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.
Great post, Dan. You say, “a new market or an entirely new concept is not always viewed as a positive thing.” This is one reason some authors have elected to go the self-publishing route. Lest there be any doubt, I haven’t joined that group.Thanks for sharing.
Wow! What a slippery slope this writing, publishing and marketing business is. It is a wonder the world has any kind of success.
It’s a good thing you are an agency covered in prayer.
Dan, I prayer you, your agency and all your clients are blessed. I pray He will show you great and unsearchable things you do not know (Jeremiah 33:3), but most of all I pray that what is written, published and marketed reaches the hearts and minds of readers with an eternal impact unchangeable and true.
Let us write what is covered in truth and timeless in value. The world may have their success, but you will have your reward in heaven just you wait and see.
As discouraging as this post might feel to a writer, it actually strengthens my back-bone. If I know my ‘new idea’ is risky for a publisher, perhaps I won’t take rejection as personally as I might if I thought my book was in line with the current trend.
Since God has me working on something way outside the box, I’m going to keep this in mind, hunker down, and stay focused. Thanks Dan!
Malcolm Gladwell touches on a similar theme in David & Goliath. He describes the struggle faced by impressionist painters in France who were kept from showing their work in established galleries. The established art world did not accept work that was different.
The challenge with relying on proven success as a standard is the intellectual stagnation that occurs when the same voices are heard over and over again.
This is why there will always be value in upstarts, misfits and those who refuse to play by the rules. Gladwell presents a good argument for backing the apparent underdog in most situations. The strength of the so-called Goliaths can very well be what brings them down.
Good thoughts Jim. I think the David Ogilvy quote about advertising applies to publishing. “”Half of my advertising is wasted, and the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”
Heather Day Gilbert
I actually love being an outside-the-box author, but that’s why I’m thankful God brought me to the indie publishing route. After years of knocking on CBA publishers’ doors, being told Vikings were “not marketable,” I was able to indie publish my book that I knew there were readers for, thus hitting that niche market square on. I was the one assuming the risks of being “different,” and for me, it worked.
I still write books that don’t quite fit in the CBA, but I think part of being an author is getting to the point where we are honest with ourselves. I looked around, realized I’m not writing romance or something that looks like what others are writing, and took the chance to find my readers. I know it’s not the same route for everyone, but I knew I didn’t want to write something SIMPLY to fit the marketable “box” and get in those big CBA publisher doors.
Again, it’s different for everyone, but I’m thankful for this day and age where authors can get those non-“trendy” books out and take risks. Sometimes, you don’t have to settle and do what everyone else is doing or what has been done before. Sometimes you just be yourself and write your passion, and readers will come.
I’ve been told that my writing style strongly resembles that of a certain English writer of the mid-twentieth century. In her lifetime this writer’s sales were respectable but not stellar. However, her following has grown over the years (even though she’s been gone a long time), and today there are legions of fiercely loyal fans gathering on Facebook and elsewhere to talk about her books. These are the sort of readers who I hope will like my book, too.
Unfortunately, mid-twentieth-century English writers are not a particularly hot commodity when it comes to preparing comps for a proposal. But who knows . . . the publisher who picks me now might be laughing all the way to the bank in, say, 2064! lol
Another angle on this is writing that everyone loves and knows there are readers that would too, but no track record for successfully targeting those readers.
I understand what you mean. That’s why, ultimately, I try to write what the Lord lays on my heart. If He wants it published, it will be published. Sure, this is a business. But for a Christian writer, writing is also a ministry. I find peace in the fact He has control over everything–agent requests, publisher responses, etc.
Write the book the Lord has put on your heart, work hard, be patient, and pray He’ll use you to minister to others.
You will like my blog post for next week…July 22
Great post. For authors seeking publication, finding a balance between writing what editors are looking for and penning the book of your heart is not always easy. Let’s face it, Amish Distopia would be hard to sell even for Jerry Jenkins!
There are authors who have continued to perfect their craft while writing what they felt the Lord put on their heart and eventually reaped the rewards for their tireless effort.
Lauraine Snelling has sold millions of books because she wanted to write about girls and horses and that is where she started. Sarah Sundin just signed a contract for her 3rd trilogy after being told for several years that WWII series just don’t have a market.
I love how you brought in the ART aspect since it isn’t something one can predict based on the past. We have to write and continue to learn all we can about the ever changing publishing industry so we can stay informed, but ultimately it is the Lord who directs our steps.
I agree with the comment proceeding mine, “Writing can be a ministry.” I write as the Holy Spirit leads, and the Lord will do the rest. There is no way, I could leave the Gospel out of my work. I weave it into the daily lives of my characters, where it should be, and pray the Lord will use it to His glory. By Gospel, I mean the birth, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, whereby we are saved for eternity.
I’m looking forward to next week’s post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on being creative.