When Does a Book Become the Next Big Thing?

by James Scott Bell

A few weeks ago I got a text from my daughter. It read: “How often do you think about the Roman Empire?”

A somewhat random question, it seemed, but in my wheelhouse. I texted back: “All the time!” Because I do. Signs of decline and fall abound, and I am mindful of two intractable lessons of history:

  1. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
  2. People do not learn from history (indeed, increasingly they do not even know history).

Anticipating a substantive exchange on current events, I was surprised when my daughter texted back a smiling emoji. What, I wondered, was there to smile about?

A few minutes later she called me and laughingly explained this was a social media “thing.” Women were asking men how often they thought about the Roman Empire.

The hilarity of which escapes me.

But the trend was real. In a couple of weeks the hashtag #romanempire had 1.3 billion views on TikTok (which, far from creating in me peals of laughter, fills me with existential dread).

It prompted (not begged, please) a question: How does something as trivial as this become a “thing”?

A short time later I was talking to my daughter on the phone, when she said, “Isn’t it interesting how Taylor Swift has made Travis Kelce famous?” I immediately rejoined, “Honey, Travis Kelce has been one of the best players in football for years!”

She started laughing. Then explained this was another “thing,” women making that statement to men and watching them defend Travis Kelce.

Again, this is funny? (Okay, Boomer). But I love making my daughter laugh, so at least there was that.

Again I ask: why does something like this become a “thing”? Especially with millions of digital jockeys out there trying to create “things”?

Closer to home, we may well ask, why does one book take off to the stratosphere, and another (perhaps even better written in several ways) does not?

Why, with all the fan fiction out there, did Fifty Shades of Grey become the best-selling novel of the last decade (15.2 million print copies)?

Why, with all the fantasy fiction, does one story about a boy wizard follow this trajectory:

  • J. K. Rowling, living on government relief, writes Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. She gets a $4,000 advance.
  • 500 copies were published in hardcover.
  • 200 were sold, and 300 went to libraries.
  • Scholastic buys the U.S. rights, changes the title from Philosopher’s Stone to Sorcerer’s Stone, and releases it in October, 1998.
  • In December it hit the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for 82 consecutive weeks.
  • Worldwide, the print copies of the series are north of 500 million.
  • As of 2021, JK Rowling’s estimated net worth is around $1 billion

Here’s a quiz for you:

At 68, he may no longer be publishing’s fresh young hotshot; his books sell a fraction of the copies that they used to, and it’s been 19 years since he had a feature film made. Yet every fall, like clockwork, [he] publishes a new [book], and every fall it shoots to the top of the bestseller list…[He] has released 48 consecutive New York Times No. 1 bestsellers, a feat no other writer has matched.

Who is he? Answer below.* But more to the point: why him and not another prolific writer?

Timing? Luck? Zeus?

Of course, no one knows the answer.

In the big antitrust case to prevent Penguin Random House from acquiring Simon & Schuster, PRH CEO Markus Dohle testified that publishers are like “angel investors” that “invest every year in thousands of ideas and dreams, and only a few make it to the top.” When a book is a breakout, it allows the company to take risks in acquiring new books and “betting” on new titles.

In other words, publishing is like shooting craps. I’m not a Vegas guy or a gambler—except nickel backgammon—but I had occasion to be in Vegas twice over the past few years.

I shot craps the first time and came away with $250.

The second time I lost $150, and quit.

But each time I rolled those bones, I did it with hope and a flicker of excitement.

That’s us putting out a new book.

Your job, then, is to keep on writing the best book you can before tossing it online (or to a publisher). While the odds are always long against becoming the “next big thing,” they are considerably better for an improving and producing writer coming away from the table with more chips than they started with.

Writing salable books is work, yes. But make part of it a game, bet on yourself, enjoy the excitement, keep writing.

How do you feel whenever you release a new book? Like a gambler? A naif? 

Are you hopeful, excited, nervous, full of dread…or some combination of all?

*Quiz answer: John Grisham.

46 thoughts on “When Does a Book Become the Next Big Thing?

  1. Sigh. This is the question every author wants answered definitively, right?
    It doesn’t even always have anything to do with quality (looking at you, 50 Shades).
    I’d be happy to find the answer, not only for my books, but to bottle and sell it to others.
    That would make a lot more $$ than books.

  2. I do occasionally wonder what makes a big breakout hit but then I just shrug and go along my way. Many things mystify me in life–things like the endless fascination with the British royal family past and present, or why football is so popular. I don’t know why but they both grab and keep the attention of bazillions of people.

    And I have wondered if I did have a run-away best seller, would it tempt me to change who I am as a writer, would it tempt me to change my direction and chase trends? I doubt anyone really knows until they find themselves in that situation.

    I haven’t published–yet–but when I do I will no doubt mostly be nervous and excited. Whether your audience is small or large, you want to find readers who resonate with your work–who find value in it, whether the elemental entertainment of it, or life takeaways/lessons they draw from it. No matter how small or large my niche market, that’s what makes publishing worthwhile.

