Who Decides if a Book Should Be Published?

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

The ultimate decision-maker at a publishing house in whether to offer a contract has changed over the past several years. Having done my share of presentations at publishing committees, I soon learned that anyone can scuttle a project. All he or she needs to do is vociferously offer negative opinions about it. By questioning the feasibility of making money on the book (which is the bottomline), that person knows what the outcome of the discussion will be. The tide will turn against the project. But one individual on the committee has the power to sway others to his or her opinion more effectively than anyone else.

What make a committee say no

But before we dip into that pool of water, let me say that publishing committees are as unpredictable as the stock market. Sometimes the committee just isn’t in the mood to say yes. That can happen because:

  • the committee has been meeting for three hours, and everyone is tired;
  • the committee just said yes to several projects in a row and realizes the book lineup is filling fast, leaving no space for unforeseen exciting opportunities;
  • a general dyspeptic mood has settled on the crowd and nothing looks good, exciting, or new;
  • truly nothing presented is especially good, exciting, or new.

Pretty crazy, huh? But it’s true.

Who is on the publishing committee?

Now, back to that one person (or group of individuals, depending on how large the committee is) who has the biggest say over which projects will receive a contract offer.  To put who that person is in context, let me tell you who serves on the committee. (Slight variations occur from house to house.)

Usually the committee consists of

  • the publisher
  • the vice president of editorial
  • the editorial director
  • editors who step into the meeting only long enough to present their projects (sometimes all the nonfiction editors will come in together or all the fiction editors)
  • the vice president of marketing
  • the vice president of sales.

Some publishers include on the committee additional executives; the number-crunchers who will run the profit and loss statements on the potential projects; and assorted managers in marketing and sales.

The person with the biggest voice in the room

The power to nix a project used to rest in marketing. If marketing didn’t see the uniqueness of the project or didn’t think they could launch a successful marketing/publicity campaign, the project would not receive a thumbs up.

While marketing still has a major say, the real decision-makers represent the sales team at the meeting. This shift occurred for a variety of reasons.

The committee reasoned that the sales reps receive feedback from bookstore buyers and the buyers at the box stores. Who knows better how significant a buy-in the book will receive than the sales reps?

Plus, if the sales team can’t figure out how to present a project in the few minutes (or seconds) they have to catch a buyer’s interest, then the book isn’t  going to garner good numbers.

Often the sales team makes key decisions about the price fluctuations on digital books after playing with stats. If the team isn’t seeing online book buyers responding well to the enticement of lowering prices for this category of book, then the team won’t be enthusiastic.

Ultimately, if the sales department isn’t confident it can sell the book into significant venues, then the book wouldn’t be published.

The discussion around the table can be positive and moving toward a yes, but once sales votes thumbs down, no argument can be mustered to change the course of events.

Does this setup for the publishing committee encourage or discourage you? Why?

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38 Responses

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  1. Call the committee a pub board, and I can trot out an old favourite.
    “A board is long, hard, and narrow. It is made of wood.”
    * I do find the process discouraging, but expected.
    * And now, exeunt omnes to the Pub, keeping in mind the old Irish blessing –
    “May you spend eternity with the Holy Family, beside a lake of beer.”

  2. Carol Ashby says:

    Makes total sense to me, Janet. I do have a question, though. To what extent do CBA publishers consider international sales potential?

  3. Of course it’s discouraging to know that sales drive the publishing industry more than the quality of the writing. When I came to grips with the reality of how great the odds are against getting published by a major publisher, I came close to quitting despite 2 years of writing.

    • Janet Grant says:

      While sales are the driver of decisions, at times publishers get giddy over the writing and decide the book must be published. It’s a rare moment, but it does occur.

