I’ve covered this before ( “Art Wins” ), but I am going to take a little different look at the ever-present tension between the science and the art of publishing books.
The great rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, one of the pioneers of the U.S. space program said this, “Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Certainly, experienced people in publishing know what they are doing, but we all recognize that no matter how much science is tossed into the mix of publishing decision-making, no one can accurately predict future performance of books. Maybe once in a while we get it right, but not very often.
That’s because science is a study of past behavior while art creates the future.
Science almost never surprises anyone. The very nature of it is to eliminate the surprise. Science looks at something and says, “Of course it behaved that way. It always behaves that way.”
Art is about emotion. It surprises, inspires, illuminates and delights. But it can also elicit opposite reactions. Sometimes people simply don’t like a song, movie, painting or book. It’s the other side of the same coin…art can repel as well as attract. Those emotions are virtually immune to scientific study, which is why publishing is so interesting.
Every book publisher does some amount of research to inform their decision-making. The research is a mix of subjective reasoning and factual data. Based on the information, wise and experienced publishing people make a best-guess decision.
There are a few instances where an author performs exactly as predicted. Compared to the hundreds of thousands of books published annually in the United States, that number is very small.
The best research available could not have predicted any of the mega-selling books published either recently or historically in the Christian or general publishing markets. That’s because every best-selling author began their publishing journey with a surprise, after which they become more predictable, but the first time was anything but predictable.
Since the majority of publishing-wisdom is based on hindsight and personal preference, we still have a problem looking at a new book by a first-time author and trying to figure out how, or if, it fits.
The reason is because writing is an art form and art “surprises”.
There are many examples of authors writing a book that has changed the direction of the publishing industry. The most dramatic in recent memory is Harry Potter.
The first book in that series released in 1997, when just about every publisher in the world was convinced that the way to publish to pre-teens was to make books short, with large print and inexpensive.
Along came J.K. Rowling and her 300+ page, 100,000-word, hardcover first book (following titles were even longer) for pre-teens and the publishing world has never been the same.
Science would have said this was unlikely to happen because it had never happened. But art surprised.
During the ten-year span from 1997-2007 when the seven books in the Harry Potter series were published, the financial fortunes of both Scholastic Books and the entire global publishing industry changed. (Not to mention J.K. Rowling who became immensely wealthy) There were years when no new book was released and the financial impact caused the children’s book publishing segment to decrease worldwide.
That is what art does.
The movie industry has periods when revenues and theatre attendance are down, and the business-science pundits draw conclusions that the industry is in decline or some other prediction. Then along comes a great movie and everything changes. Music is the same. One person can start a revolution.
Throughout the long history of book publishing, smart people have made informed data-backed predictions about an industry, company or individual book…and been proven wrong when art takes over.
If you write to delight and surprise, maybe you will prove researchers wrong.