A “Sure Thing”?

Last week while I was following up on a proposal I had out on submission to publishers, I heard back from a senior editor at one of the top six publishing houses.  This person is someone who I consider to be very smart and who has great taste.  I had sent him a proposal which he acknowledged was very well done and which covered a subject he was interested in.  In turning it down, he sounded discouraged and demoralized as he said that the higher ups in his company were no longer allowing him to buy mid-list titles that in the past he had been able to turn into bestsellers.  Rather, he said, they were only allowing him to buy “sure things,” which I took to mean books that can’t fail.

This thinking is incredibly narrow minded, in my humble opinion, and could, if it continues, spell the downfall of any publisher who seriously pursues it.  Why?

Because (1) publishers can’t be “sure” of that “sure thing” and (2) they tend to overpay through the nose in order to get that sure thing and often end up losing money that could have been better spent.

The other and perhaps more serious consequence of this approach is that publishers who think this way – and there are a number of them – are forgetting that a strong backlist is the key to their continuing success.  If they neglect this very important part of their publishing program, they will ultimately fail.

This subject – publishers’ recent inability to keep their eye on that backlist ball – is something I have written about it the past.  I am doing so again today because I am so very concerned about the future of this business that I love.

I hope publishers will “wake up” and remember why we are all in this business.  You cannot remain successful publishing only front list titles.  You must have depth and breadth in your publishing program.

I would love to hear what you think about all of this and whether you can offer any suggestions to our colleagues on the publishing side.

19 Responses to A “Sure Thing”?

  1. I’ve joked about this kind of business model as being akin to financing your retirement by deciding to buy only winning lottery tickets. Sadly, the joke’s on us who toil away, trying to do the best we can with the books we write, only to be thwarted by trickle-down stupidity and shortsightedness from on high. And whenever I hear this “sure thing” talk, I’m pretty sure it’s coming from an accountant convinced that one can re-create success by copying something else that succeeded, which usually means a sequel or a blatant rip-off of a bestseller by, say, changing every reference to “DaVinci” in The DaVinci Code to “Rembrandt” or one of those other painter guys.

    Not that the track record mentality is completely wrong; I think it’s just focused on the wrong track record. Rather than considering the track record of the author or subject matter, why not trust your editors to do what they’re paid to do, particularly if they’ve been successful at it in the past. And while you’re at it, redefine success to include not just the mega-bestseller, but anything that turns a profit, no matter how modest. And lastly, panalize the beancounters for every “sure thing” that costs more than it earns.

    Those are my (somewhat disheartened and testy) thoughts. Pehaps the NYT piece today about Amazon working directly with authors will knock some sense into folks. One can hope.

  2. Catherine Whitney says:

    A fear-based publishing model is exactly the opposite of what is needed. That “sure thing” mindset an abandonment of the soul of publishing–the ability to discover and foster great work, even before the world knows it’s a “sure thing.” I imagine that editors trapped in these policies are wondering about the meaning of their vocation. Publishers need to define themselves anew in this rapidly changing universe, and if their new definition is to only publish certain bestsellers, that’s not only laughable but it’s a death knoll. Increasingly, authors will repackage and republish their languishing or out-of-print midlist books on their own, and a necessary revenue stream will disappear for publishers. Or authors will skip traditional publishing altogether. There’s a revolution happening in our business, and publishers are trembling under the covers.

  3. Janice Nolting says:

    I wonder what the world of publishing has become when a writer such as I can’t even get a decent reply from an agent for a novel that not only depicts one of the most important facets of our modern day society, the War in Afghanistan but tells the background story of a typical soldier with all the dexterity I’ve been able to put into it from my twenty or so years of writing character portraits.
    Since most of the novels I pick up at the grocery store or the huge Barnes & Noble book store here in my hometown, are not only on such a childish level of writing but most of them don’t have any technical merit whatsoever; except if they’re in the entertainment class, suspense, murder, and written by established writers. I’m not complaining about this as I know most of these writers have years of experience even beyond what I have. My only complaint is that for a writer like me, talented has hell, and so many others I’ve met in workshops, if not recognized for our own merits, it’s like you said, the business of publishing will go down the tubes. For there are several other outlets I can choose, self-publishing is one and I’m learning each day more about this endeavor, the marketing business on the internet, and might just very well be able to pull off being a popular writer of fiction one of these days.
    It’s nice to know I’m not alone, however, and there are those out there who share my concern about the future of good books, and the future of what they say to the world. And thank God, sometime in the near future the business side of creative writing may just change in our favor.
    Thank you for letting me sound off my frustration.
    J. Nolting

  4. Agreed! How many books, movies, etc., have publishing houses and studios invested in, only for them to fall flat when released to the public? The truth is, no formula is perfect, and there’s no guarantee that a book about X with Y marketing budget is going to succeed. Moreover, if publishers begin publishing only with that formula, their output will become stale and consumers will stop buying from them.

