Are Publishers Too Cowardly to Take on Your Book?

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Do you think publishers are afraid to take on your book? Maybe you’ve decided, after much striving to find a publishing house, that your work is too (pick whichever apply):

  • revolutionary
  • daring
  • explicit
  • graphic
  • esoteric
  • honest
  • culture-altering
  • literary
  • creative
  • out-of-the-box
  • unique

Recently I read an essay in Publishers Weekly’s e-newsletter in which the writer opined that publishers were afraid to take on her memoir telling about her father’s sexual abuse of her. She recounts her reasons to believe the writing is very good. But then she goes on to mention the consistent feedback from writing instructors and agents to set the work aside. Publishing, she decides, is too cowardly to contract for her book.

But is courage the real issue?

Real Reasons Publishers Say No

Years ago I daily flipped my way through a Murphy’s Law perennial calendar that offered a fun quote each day. Only one of them has stuck with me, and that’s because I’ve found it unfailingly accurate: “Whatever they say it’s about…it’s about money.”

The pool where I swam laps changed the schedule, making it hard for us ardent lappers to actually use the pool. So I asked the lifeguard why the lap swimming time had been greatly reduced–despite plenty of interest from the fitness center’s members. He mumbled various rationales that made no sense to me.

Finally, I asked, “Will the center make more money because of this change?”

Chagrined, the lifeguard admitted that, yes, limiting lap swimming meant the pool was available for more personal party rentals, and several entities wanted to regularly rent the pool.

See what I mean? Murphy’s Law.

Okay,publishing is a far cry from lap swimming, but the same dynamic is at play.

Follow the Money

While the essay’s author thought the subject of her memoir was the problem, the reality is money is the major decision-making factor for a publishing company. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I want publishing companies to stay in business, and the only way they can do that is by producing the books they believe are the most likely to be profitable.

Do they misstep and overpay for a “hot” manuscript that many publishers are eager to get their hands on? Oh, yes. Do they miss out on producing the best written books? Probably. Are they so conservative in their choices that their books fall into a routinized formula? Sometimes.

But is lack of courage the issue? Only in terms of being afraid that saying yes won’t result in profits, not because of a book’s subject matter.

Other Reasons Publishers Say No

Lest you think we should, at this point, all settle into cynicism over publishing’s myopic decision-making, publishers might feel compelled to say no to this young woman’s project for other reasons, including:

  • Legal hot water. Is her father still alive? Is her mother? What about a relative suing because of the damage to the family’s reputation?
  • The details might appeal most to those with a prurient interest. Especially if the book contains explicit description, even though it might be powerfully written, some publishing companies don’t want to dip into the details. That’s not for lack of courage but because of a sense that the approach to the topic isn’t one that suits how the publisher views itself.
  • Insufficient readers for a tale of woe. Readers tend to want to read uplifting books in a world that feels increasingly dark. (Read Cynthia’s recent post on the new fiction trend: uplit.)
  • The work isn’t unique. As much as we all abhor how common sexual assault is in families today, this writer’s story isn’t one-of-a-kind. Yes, it’s unique to her, the person who experienced it, but at every writers conference I attend I will meet at least one, often more, conferees with similar stories they are writing.
  • Lack of a platform. In her essay, the writer indicates she heard from publishing personnel that she didn’t have adequate connections to readers to help sell her book. Yeah, we all know what a millstone the word “platform” is around many a writer’s neck.

As you can see, a publishing house’s decision can be nuanced and go beyond just the money.

Is Publishing Soulless?

Does this mean that everyone who is connected to making publishing decisions is soulless? Absolutely not.

Last year I landed a contract for a new-ish author when a publishing house decided that he has important things to explore with readers–despite his small platform. They agreed with me that he is someone worth taking a risk on, in hopes of building him into an author who will write for decades to come and move the needle in people’s hearts closer to God.

Was this publisher easy to find? No. I looked diligently and over many months. And this was my client’s second project, not his first, which I could not sell.

A few years ago, I knew I had found the right publishing house for a project I was representing when I was told the company’s president cried when he heard the story that formed the book’s core. To say his heart is in his business is an understatement.

What to Do…

So what should that essay writer do with her memoir? First of all, recognize that every manuscript is not destined to find a publisher–most won’t. We all write for many reasons, and this project, for her, certainly is written from her heart. The writing thereof hopefully helped her to come to grips with the horrible things done to her. And that would be a healing journey for her. Finding a wound less festered surely is worth a great deal.

Other ways to use one’s life history are viable and worthy of consideration as well. I’ll explore some of those in an upcoming blog post.

For you, the blog post reader…

Might I suggest you take off your Creative hat and plunk on a Business hat? And then ask yourself these questions: Why do I believe a publisher can make a profit with my book? What would I need to change, if anything, to make it profitable? Am I willing to do that?