  4. Janet, I’m going to go out onto a speculative limb. Please feel free to chop it off behind me, but I do think that this overview presents some opportunities.
    * Aside from the book’s target demographic, it might be worth heeding the ‘gatekeeping demographic’ of the sales and marketing teams.
    * It’s my understanding (which may be wrong) that most sales and marketing teams will be composed of ‘millennials’, ranging in age from 25 to 35 or so. I’m making this assumption based on the perception that personnel departments feel that younger people are better early adapters to new analytical tools and marketing techniques.
    * Next assumption is that the VPs of sales and marketing receive summaries from their subordinates, and rarely read more than a synopsis of a given book – if that. It would thus be rare that they would take an opposing position from the received summary.
    * Therefore, the target demographic has to include the gatekeepers – the millennials who evaluate the product versus the marketplace.
    * I’ve no doubt that the vast majority try to remain objective, but none of us can help but view the world through a generational lens. What appeals to me, from a marketing standpoint, will not necessarily appeal to a younger person. (Consider, reader of some maturity, how many TV commercials aimed at millennials leave you feeling vaguely irritated?)
    * So there may be a line of approach here, to place elements into our stories that would make them more palatable to both the sales and marketing young’uns. But where do we find out what these elements might be?
    * Those irritating TV commercials might be the best place to start, and they can really be about anything – because to a publisher a book is a commodity.
    – Car commercials tend to emphasize shared adventure, with a hint of rebellion (witness the Toyota ad using the song “You Don’t Own Me”).
    – Younger people are often shown in a position of greater authority than in previous generations – ads for medicines often show a younger doctor (usually female) advising an older patient (often male)
    – The trend in advertising some products is to show more ‘ordinary’ people, eschewing the supermodel look of the past (the current Chevrolet commercials are a good example of the use of ‘real people’).
    * Additionally, one might consider the use of more generationally-appealing names for characters. I grew up with people names Mike and Scott and Annie and Carmen, but in retrospect I should have chosen names that would have been more comfortable for the gatekeepers (if my books ever reached them)…Jared and Kylie and Brittany and Ryan.
    * This over-long exposition may be totally off the mark, and if it is, sincere apologies. But it seems logical, and it was kinda fun to develop and write.

    • Mary Kay Moody says:

      Intriguing concept, Andrew. And it makes sense. Now if we could only peek into the meetings to evaluate if your age hypothesis is accurate. 🙂

    • For those who frequent Youtube (yeah, I’m addicted to disco, especially ABBA), you may have noticed that the current Miller Light ad is called “Coworkers”.
      * If the ‘millennials as gatekeepers’ hypothesis is correct, this says a LOT.

    • To either elucidate this further or dig myself a deeper hole –
      * Looking at keywords that publishing houses use in both industry and external adverts/publicity can give (perhaps) a strong indication of what sales and marketing feel is important.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      Your analysis seems very logical to me, Andrew. I’m writing Roman era, so I’m stuck with names like Decimus,Tiberius, and Publius, but your suggestion to select millennial names for better market appeal in contemporary stories makes perfect sense to me.

      • Sue Harrison says:

        Along this line, with my current manuscript, my agent requested a name change in the main character (for very good reasons I hadn’t thought of!). I called my daughter-in-law, who is very wise and head of an office of millennials. I gave them my list of 4 or 5 possible names and they chose, and they were delighted to be part of the decision.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, I believe you’re right to think about how to sell your project to the sales and marketing teams. And to consider what key words are used in marketing materials. I might also suggest taking a look at a publishing house’s website to read how it describes itself–that tells us what identifiers the publisher wants to be known for.
      Having said that, I’m not sure striving to hit all the right notes for millennials would work in the way you outlined. The VPs of marketing and sales look over the material themselves rather than having those who report to them read the material. And while some of them are millennials, most at that level are in their 50s or 60s. Maybe 40s. Now, every publisher cares about appealing to the millennial reader but a nonfiction book on, say, loss needs to be written to an older reader, and any other approach would suggest the writer doesn’t know his or her audience.
      So while it could be instructive to dive deep into the publishing house’s identity, ultimately you need to pretty much follow your instincts as to what would appeal to the reader of your book.
      Not to mention that doing this type of research for every publishing house you submit to could be so time-consuming that it wouldn’t make sense.

    • David Todd says:

      Andrew: You are essentially saying that the audience that matters most is the publisher, not the book buying public, because if you can’t sell it to the publisher the public will never see it—if you’re seeking trade publishing, that is. I concur.

  5. Mary Kay Moody says:

    At this point, anything that reduces the mysteriousness of the pub. business is good to learn. Thanks, Janet.

  6. Ah, meetings. The bane and blessing of business. I’ve done my share–and strategized with my boss on how to get what we want. Who are the champions? Naysayers? Who comes late? Who leaves early? Who do we court in advance? Who do we surprise? What’s the best spot on the agenda?
    *I worked for years with a cantankerous executive committee. I discovered that the quality of interaction and decision-making improved when I invited Jesus into the meeting room. My private prayer (or better yet, along with the hospital chaplain) before the meeting had a remarkable impact (but don’t tell the guys who didn’t believe in God). Moral of my story? Pray! It does make a difference.

  7. It’s a little discouraging. Mostly because I’ve never put my work out there. I’ve only been seriously writing since 2014 and I just joined the ACFW in December 2016. I’m in critique groups and learning, but hoping to seek publishing soon. However, I know that the Lord will open doors when and if He wants me to be published, so I’m just going to keep on writing. This information really breaks it down and helps me to see the other side. In that way, it’s encouraging because the more I learn, the more I grow.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Christina, while the publishing road is winding and rocky, if you just can’t help yourself but have to write, then it really comes down to obedience. And down to God, who can open doors no one thought could be opened.

