Publishing: What makes a Blockbuster?

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What turns a book into a blockbuster? 

The chances for a blockbuster are remote, more like Nassim Taleb's "black swan", swooping in unannounced out of a clear blue sky. 

Yet, history overtime and recent history as well, is filled with striking examples. Take a look at the classics: Shakespeare and Dante, as a friend of mine recently reminded me, were best sellers in their days. People flocked to Shakespeare's play, drawing Queen Elizabeth I 's attention. Bocaccio read on street corners Dante's poems that were in vernacular Italian and not Latin: an absolute novelty at the time. Both Dickens and Balzac were first read in installments in cheap papers. 

Closer to us, Rowling's Harry Potter took the planet by surprise - and to think that the ms was turned down by all major publishers and was eventually published by a small press. Ditto for Stieg Larsson's trilogy. Who would have bet on a Swedish noir filled with political and social considerations? Nobody: too exotic, too narrow, too highbrow, too weird. Yet it was a world-wide success. Same with Brown's Da Vinci Code: twenty years ago, it would have been considered a highly dangerous ms dragging the Vatican in mud. Or consider the extaordinary case of Twilight: vampires and romance for young adults were considered a no-no until Stephanie Meyers' ms turned into a blockbuster, proving everybody wrong on that one.

So what's the next Harry Potter or Da Vinci Code?

Or, if you prefer, what makes a blockbuster what it is? We all know a blockbuster is essentially a "good story". But what makes a story good? The $64,000 question! A question every agent and publisher would love to have answered.  The publishing industry loves to classify books by "genres" - it's historical, you know: it began with blockbusters in a particular kind of story, thus laying the basis for "genre" classification. For example, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte for Romance, Agatha Christie for murder mysteries, Tolkien for Historical Fantasy, Azimov for Science Fiction etc.   I tried to take a poll asking readers whether they read exclusively in a given genre or moved about. Check the poll on my blog: you'll see it's up on the right-hand-side corner...Unfortunately, so far too few people took it for me to put it to scientific use! But please vote if you have a minute, and I'll use the results in a later post. It is already beginning to show something that makes some sense: it would seem that a minority of people (about a third) read exclusively in a given genre. Most people like to change genre or flit about. I certainly do.

So I'm going to try to come up with an answer without the help of the poll. First, let's get a few concepts out of the way. We all know that "genre" is basically a marketing instrument. Your book "fits" into a genre, it responds to certain prerequisites. And they can be very restrictive in terms of length (number of words), pace, story and character "arc": for example, you can't have a "romance" that doesn't have a female POV and a satisfying "she" and "he" embrace at the end. Every genre has its characteristic features like a cooking recipe, and if your book departs from them, woe on you, your book shall fail, the way a watercress soup made with sugar would.

Once a book "fits" a genre, everybody is reassured: it has a given, known "market" - i.e. based on past selling history of similar books, it will sell so many copies in such and such area/audience etc. Gives publishers a feeling of security. And, icing on the cake, it simplifies everybody's life: bookstores know where to shelve the book and Amazon where to stick it in its ebooks classification system. The genre defines the audience the book is aimed at, and therefore it becomes a lot easier to promote in the "right" places...

If this was all "genres" were about - a help in marketing - it might be okay. But the concept is often carried too far, and "crossover genres" or books that don't fit anywhere will often end up in the so-called "literary" genre, considered unanimously to be a difficult market with next-to-no sales (except for the occasional "black swan"). Or more simply it will be thrown straight into the thrash bin. A pity, because, as must be obvious to any rational human being, pushing everything into the thrash bin because it doesn't fit into a pre-conceived category, means that the publishing industry is at risk of freezing up. And by-passing some real gems.

Why have we gotten to this point? Partly because the publishing industry is so big nowadays and so many millions of new titles are published every year that there is an obvious need to approach the situation with a minimum of rational categories. To try to make sense of it all and push off stuff that causes confusion. Nobody likes a mess. 

But, and now I'm getting to my point, it would almost seem like people in the publishing industry are convinced that readers are tied to a given genre and don't move on, nor try anything different. My question is: are they really?  Considering how nothing bores people more than monotony - the same soup served over and over again - this is really surprising and flies counter to everything we know about human psychology. People want change! They crave for something new, different, innovative.

Come to think of it: that's precisely the quality of every blockbuster. They've broken new ground, they've served up a watercress soup with...yes, with sugar, why not? That would be different, right? Back in the late 1950s - early 1960s, I remember the sudden success of the "Nouvelle Vague" in French fiction : these were novels without any plot at all. They rejected reliance on past forms of the novel, feeling that readers had been subjected to a dictatorial plot-line and that had to change. So the writing just went on and on, meandering Proust-like, for 300 pages and more of slow-moving description of living though, say, a dinner party. The exact reverse of pace and suspense. Yet, for a while, those books sold like hot cakes, and they had a lasting effect on the cinema, with notable results in the hands of Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer and Chabrol.

So, what do you think is the true nature of a blockbuster? And how should the publishing industry equip itself to look for them?

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