I've been lurking in, and participating in, several discussions of late on the self-publishing, e-publishing, commercial publishing debate (and I'm not going to put "versus" in there, because I really feel that all these things are important and no one is actually diametrically opposed to any of the others). One thing I keep see being brought up is the scare that "commercial publishers just publish what they can sell!" They aren't worried about quality, just look at some of the typos or the horrific writing of [Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, John Grisham, pick your poison of the day].
And here's the thing. That is absolutely true. Publishers want stuff they can sell. Why? Because when it's your book they're trying to sell, they're going to put a lot of money into it, and do their darndest to make sure it makes them (and you) money.
Here's a short story. My first two years out of college, I worked for a small publisher who shall remain nameless (mainly because I'm about to talk about acquisitions). Most of the staff were involved in acquisitions: the editors, the publisher, the marketing and sales staff, and me, the office manager and profit-and-loss statement generator.
There was a day when a book came to us. It had been previously self-published (no, self-publishing has never been the end of the road for any good book), the author had gained a good following for it, she had a niche, she had a blog with lots of followers—and this was almost ten years ago when almost no one was on blogs—the book itself was funny, fresh, and interesting. She sent two copies of the book for our consideration, and we shared it around the lunch table. And then we got to the acquisitions meeting.
Do we love this book? we asked ourselves.
We love this book, we agreed.
Is it a good book?
It's a great book. It's funny; it approaches its topic in a way no other book does; it's appealing.
Does the author have a platform?
A super platform.
And then came the moment of truth.
Are we going to be able to sell this book?
We looked at the P&L. It was in the black, provided we made some changes to the book itself--took away the fun four-color process in favor of maybe a single signature of four-color photos. The book was a outside our usual genres--in fact, we didn't have anything else like it on our list for the next eighteen months. Would the sales staff at our distributors be able to make the kind of sell-in that would justify the numbers on the P&L? Or were we overestimating, since they'd never seen a book like that from us before?
We talked, and talked. And crunched numbers, and crunched them again. And it all led to one conclusion--as much as we loved the book, and as good as we thought it was going to be--our house was not the right house. Given the other things we published, given the funds we had available to us to print, given the kinds of sell-in we could expect, we were simply not the right place for it.
It was not a judgment on the book. We loved the book. It was not a personal judgment on the author. We thought she was doing a stellar job.
It was because we couldn't make the bottom line work. And that, ultimately, would've meant that book wouldn't do as well as it would with another house.
The end of the story? We rejected, the book was eventually picked up by an imprint of S&S (I found this out four years later when I was no longer working in publishing), and near as I can tell on Amazon, it is still backlisting well six years later.
If we'd published it? It would be out of print.
That publishers are in the game to make money isn't about some dirty thing designed to be exclusionary. A lot of times, it's about what's in the best interest of the book.
Jessica S. Schley was once a pusher of very important papers for a small commercial nonfiction house. Nowadays, she divides her time between bookselling, being a grad student, and writing contemporary fiction for young adults.
- ▼ February (9)