Why does everyone seem so confused?

These days I am having a difficult time recognizing my colleagues on the publishing side and what they are trying to do to be successful.

They tell us (authors and agents) that an author needs credentials and a platform but when I present to them an author who is a leading character from a very highly rated reality show, they say they don’t like “the voice.”

When I present to them a biography of a fascinating woman who has just come to the world’s attention written by a very well respected journalist, they say “the story is moving too fast”—very confusing as what I am sending them is a biography not a news story.

When I recently sent out a proposal on using leftovers in other dishes and not disposing of food as we are used to doing, people told me there was no market and yet there was a huge front page piece in the food section of The New York Times last Wednesday about just this subject. Evidently, there are many, many readers who would be interested in such a book.

When I offer them a wonderfully executed proposal about a subject that is being talked about more and more these days and where the author has a video that has gone viral on YouTube, they tell me they don’t know who the market for the book would be and yet this past Saturday, there was a feature about this very subject that began on the front page of The New York Times and continued for a full page inside.

Finally, there was the New York Times piece, also in Saturday’s paper, about self-publishing and the fact that more and more people are doing it.

All of this makes me think that my colleagues on the publishing side have lost sight of the fact that in these new wild, wild west days in publishing, this is the time for them to take more, not fewer, risks. Taking risks has always been what the business of publishing is all about.   There are no sure winners, guys, and the more fearful and cautious you get, the more authors will want to publish on their own—and won’t need you anymore.

9 Responses to Why does everyone seem so confused?

  1. I think it’ll all very random and arbitrary and no one really has a clue what will and won’t have a market. After all, if I told you I’d had an idea for a novel about a girl who falls in love with a handsome vampire you’d tell me Buffy the Vampire Slayer already did that, right? No one can really predict the predilections of the buying public and what will capture their imaginations and have them recommending books to their friends. Publishers and, dare I say it, agents, are largely going on gut instinct.

    Even so, I am against self-publishing. I believe it’s diluting the market with poorly written and unedited dross, and it’s unfair to the readers who can’t tell the difference at the point of sale.

  2. And speaking of poorly edited, apologies for the typo above!

  3. Cora says:

    I recently posted about author platforms on my blog. Agents who talk continually about platform seem to be looking for an author who they think will “sell big”. They want a story that has legs, and I don’t think that’s really so surprising. I’m seeing more and more articles by agents who seem to be holding out for their own diamond in the rough, their own Amanda Hocking and John Locke, and I believe that’s why you see so many agents talking now about platform.

    What agent doesn’t want to find an author who they believe will sell a million copies to a million people who **already follow** that undiscovered talent’s blog AND buy their books? The hard work of building a readership/following is done before the client even signs on.

    The problem with that is that the ideal platform you hear agents talk doesn’t lend itself across all genres. It would also be very difficult to pull off without some name recognition and a back list. That being the case, the author platform is very unfriendly to unpublished writers, and nearly impossible to build if an author has zero writing credentials. Never mind that most genre writers don’t even need to build a platform. Instead, they need to focus on branding themselves in their chosen genre, and work on building a readership – even if it’s only with free stories.

    Despite what the platform pushers say, at the end of the day, most readers couldn’t care less about an author’s promotional/marketing strategy. Most readers don’t care how many twitter followers an author has. They don’t care if you’ve given 50 keynote speeches, or if you have a press kit. Most don’t care if you’ve won a national writing award. On the other hand, they DO want to know [first thing] what genre you write in, what your book is about, and where it’s available. By and large, to the reader, it’s the story that matters.

    Building an author platform and author branding are two different marketing strategies, and some agents come at it as if it’s the same thing. It’s not. One reason a reader **might possibly care** about an author’s platform is if the book in question is non-fiction material that may need to be checked, or referenced. The author him/herself becomes important because of the “content” of their book. It’s no longer just about the story, but about the author’s qualifications. None of that matters with genre fiction. In that case, it’s about building a following of readers who like to read the type of books you write.