  3. Jim, you didn’t ask but this woman thinks about the fall of the Roman Empire whenever I read/watch current events. .

    What do I feel like when I release a book? Your child graduates and steps out into the world, no longer under your protection, standing on their own. You feel hopeful but always worried. Did you do your best to prepare them? Did you forget an important aspect that may cause them to fail? Will they stand up to the onslaught of real life?

    Then I go back to work and worry about raising the next child.

  4. As I hit “publish” on my thirty-somethingth work, I confess it wasn’t as exciting as the first few. I don’t expect the results of this one to be ‘the next big thing’ or any kind of thing, but it’s mine. Like Debbie said, it’s releasing the child into the world, knowing I’ve done my best to raise it right.

    • You know, if you had 30 books out there in the “old world” you would have been considered one of the most prolific and successful authors of the day. Kind of nice to realize that.

  5. 19 years without a movie! JG the Partner & Camino Island are perfect to be movies!

    Now that you mention it I do think about the Roman Empire and WW2 alot. Agree that people should learn more about history in order not to repeat it.

    That is one of the joys of writing & reading fiction is the little tidbits that lead a writer to want to know more.

    Very good article. Thanks.

    • Warren, you’re right about the joy of learning something in fiction. Someone (maybe King) said readers love to read about the details of work with which they’re not familiar. As long as it’s presented dramatically.

  6. When I submit a new story, and when it’s published, I feel hopeful, excited, nervous, full of dread — all the above. And no matter how my work is received, I can’t wait to start writing the next one.

  7. Great question, Jim. When I finish a book, I am more relieved than excited, glad that the process has been accomplished, dreading the marketing, and more than anything, eager to start the next book.

    On the subject of a book becoming “the next big thing,” Dean Koontz, in his book, How to Write Best Selling Fiction, devoted several chapters to the subject of writing the “Great American Novel.” The book is hard to find, and expensive, but worth borrowing it from a library for an interesting take on the subject. I learned about this book when you mentioned that you reread it regularly.

    I hope you can find a topic on a Roman writer, create a question for your daughter, and start the “next great discussion.”

  8. Very inspiring message this week. I also didn’t know about the social media Roman Empire thing. Although, I think about Rome all the time – not 100% sure why? However, I’m amazed that something so huge in its day could have collapsed. For me, I wonder if Rome persisted as an empire, where would humanity be today without the Dark Ages? That question helps my brain consider ‘what if’ scenarios—my own mental story conditioning.

  9. I do think of the Roman Empire on a regular basis. Not only was it a titan for centuries, its influences are still with us, in language for instance. I also think of the First World War often and how that shattered the old order and upended nearly everything. I’m currently reading The World Undone an excellent history of the war.

    Luck indeed factors heavily into how well a new book does. We can do our best writing and revising it, getting feedback on it, having it copy edited and proofed, well formatted with an excellent cover, but beyond that, it’s reception by readers is out of our hands. This is especially when I lean into my Stoic training to focus on what I can control, the next book, and making that book even better than the last one.

    Thanks for another inspiring post.

  10. Like a naif, Jim. (Full disclosure, I had to look it up. 🙁 ) Also, hopeful and full of dread at the same time.

    Lots of stuff to glom-I’ve always loved that word-onto here. Especially thinking about the Roman Empire. Funny you should mention it.

    I am presently playing with a character, a young Jewish girl named Talia, who is in Rome when it’s sacked-some say by Nero, others say not.

    She has a lot to say about drawing a line in the sand and standing firm.

      • As for football, I like it, up to and excluding painting any part of my body.

        And…I also forgot to mention that I’m a bred-in-the-bone football aficionado. The NFL hierarchy notwithstanding, I do not think of it as a “man-thing”, it’s just a sport; and a great one at that.

        Excluding body-painting. 🙂

  11. Empires rise and fall. Trends come and go. But good fiction lives forever! (At least that’s what I hope. 🙂 )

    For me, publishing a book is an exercise in emotional calisthenics. Joy over completion of a major project. Fear that it won’t be received well. Relief that it’s done, and I can turn my attention to the next one. Eager anticipation of the reviews.

    Btw, I was scrolling through the digital audiobooks on The Modern Scholar site recently. I passed over “A History of Ancient Rome” and went for “A History of the English Language.”

  12. I’ll explain the Roman Empire thing. Simply put, Rome is the symbol of masculinity, and so is football these days. It’s funny because it proves the point that men always think of the same few things.

    There was another piece to the social media thing. What is YOUR roman empire? Meaning, what do you think of every day? For me, it’s food and my current WIP.

    • …men always think of the same few things.

      You evidently have not made the acquaintance of mine… 🙂

      I’m constantly surprised at what he thinks about. But then, I’m also constantly surprised at what he doesn’t think about… 🙂 🙂

  13. To have a 50 Shades level success, you must sell a lot of books to non-readers. A lot of people don’t generally like reading but do want to be part of the conversation and see what all the fuss is about. This was pretty easy to see also with Twilight, Hunger Games, and most Colleen Hoover books. Otherwise, there isn’t a massive audience for most books.

