The Making of a Phenomenon
Every few years a phenomenal work of film or literature comes along to the great applause of consumers. There are two such works in the publishing world today: The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer, and The Shack by William Paul Young.
The Shack has sold nearly 4 million books since its release last year, while the Twilight series was the biggest bestseller of '08, selling 40 million books worldwide. The four books of the series held the top four spots on the '08 USA Today year-end bestseller list, the first time a single author has accomplished such a feat. Editor Megan Tingley said as she read Meyer's manuscript she knew she "...had a future best-seller in her hands." Meyer was given a $750,000 advance for her debut novel, and I'm willing to bet a lot of money went into the marketing and promotions of Twilight.
Theology aside in both cases, neither Twilight nor The Shack are particularly well-written books. The Shack, a self-published, self-promoted book, would clearly benefit from the help of a good editor. Twilight received mixed reviews for its literary quality. "Natalie Pompillo of the Philadelphia Inquirer said Meyer "loves adverbs, adjectives and any word that can stretch out a sentence." This in stark contrast to Mark Twain who said, "If you catch an adjective, kill it."
And yet, The Shack is such a phenomenon that Patrick O'Hannigan has written a book called The Shack Phenomenon! What makes books of less than stellar quality soar to such heights? If it's clearly not the quality, it must be that STORY trumps CRAFT. And, mostly, I get that. I can stay with a not-so-perfectly-written novel if the story grabs me, easier than I can stay with a novel that uses the English language superbly but doesn't engage STORY to its fullest effect.
But how does such phenomenal popularity happen in the first place? The Twilight series has a huge online fan community that has greatly contributed to its cult-like popularity and success. The Shack began to spread by word of mouth, and then by its controversy. The Internet has certainly changed the way we get the word out, but can any good story generate the buzz necessary to come even close to these staggering heights? If so, how does it get started?
Finally, I wonder, are one or either of these hugely successful books destined to find a place among best-loved literature for years to come? Or are they a comet of success -- blazing hot one moment, then gone? I'd love to hear your opinion.