    I think that’s where the confusion comes in about when and why a platform is needed. At the core of it, agents want a ready-made big seller, and sadly, there are no guarantees in this market.

  4. Catherine Whitney says:

    This post struck a chord with me. In my work as a collaborator/ghost writer, I have written books with people with HUGE platforms that fell flat, and books with people with NO existing platforms that sold like crazy (example: Eat Right for Your Type, which is still selling big after 15 years). Publishing has to be about more than looking at ready-made markets and author popularity. Sometimes great ideas spring from unknown spheres, and it is the vocation of publishers to find and nurture them. Publishers are part of market creation, not just the beneficiaries of certain sellers.

    The contracted view of publishing that you describe is bad for authors, bad for agents and bad for the public. You’re right to call them out.

  5. Jennifer says:

    I am a wanna- be published author. It is true that most agents will not even look at your submission unless you are famous. My question is how much can Snookie, all The Real housewives, actors and celebrities books can be read? Don’t the consumers have a right to choose a book and not a nonfiction?

  6. Bravo! And I’m glad to see an agent saying this, because I’ve seen authors doing so in scores, and it makes me a bit hesitant to dip my toe into the water someday soon. On one hand, there’s so much media these days that it’s almost impossible to keep up with it and know what subjects are big across the spectrum, but on the other–New York Times? These publishers aren’t aware of what’s on the front page of the New York Times, let alone YouTube and so on? There’s a disconnect somewhere between the buying public and the ones selling them the products, and you’re right, it’s going to cause more content producers to cut out the middleman.

  7. Bob Mayer says:

    I read PW Deals every day and it pretty much seems business as usual. Publishers jump all over a celebrity, even if the crossover from what they’re famous for won’t equate to book sales, aka Snooki.

    The biggest area publishers are screwing up is backlist. I now own all my backlist, over 40 titles. For many years I desperately tried to get a publisher to understand that breaking out my latest title, would lead to breaking out my backlist and make both of us a lot of money. But publishers viewed backlist as something that had its shot and failed– and somehow they seemed to think it was because of the book and the author, not their own lack of marketing.

    I now have two of the top ten titles in science fiction on UK and US Kindle. 11 of the top 50 on Kindle in War, outselling even W.E.B. Griffin. All of this from my backlist which ‘failed’. This failed backlist generated over $100,000 of sales in July.

    I’m pretty happy that publishers’ lack of foresight has given me this great opportunity now.

  8. DBurks says:

    Confused publishers? I suspect that they are mostly just plain lazy and willfully ignorant. The temptation to say, ‘I am a publisher. I know what sells.’is just too much. Human nature is with us always, but ignorance is a choice. How many of the decision makers in publishing are genuinely well read? I am certain they are busy, but do you know any that could speak as a real expert about any genre or author? Does anyone know a publisher who can honestly say they have read ten thousand classical books? One thousand? A hundred? Who knows an editor who routinely writes scholarly articles for publication? Blog posts do not count.

    It seems to me that the worst publishing offense is just what your original post describes: A publisher will reject a project because of a personal prejudice without even minimal effort to evaluate the work. DGLM has a long list of enormously successful projects across many genres, so casually rejecting a project is just arrogant and ignorant. If they treat you that way imagine how hard it is for a new agent with a new author in a small genre. I probably suffer from being too well mannered, but if a first rate agent brought me a project I would be embarassed not to read the entire book and think about it for a week before reluctantly declining.

    A steady stream of new product is required for agents and publishers alike so why spend so little effort in finding quality work? It seems to me that in this uncertain time more effort should be made to seek and evaluate new works rather than less.

    And now for a provocative question: How many of the problems in publishing originate from the inbred nature of the business and its concentration in New York?

    I came across this blog by happenstance, but I keep reading it because you ask the most interesting questions.

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