    The good news is—thanks to indie—you can make some pretty good scratch with a small but reliable audience.

  14. I’ve wondered the same many times, Jim. Guess we’ll never know.

    I don’t shoot to become the “next big thing.” I write to entertain, to touch lives, to make a difference, even if it’s only a small ripple in a vast ocean. If one of my books shot to the top, I’d enjoy the ride, but I’ll keep going regardless.

    We may be too old to grasp TikTok trends, which is also fine with me. LOL

    • If there’s any “key” to this whole thing, Sue, it’s what you said: Writing to entertain and touch lives and make a difference. And not being afraid to go places you haven’t been before.

  15. Agent Donald Maass has written a book on how to write a bestseller. Its advice may be a bit dated, but it’s an interesting read. The Roman Empire meme started because several historical pundits talked about how the US’ population is currently following the same trends as the Roman population before the Empire collapsed. As the Internet does, this serious discussion evolved into nonsense and memes.

    As someone with enough college credits to have an ancient civilizations minor, I, too, often think of the Roman Empire without the discussion or the correct gender.

    • There’s a lot more empires, and a lot more than empire, you can think about when considering history.

      When you shut your eyes and think of China, or the Ottomans, or the Inca, the first image isn’t usually a platoon of spear wielding men claiming they have the right to take your land.

      I will agree that America is very Roman, all the while preaching the individual heroism of Greek legends.

  16. Much of my corporate working life was spent in commercial development, taking R&D lab results and trying to build a bridge over the chasm to potential $$$ on the other side. Of the many opportunities coming out of the labs, I would select a promising one to carry forward through pilot development. There were several other employees in my department doing the same thing. Typically, only 1 in 8 projects was a great success. Four were failures, two broke even, one a minor success and one mega success making enough to pay for everything else and still deliver a large profit.

    I can identify with your comment, “publishers are like ‘angel investors’ that ‘invest every year in thousands of ideas and dreams, and only a few make it to the top.’ When a book is a breakout, it allows the company to take risks in acquiring new books and ‘betting’ on new titles.”

    At publishing I try to see my manuscript as an experimental airplane. I’ve tightened all the screws, calculated all the flight parameters and to the best of my judgement it is air worthy. Time to see if it will gain enough speed down the runway to lift off and clear the tree line.

    Fortunately at this point in my life, a roof over my head and food on the table are not at risk.

  17. When you identify an underserved niche, have been working for a quarter of a century to fill it, and know you have the perfect books for it.

    Then you hope like crazy that you will finish the niche-filler before someone else does, and that you will find THE way to bring it to readers’ attention.

    Because these books take TIME to create. LOTS of time. (Ask Tolkien)

    Scary: when some other books look as if they have claimed that niche – and then waste it. Because they are NOT good enough. And show it by how they fail to grasp and hold it.

    • I had a killer book idea back in my trad years, under contract…when a book with the exact same premise came out! Ack! Talk about getting the air knocked out of you. At least as an indie I can be fast to market.

      • FAST is the one thing I cannot be: I’m ghastly slow. My only weapon is stealth.

        But even if a book has the exact same premise as another, the books are not necessarily competitors – who writes a book matters, and how long they took to get it where they needed it.

        Execution matters (no, not the other author). Your book can’t have the same content as someone else’s unless you’re both explaining assembly language for a particular computer chip, and even then each of the authors has a style.

        Marketing doesn’t even guarantee that if you’re first to market you will have the most sales – second to market could have a much better plan to dazzle readers.

        How did that book with the same premise do?

  18. From the interviews I’ve watched John Grisham do, I think he’s as amazed at his success as we are. He’s often said there was a lot of luck involved.

    I hope you’re hard at work on your next Romeo book!

  19. I saw that Roman Empire meme and thought it was odd, because I recently got into reading Rosemary Sutcliff. She has a ton of books set in and around Rome as well as other historical time periods. I wanted to know more about Rome and how it worked and how it fell. Rotted from within, basically. And it lost territory and lost territory over hundreds of years. Wikipedia has an animated map where you can see its territory expand and then contract. (If you want some great reads, though, pick up The Eagle of the Ninth and the sequel, the Silver Branch!)

    As for breakouts, I’ve been genre-hopping in my reading, always hunting for that elusive Perfect Read. I got put on the scent of an indie fantasy series called Elven Alliance, which wound up being exactly the cozy fantasy with action adventure I wanted. Apparently this series has done very well for this author. And you can tell it’s a passion project, because the first three books are obviously a trilogy … and then there’s six more books. Whoops. And readers are begging the author for more. I don’t know if she’ll ever break out and become the next Harry Potter, but in her niche, she’s doing very well, thank you. I am also doomed to read all the books, I think. They’re that good.

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