The Publishing Life

How Do You Know It’s Something That Will Be Published?

A common question we agents get is “How to you know?” Or as Bob Hostetler put it, “When you know, how do you know?”

The answer is extremely subjective. And each agent, just like a consumer, will see an idea or read a book differently.

After thinking about this question, I believe it comes down to three things.

Instinct

For me it is an instinct that comes from reading voraciously for many years. After a while you start identifying the markers of which books were worth the time and which ones were not.

Instinct can be described as an innate impulse, something that cannot necessarily be taught but is something that can be learned.

Can I describe it? Not really. It is truly a gut feeling.

Am I right every time? How many LOLs would be too many to write? Ask any editor or agent about the “one they let get away.” But that’s part of the industry.

Once I sent a proposal I thought was marvelous to a variety of editors. One wrote back within an hour saying, “There is nothing new here. Pass.” An hour later a different editor from a different publisher wrote, “This fellow is the best writer I’ve read since Philip Yancey!” Guess which one contracted the book?

Experience

My experience, even that instinct, has been bred through many decades of working within the bookselling industry. Back in my bookstore days, it was that feeling when I held a new release in my hands and the title, cover, and description all shouted, “Bestseller.” The Beginner’s Bible was one. I was the national buyer for the chain at the time. I had only ordered a few copies for each store initially. But when I saw it? Wow! I immediately ordered hundreds of copies for the chain, enough to build a small endcap stack in each store. It quickly became the #1 bestselling children’s book in the industry.

After a while you begin to know, from experience, which topics, genres, titles, etc., have that special “snap” to them. The feeling, nay, the knowing, that this is the one.

Today that “feeling” happens at the proposal stage. It happens with clients all the time since they, too, have the experience and the instinct of what works, which is why they are published regularly. It also happens with the occasional unsolicited proposal.

In fiction it is a combination of brilliant writing (the kind where I don’t realize I’m reading anymore but am inside that world painted by the words of the author). This is a high threshold for the debut author. If the author is already established and coming to me for new or first-time representation, their sales history and network comes into the discussion.

In nonfiction I react like a consumer:
Does the title grab me? It’s that quick. Is the topic a salable one?
Does the author bring something special to the table?
At the same time, I’m thinking of our publishing partners, which ones would find this of interest?
Which marketing team and editorial team could get behind the project?

If all those cylinders are firing at once, then my interest is piqued.

I also look at whether this author is a one-book wonder (nothing wrong with that!) or if there is potential here for a long and successful career.

Blind Luck (or Providence, depending on your theology)

I don’t mean to be cavalier about God’s providence. I hope you understand the point. Sometimes a book is successful without people having anything to do with it.

There are cases inside our agency where I thought a proposal from another agent’s client was unlikely to find a home, only to be proven wrong by a tremendous new contract for that author’s project.

Or there have been times where I thought something might have a modest response in the market only to end up selling over 200,000 copies in less than a year.

Think of some of our industry’s bestselling books. Left Behind was thought to be an okay idea, but no one predicted 70 million in sales. The Shack was rejected by everyone, so was initially self-published. Who could have predicted that Jesus Calling would still be on the bestseller list over 10 years since it was released?

For that matter, did you buy Microsoft stock when it was trading for less than $20 a share in 2009?

This is an old saying: “Even a blind squirrel will find a nut once in a while.” I’m not sure whether I’m the squirrel or the nut. I’ll let you decide.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is to be right more often than not. And our agency’s longevity and successful authors have been humbling to watch. (That’s where God’s providence and provision are on display.)

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The Industry Changes but Seems Unchanged

I recently came across an article I had saved from 2004 predicting “Book Trends 2005” by Sally E. Stuart in an issue of Advanced Christian Writer newsletter. Reading through the article makes one realize how different things are but also how much they are still the same! Isn’t that a …

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Silly Saturday – February 29, 2020

Happy Leap Day! Since this is an “extra” day I thought I’d provide a couple bits of trivia for you. Did you know? … When you open a physical book you have two pages. The left and the right. Those pages actually have names! verso and recto. Verso is the …

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A Year in Review: A Look at 2019

It’s that time of year to reflect on the past year, to learn from our experiences, and to count our blessings. Here are some thoughts on the last tumultuous twelve months. The Industry The publishing industry seems to survive the bad press that loves to find the negative in everything. …

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Never Burn a Bridge!

