Every traditional publishing company has a personality or focus that defines them and their product. Usually that personality or focus is determined by past success. They also know how many books they can effectively publish during a year. Combining focus and capacity, you have the beginnings of a publishing strategy.
No publisher (or for that matter any company) will succeed for long unless they have a diversity of product to offer. Even companies selling lawn furniture offer a variety of sizes, features and price ranges. It simply makes good business sense.
Being one-dimensional at anything is not generally a good thing for companies. Diversifying acquisitions will allow a publisher to appeal to a wider range of customers and navigate the changing trends in consumer book-buying habits.
This applies to a publisher, not authors.
Authors are usually known for one type of writing. The publisher is the whole, the author is one of the parts. Writing too widely might show your creativity, but confuses agents, publishers and readers as to who you are. It muddies your brand. The same concept applies for indie authors, except you will only confuse readers.
Let’s see how all this might work in practice for a book publisher.
While it is an ever-evolving process, a publisher knows the general categories they want to publish. For the sake of this example, let’s say they can effectively publish 100 titles a year and they are good at ten general categories with a suggested title quantity for each: (FYI- there are over fifty official BISAC categories utilized in organizing publishing information across the industry – click the link to see them all.)
Biographies and Autobiographies (5 titles)
Cooking (5 titles)
Family & Relationships (10 titles)
Fiction – adult (20 titles)
Gardening (5 titles)
Juvenile Fiction (10 titles)
Music (5 titles)
Self-Help (15 titles)
Sports and Recreation (10 titles)
Travel (5 titles)
Misc. opportunities (10 titles)
While not a rigid process, this general overview is communicated to acquisitions people to serve as a guide for how much they need to acquire. Maintaining the diversity of books is why some publishers create “imprints” or companies within companies focusing only on one or two categories.
Various terms are used for this, but publishers commonly refer to these as “slots”. The editor of cooking titles has five “slots” to fill for a year and might see 200 proposals for those five slots and must determine which ones are best for them.
Since the publisher won’t get all 200 proposals at once, they hesitate at making a quick decision on most unless they know something definitely won’t work for them. Rejection travels fast.
The added element of competition with other publishers means that of the top ten books on cooking in a particular year, maybe an individual publisher can only acquire one or two of those titles at best.
Now, let’s say you have a great proposal for a cooking book and the publisher really likes it, but they have already acquired their target number of titles for the next year. They might have a “slot” open two years in the future. Even though you have a ready manuscript, the publisher still has a limit on the number of books they want to acquire for a particular category in a year.
Opportunities can be jumped on, but mostly publishers try to publish within a general plan and a key element of that plan is a finite number of titles.
Our hypothetical publisher doesn’t publish the best 100 books they can during the year. They publish the best 100 books that fit the company personality in a mix of the categories they are good at publishing.
It is simply another factor for an author (and agent) to consider in book publishing. A publisher might really like your book, and they need something like that to fill a slot two or three years from now. But they often don’t want to contract books that far out, in case something better comes along. Honestly, in the next year, they might find something they like better.
Some categories of products are very limited. Many publishers of Christian books will do only one or two devotional products in a year. Maybe one or two memoirs. Bible studies? Maybe one every other year.
While attending a recent meeting of writers, a humorous group discussion began using a social “dating” metaphor (in its worst form) to explain how publishing really works.
“Let’s be friends until I find someone better to date.”
“I don’t want to make any long-term commitments.”
“We should be seeing different people.”
“This just isn’t working for me.”
“It’s not you, it’s me,”
Believe it or not, there is a lot of truth to these statements explaining why a proposal is declined. (No wonder it has been suggested to kiss dating goodbye.)Anyway that’s generally how it works.
There is a fine line between being discouraging and being a realist. Knowing how things work in the real world should lower your blood pressure. I am sorry if that wasn’t the case today.
It was me, not you. No, really.