    There’s no such thing as “can’t fail”. In fact, I’d wager that the bigger the gamble, the less likely it is to get the expected results.

    Not to mention that this kind of thinking will cut out all the books that become sleeper hits, or build over time. THE SHACK and Harry Potter weren’t instant successes!

  5. Eric Christopherson says:

    What to call this story–reality satire?

  6. It kind of reminds me of when insurance companies tried to dictate the level of medical care allowed. Now “bean counters” determine which books will be “sure things”. This certainly supports the position of so many that the industry is indeed headed for huge changes in how business is done in the not so distant future.

  7. Emily says:

    hum? fortunte telling has never had a good reputation….

  8. jseliger says:

    1) The New York Times just published an article about how Amazon is growing its own publishing business, in part as a response to the larger publishing climate.

    2) I wrote about that article and the danger of false negatives.

    3) Publishers sound like they’re in danger of convincing writers that the writers don’t need publishers. I don’t see this as a good thing for publishers.

  9. As a writer, I wouldn’t have believed that my first novel “wasn’t going to sell” until I tried to sell it myself. Everything the publishers and agents said was true: it wasn’t high concept, it didn’t have a strong log line, and the targeted age range fell between obvious groupings.

    But, I’d still written it, and believed in it, so I published it myself. Risk to me, in dollars: Zero. I could afford to put the book out there, just for fun. But even a small publisher would have invested, even without giving an advance, a minimum of $20k for editing, cover art, printing, etc. I suspect 20k is a rather conservative estimate.

    I completely agree that the book would not have returned their investment. It doesn’t mean it’s worthless, just that it’s worth a bit less than 20k. Self-pubbers can release for much less than 20k, so that’s great news for readers, who will have access to less-commercial books.

    We’re all passionate about storytelling and connecting, which is why it’s so difficult to assign price tags to books. I recommend that, if you don’t understand publishing, try your hand at it. Invest in cover art, editing, and promotion, out of your own pocket, and self-publish a title or two. It doesn’t mean you’ll start to agree with publishers’ choices, but it might help shed some light. :-)

  10. JudyinBoston says:

    Pretty soon there will be no beans left to count.

  11. Recently, during his book launch in Delhi, David Davider commented ‘ nobody knows what is going to be a successful book.’ If it has been so, why wouldso many publishers and agents have rejected a book like The kiterunner.
    If somebody claims that a book was going to be a sureshot winner that means he/she is God Himself. A mere mortal can’t risk that guess.

  12. anon says:

    Could be he was just being polite. I do it all the time when I want to get out of something :-)

  13. anon says:

    Could be he was just being polite. I do it all the time when I want to get out of something :-)
    Who knows?

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  15. Congrats! At last an agent who is looking “outside the box.” What everyone is missing here is that if an author participates in the legacy publishing paradigm (agent+editor+publisher+publicist+big box bookstore), his or her books will get a very short exposure. POD and eBooks are forever (well, as long as the internet exists).
    Also, that $20k figure seems too high. My perception is that kind of money is rarely spent nowadays, but maybe I’m wrong. Certainly, new authors and those who are not a “sure thing” will not receive the big marketing bucks (full page ads in NY Times or TV trailers, for example).
    I reviewed a POD that was excellent. There was an ad almost every week in the NY Times book review section (quoting my review, by the way), but one of the authors was a doctor…most self-pubbers can’t come up with this kind of ad money and, if the Big Six only bet on “sure things,” you won’t see them pushing new authors, no matter how good their product.
    Today the best bet for new or relatively unknown authors is POD or eBooks. Where that leaves the agents is something I don’t know. It would seem there is a lot of expertise out there in agent-land that can be used more productively than trying to feed the maws of the Big Six (“maws” because they’re like dinosaurs, soon to be extinct).

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