Originality Sells

Many would-be writers attempt to copy a winning formula. Some get away with it with it, but everyone involved from their publisher to their readers and even themselves know they are following rather than leading. There’s an old publishing saying: Originality Sells.

They also miss the point. To write a blockbuster, a true bestseller, it helps to be original. Though maybe not totally original.

harry_potter_philosophersBefore Joanne Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, there was no tradition of books about schoolboy wizards. If there had been, her efforts would almost certainly have been lost in the crowd.

J.K. Rowling didn’t invent stories about wizards and she didn’t invent stories set in public schools, as we call “private” fee-paying schools in the UK. What she did was to combine the two into a situation that offered a wealth of dramatic possibilities. The result was a series of fantastically successful stories about a schoolboy wizard called Harry Potter and his friends.

Needless to say, there have been dozens and dozen of books published since then trying to emulate J.K. Rowling’s success, but very few, if any, of them have made their authors millionaires.

Dan Brown didn’t so much invent the genre of “code mysteries” as resurrect it and give it new life. Back in 2003, the thriller genre was in decline. Stale novels containing serial characters who had run out of plots and the demise of the Soviet Union combined to deflate the genre. The Da Vinci Code¬†woke everyone up with its great story, full of original aspects.

As a reviewer, I’ve lost track of the dozens of copycat novels that have plopped onto my mat since then. One even managed to top the New York Times bestseller lists. But the bottom line is that none of these clones made the impact or gave their authors the money that Dan Brown has earned from his original idea.

To make it really big, you’ve got to be original first.

Having said that, plenty of authors have used successful novels to guide them into giving readers what they know they want. For example, it’s OK to look at books that are already selling and see how they are constructed and built. This isn’t what they teach at Creative Writing class, but it’s a formula that works.

For instance, there may be a reason why novels in which Aliens solve murder cases have not troubled the bestseller lists. Or it may be that no one has thought of writing it.

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