If you’d like, tell us your answers in the Comments below.

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30 Responses

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  1. Janet, kudos for your “legal hot water” point. Let me expand that to “moral and unrighteous hot water.” Over the years, lots of people told me I should write about our adoption experience (we brought elementary age brothers into our home, and our biggest challenges were with state agencies). But the story isn’t mine alone. It is our sons’ story, and their sisters’ story, and their deceased mother’s story, and–yes–even the disinterested, disruptive and self-centered case workers’ story. It is also the story of some wonderful people who bent the rules a bit, who reached out beyond their job descriptions, who spoke hard words with compassion. It would make interesting reading, but it would leave a trail of hurt. It might make me feel good for a season, but at a cost I would never see this side of heaven.

    • Shirlee, it’s good to remember that others will be impacted by what we put out there. There are certain things I don’t share on my blog because they would hurt people close to me or to our boys. It’s not worth it.
      *Great perspective!

  2. Kimberly Marasco says:

    I wrote a book about workplace harrassment, discrimination, and mistreatment. Its all true and written well but no publisher would dare touch it. I believe they are concerned about possible lawsuits or retaliation for revealing the truth. I thought thete was a way to write a disclosue and use pseudonyms to prevent any claims of defamation even if valid and true.

  3. Great post, Janet. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about publishers; I couldn’t even interest an agent!
    * The first issue is, of course, writing. I’m nowhere near as talented as I once thought I was (and it was hard to write that, yeah?); you can’t bet on indifferent prose.
    * Technical deficiencies can be remedied, at least to a degree, if there’s sufficient talent and motivation. But skill’s the mouse hiding under the table; the elephant in the room is that I have an unsaleable point of view, and it was brought home to me only a couple of days ago.
    * ‘Twas a dark and bloody weekend, and whilst my dear wife saw tragedy and loss and unfairness writ large as the death which is now writ across my features, I found it all kind of funny. I mean, come on…when there’s blood on the ceiling and your wife comes home and does a double-take like Eddie Murphy in the “I missed!” scene in “Daddy Day Care”, how can you NOT laugh?
    * You can’t sell that, and I can’t really even explain it, but the beauty of The Modern World is that through the miracle of self-publishing I CAN invite y’all to take this last ride with me down Death Mountain. We’ll pass around the bottle and sing some good Irish pub songs and keep the accelerator floored (“Hey, bubba, who’s steering?”), to go out in the biggest fireball I can arrange and arrive at the Pearlies singed and missing a few pieces, but still grinning like a dog with two tails.

    • “A dog with two tails” great! But why blood on the ceiling? We have had BBQ sauce on the ceiling and root beer and dog slobber. Blood on the wall, but not on the ceiling yet.

      • Kristen, how did you get BBQ sauce on the ceiling? The blood…well, let’s just say my eyes and head were lifted in prayer, and a very bad thing happened.
        * But the prayer was answered, as the humour in the situation became apparent on Barb’s return home.
        * God gave me far more than physical healing, or ‘strength to endure’; He gave me an appreciation of the ridiculous, and His Laughter will carry me home.

  4. Janet, excellent post. Despite protestations to the contrary, publishing is not a non-profit business…even Inspirational (i.e., Christian) publishing. I can cite stories from my experiences from my time “vetting” publishers for a large Christian organization, and as you said in your post, “It’s about money.”

  5. Kimberly Marasco says:

    However, I did write another book about an invisible chronic illness. Its my goal to publish books that can help others, even if its just relatable material, to endure difficult situations. The book needs editing though and I do not have the time right now. I will self publish it though when I do have time. For me, I do not care about how profitable it will be.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Kimberly, and that’s one of the wonderful reasons self-publishing exists. It’s really not about the money for so many writers, and self-pubbing gives all of us the opportunity the megaphone to voice what life has brought our way, or to tell a story that’s been rattling about in our heads.

  6. Carol Ashby says:

    Thanks for writing such an honest post about all the reasons a traditional publisher might choose to turn down a manuscript. I used to be one who bemoaned how unfair the requirements for publication were.
    *But what’s more unfair is to expect a company to risk taking on projects that look like poor bets for making money. It’s the jobs and futures of all their employees that are on the line if they bet wrong.
    *As I ramp up for my fourth launch as an indie in May, I sometimes find myself wishing I had a traditional publisher to do what I have to do myself. I do like the control I have over content and that my books are bringing pleasure to readers, but there’s nothing that can make someone appreciate the business parts of this enterprise as much as having to do everything the publisher’s team does.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Carol, it’s so true. The downside of self-pubbing is that you’re an entire publishing company wrapped up in one being. The work is unrelenting when you’re the only one to carry the ball.

