in the door. For me I just have to write where my passion is and hope for the best:)

  44. Thanks for a thought-provoking post. Writing a break-in novel might not be any easier than writing a break-out one for many of us. I suspect successful novelists pour their hearts and efforts into a story that is meaningful to them without considering if it will sell well. I can write a publishable article on almost any topic but to focus a chunk of my life on writing a novel it has to be about something I feel is significant rather than just popular and/or sellable. The key might be to write well and write with passion, whatever the genre.

    When I'm picking a book to read I often select titles recommended by friends who know my interests. Lacking that, I look for a favourite author first, then a pleasing cover. After that the blurb has to capture me or I put it down again.


  45. I know I'm a year behind here, but couldn't the first book of a series be considered as a break-in novel? That way you build up readership for the next books.

    I'm particularly drawn to series because I want to read more. The books usually don't disappoint me, and after I finish a series, I look for a new one in the same genre. I'll admit that the cover weighs in heavily, but of course the subject at the back of the book has to be interesting as well. I do my browsing through Amazon, so what I choose basically has to do with how the book is connected to the other buys I buy from there.


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