Every author, either self or traditionally published would like to write a book that sells today, but also tomorrow, next week and next year.
Book publishing in all of it’s forms is the art of trying to predict what readers will want to buy in the future.
I use the term “art” to describe publishing because no one who has been involved in book publishing for more than two weeks thinks it is 100% science, governed by entirely predictable patterns, easy to discern trends and simple to figure out n general. Just like other artistic ventures, predicting the tastes of the consumer is somewhere between difficult and impossible.
All the sales data and research looking deep into book publishing trends give us a clear picture what happened last year, last quarter, last month, yesterday or a few hours ago, but is no guarantee what will happen this afternoon or any point in the future.
There are very smart people working at very good publishers who know a lot about what used to sell, but have no better idea about what will sell than anyone else.
About ten years ago, I recall sitting in on a conference call and hearing that someone was developing a computer program that would predict the success or failure of new books. If I remember correctly, it was one of the few times in my life I was struck speechless. (At least before I hit the “mute” button on the phone and burst into laughter)
Every bestseller list is simply a historical record, but not a guarantee of future performance. It might give an idea what might happen, but in all forms of art, the predictability of success of a movie, a song, or a book is slippery at best.
The smartest people in all publishing do not have a 100% accurate picture of what readers will be reading two years from now. The best and brightest might be right 50% of the time. Publishing is a risk-based business.
So, along comes an author with an entirely new idea that is different than anything ever written before. Should they be surprised with the hesitancy on the part of agents or publishers to take on their project?
If you had a book that was like something else that sold well, then a publisher might take a risk.
In book publishing, a new market or an entirely new concept is not always viewed as a positive thing. To a publisher, it means increased risk. To an agent, it means the high probability of failure to sell it.
An example of how this plays out in a practical way for publishers is when a major book-selling channel requires a publisher to submit a “comp title” (comparable title) analysis along with their information for every new book they are trying to get the retailer to buy. That way, the wholesale buyer can look up how many copies they purchased in the past, the pattern of sales they experienced and give them an idea how (or if) to buy the “new” title. A completely new book, with no comparable title, is viewed as too risky.
That’s why our agency, and most others who work with publishing want to include a competitive section in proposals.
We all like new things, but we like new things that are like the old things. Basically, the familiar presented in a new way.
If you construct a new theology from the Bible? You are on your own for that one.
All this can be rather discouraging to creative people who desire to create something entirely new. To write something that has never been written before or an idea no one has ever had.
Unfortunately, the more “new” your writing might be, the less chance it will be published, simply because there is no point of reference for anyone to compare.
I think this is one reason that the most difficult category of all is poetry. Poetry by its very nature is a creative mix of words and phrases that no one else has put together. It is pure creative. And avoided like the plague by most publishers (and agents).
But here’s the rub…it is the truly ground-breaking books that move the publishing world forward. This proves the “art” foundation of publishing. A scientific approach says “do more of what works”. Art says, “let’s try something new”. That tension lives inside publishing companies every day. The best publishers balance art and science.
Authors can feel trapped in the twilight zone between art and science, knowing that they need to create something that feeds the science, but desiring to be artists. Fighting that tension makes for unpleasant experiences. Embracing that tension is what allows anyone to work in publishing successfully for the long term.