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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