The sale of Thomas Nelson to HarperCollins and last week’s sale of Heartsong to Harlequin brought to mind a critical piece of advice:

Never Burn a Bridge!

Ours is a small industry and both editors and authors move around with regularity. If you are in a business relationship and let your frustration boil into anger and ignite into rage…and let that go at someone in the publishing company, you may end up burning the bridge. And that person who you vented on might someday become the head of an entire publishing company.

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Book Manufacturing

If you ever get the chance to visit a printing press, do it. I’ve had the privilege to visit two of them. The first was Standard Publishing’s printing press in Cincinnati. Their plant is quite large and they do a wide variety of printing, everything from books to curriculum to Star Wars coloring books.

The other plant was Bethany Press International in Bloomington, MN. During my years with Bethany House Publishers I visited this plant many times since their building is about 100 yards from the back door of the publishing house! I watched them move from the old “film” method of processing to a completely digital technology.

The beauty of watching the books being printed is partly the fascination of cool machines, but also an insight into all of the incredible details that go into the manufacturing process.

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Four Questions About Publicity

by Steve Laube

Publicity is the art of telling the world about you and your book. We recently received a few questions about publicity via the green button you see in the right hand column of our blog (yes, it really works).

1.) When should a writer hire a publicist?
I think an author should wait to see what their publisher will provide in this area. If you do hire a publicist make sure they coordinate with your publisher so as to not duplicate efforts. (Don’t aggravate your local TV station with multiple PR contacts.)

But the question was “when” not “should.” So let me re-answer.

If you are on your own with regard to your PR, you should hire that firm six to nine months prior to the release date of your book. The PR firm will be handicapped if you wait too long. They need lead time especially in the area of getting reviews for your book. Few review outlets are interested in a book after it has already been released.

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Books Are Still Selling

Despite the desire of many to declare the death of the book, they continue to sell at a breathtaking pace. (New Yorker magazine “Twilight of the Books”  and BBC future – “Are paper books really disappearing?”) According to the “Association of American Publishers’ StatShot Annual Report for Calendar Year 2018,” …

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What Are Average Book Sales?

by Steve Laube


We recently received the following question:

“What does the average book sell today? An industry veteran at a writers conference recently said 5,000. What??? I know it all depends….but … nowhere near 5K, right?”

My simple answer?

It’s complicated.
It depends.

HAH!

Average is a difficult thing to define. And each house defines success differently. If a novel sells 5,000 copies at one publisher they celebrate and have steak dinners. If a novel sells 5,000 copies at another publisher you find staff members fearing for their jobs and in total despair.

Let me give you some real numbers but not revealing the author name (and there is a wide variety of publishers represented):

Author 1: novelist – 3 books – avg. sale = 8,300

Author 2: novelist – 12 books – avg. sale = 19,756

Author 3: novelist – 3 books – avg. sale = 7,000

Author 4: novelist – 7 books – avg. sale = 5,300 (Two different publishers)

Author 5: non-fiction devotional – 5 books – avg. sale 10,900

Author 6: non-fiction – 2 books – avg. sale = 5,300

Author 7: novelist – 4 books – avg. sale = 29,400

Author 8: non-fiction – 3 books – avg. sale = 18,900

Author 9: fiction – 7 books – avg. sale = 12,900

Author 10: non-fiction – 5 books – avg. sale = 6,800 (three different publishers)

So you can see it DOES depend. Depends on the author and publisher and topic or genre.

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How Long Does It Take to Get Published?

How much time does it take to get published?

I came to the publishing business from the retail side of the equation. The biggest adjustment was understanding how long the process takes. In retail there is instantaneous gratification. But book publishing is a process business.

There is no question the timeline varies from person to person and project to project. In the world of major publishers the diversity can be quite extreme.

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