  7. Great article, Janet. Thanks for sharing. I have thought of many of these reasons, but there were a few new ones. Since I come from an entrepreneurial family, it’s fun for me to think about the business side of publishing and why, or why not, a book would be profitable.

  8. The thing the Lord spoke over my heart at Mount Hermon was that I want my writing to be beautiful. With God, I’m confident most tough subjects can be addressed in a beautiful way, not just to make it publishable, but to make the book heart-bearable to the reader and the writer. How can we write in a way that makes the reader feel they are better and not broken for reading it?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Shelli, thank you for asking the question that few writers who want to tell their stories ask. They think having a redeemed life to showcase at the end will enable the reader to set aside all the woe that came before the redemption. But it takes a skilled and smart writer to weave redemptive notes throughout the story.

  9. Janet, in thinking about this, I wonder if a counterpoint to the example you mentioned might be Paul Brickhill’s “The Great Escape”, about the mass breakout of Allied prisoners in March 1944 from the Nazi Stalag-Luft at Sagan, in what’s now Poland?
    * It’s a story in a dark time and we know the ending; of 73 men who escaped, all but three were recaptured, and fifty of those caught were murdered by the Nazis. That Brickhill knew the men involved makes it all the more heartbreaking because he paints caring word-pictures of the doomed.
    * What makes it rise above hard days and victimization is the optimism and hope, not in the words of the prisoners, but in their actions, and the fact that their escape was a very real (and not Pyrrhic) victory, a sharp stick in the eye of the tyranny that created a war that took their freedom. And the reader escapes with them, dying with the grimly focused South African Roger Bushell and the ebullient Pole, Danny Krol…and gaining freedom with Bob van der Stok, the quiet Free Dutchman.
    * Is not the whole purpose of story just that, a vehicle that allows that member of the audience to frame his or her life in another context, see it through a different lens of paradigm which pulls a closer focus on misty possibilities?
    * And further, don’t the best stories tell us that we are neither giants nor victims, but simply ordinary people whose circumstances can define the Divine that lies within…and that sometimes on life’s Damascene road, the worst of us can become the very best?

  10. Ryana Lynn says:

    This is a post even indie authors like myself need to read. We invest our own money in the project and a bad idea could break us financially.

    We need honesty in writing, but I think there are certainly ways of being honest without being too detailed. I agree, we need more up lifting in our writing, especially when covering hard topics.

    Thank you, Ms. Janet for this sound advice!

  11. What do I need to change to make it more marketable … there is a particular ms. that I have been told, has a difficult to like protagonist. Now, I love her. But she is a little snot for a good portion of the book. How to make the reader see that she is destined to learn and grow and become someone that we can be proud of? Several folks told me to give her a “Save the Cat” moment. After tons of rewrites, between a grandma lady handing out mushy chocolates, dead hermit crabs, and a brace of imperiled guinea pigs, I think I’ve finally found a way to show that this girl is capable of love and sacrifice, even if we want to strangle her for a good portion of the book. Great advice, Janet! Sometimes it just takes us writers a while to figure out how to accomplish it.

  12. Janet, I, too, have considered some of the reasons a publisher might not bite on a book proposal, but you brought up some I hadn’t considered. It makes sense for writers to consider their books and what might/might not make it publishable.
    *Thanks for good food for thought.

  13. It is difficult. Janet, in your experience, do you ever sense that God overrides some of these factors?

  14. I face an uphill battle with my work, but I’ve known that for a while. But I’d never suggest someone was cowardly, unless he wore a lion suit and was searching for courage. The facts are, some books need kid gloves, and some need HazMat suits, and some need Kevlar and tactical units.
    I had someone suggest that I’d have a hard time, since I was producing revisionist history. Well then, thanks pal.
    The fact of the matter is, I am quite willing to listen to and implement suggestions, as long as I don’t sell some of the facts down the river in favour of a bigger profit. I need, and will wait for, a house that is ready to tackle a sensitive issue and stand behind me should the arrows fly.
    The Help had almost 60 rejections. Am I comparing myself to that author? Nope. But I understand publishers’ reluctance to step into those waters.
    Business is business, and I totally get that.
    But God is sovereign, so I try to hang tough until He opens a publisher’s heart.

  15. Great post, Janet. Trying to catch up after family vacation and this was one to really hone my thinking. Why do I think publishers can make a profit selling my book? I have always vaguely had that thought in my mind but to bring it to the forefront is definitely something I need to focus on. What is the extra something that makes my book worth the risk to a traditional publisher in a world saturated in books and a culture where books rarely sell for more than a cup of Starbucks? Food for thought. Thanks again, Janet.