There are always success stories in publishing—but then again, someone eventually wins the lottery jackpot, too. What bugs most wannabe writers is the arbitrary nature of it all. Why does one writer succeed and the other languish in obscurity? What nags at novelists is that they suspect that success is not always just about great writing.
Great writing, of course, is hopefully in the mix. But, after that, what else tips the scales?
Take the example you cite. Lisa See’s Sunflower and the Secret Fan is not a case of first-time-out success. See already has published a memoir about her biracial identity and three thrillers set in China. They all did quite well (her first novel was nominated for an Edgar) but none of them got quite the buzz that Sunflower is getting. This is all the more surprising when you consider that See’s earlier works all belonged to what is usually considered more popular genres, while her latest novel is a work of literary fiction, usually a much harder sell.
So what went so right this time? The book’s wildly original content—the story of two Chinese women friends who communicate using a secret language (nu shu) that actually existed in nineteeenth-century China—helped. But the key ingredient for success seems to have been finding someone within the publishing house who fell in love with that story. A champion. In this book’s case, it sounds like it found several.
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