  8. Janet, how often do these meetings take place? It’s not discouraging to me; I understand. They have to remain afloat by making wise decisions. One would just really hope their work wouldn’t come up for discussion when everyone is exhausted, or they’d hope their work would spark an electric energy to revive the weary at the end of a long day. I saw the movie London Has Fallen over the weekend. I was so exhausted when it began and had totally planned to fall asleep … but the movie totally woke me up. I stayed awake through the whole thing, on the edge of my seat, and couldn’t get it off my mind the next day. My works are nothing action-packed like that, of course … but I’d hope for a London-Has-Fallen” wake-up moment for my works. I hope to be that kind of writer one day.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Shelli, some publishing houses have committee meetings every week; some have them one a month; and some schedule them when the editors have sufficient projects to make it worth bringing every together. In other words, each publisher has decided what works best for how many projects they need to acquire and how fast they want to make decisions.

  9. Well … that is a little discouraging, whether it is marketing or sales. But it does give writers encouragement to write the best, most unique book possible. Also makes us consider why someone would want to spend good money on our words. How do we make the story a worthwhile investment of readers’ time. I’ve got to cling to God in this, trusting Him with my words, motivation, and what I end up producing. Try hard and then let go, I guess.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Kristen, that’s a good point to ask yourself why a reader should spend money investing in your words. It certainly puts the onus on the writer to come up with some compelling and insightful verbiage.

  10. Too many years ago I submitted a novel to Lifeway in Nashville. The senior acquisition editor at the time took the concept to his pub committee. Their verdict hinged on the risk, which they turned down. The issue for me remains I’m writing for a male readership the Christian publishing industry doesn’t recognize. You know the ones, certainly not interested in romance, not likely to be attracted by historical unless it’s war related, but Biblically astute. If ever there is a market without representation in the pub world I live in, it’s this one, millennials notwithstanding. I self published it only because I could have a book for the shelf instead of a manuscript in the box. Now working on the sequel. Anyone relate?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Warren, every now and again a publisher will decide it doesn’t make sense not to reach out to the male fiction readers. But time and again, the books’ sales lagged, and the publisher decided finding that male reader was really tough. It doesn’t make sense, but then, life doesn’t always choose to make sense.

      • Warren says:

        I do get it, Janet Grant. Men most often concentrate on professional advancement and/or scripture, and don’t often take time to read for recreation. I’d rather read a novel on an airplane than try to work. There’s not enough space for my 6′ 4″ frame in those seats, let alone room for a computer to open. I’d like to think those airport book stores are the market for such reading material, but I guess the CBA doesn’t get much business there to start with.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      Warren, I’m indie publishing to keep rights for missions, but I’d be in the same position as you if I wanted a traditional publisher. I write romantic historicals set in the Roman era that are also stories about the spiritual transformation of one of the lead characters: sometimes a man, sometimes a woman, and not necessarily part of the romantic pair. The novels are not a perfect match to a popular genre.
      *There’s also not a big market for Roman stories right now―nowhere near the 20K that would yield a net profit for a publisher.

      • Warren says:

        Thanks for the note, Carol Ashby. I’m not a practiced novelist, so the first book, although interesting as a story, probably wasn’t tight enough for general publishing. I believe only 125 or so are in circulation with maybe 20 ebooks through the Amazon site. I pulled the book so it can be rewritten before the sequel is finally published. It was an interesting time writing the first. Every time I’d write a significant scene, three to four weeks later the main stream media would publish something about that scene. What a proposal letter that made! Still writing. Maybe the publishing industry will catch up to us! ha ha ha

      • Carol says:

        You have me intrigued with the main-stream media highlighting what you were writing. When you get back in market, let me know through my website link here.
        *My Amazon ebook sales are at a very satisfying level for me, but a trad publisher would need more to turn a decent profit. That’s the beauty of indie for those of us in a niche market, even if the niche turns out to be larger than I expected.
        *I love the international sales the Roman site is generating. I never expected that the website would have so much appeal outside the US or that people in Africa and elsewhere would want my books. But God puts us where we should be doing what we should for his purposes, and that might look very little like what I expected!

  11. Jerusha Agen says:

    Really informative post, Janet. Thank you! It does seem discouraging that so little, even the moods of those on the committee, can end a book’s chances. But every step of the journey to getting published is, I suppose, filled with such potholes. How wonderful that God is more than able to take a book through all the obstacles if He wants it published!

  12. Carol Ashby says:

    Janet,, I can understand why CBA publishers wouldn’t worry about Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas south of the US, but do they consider Canada as essentially equivalent to US when it comes to the Christian market?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Publishers pretty much equate Canada with the U.S. But sometimes an author who does a lot of speaking in Canada or has a strong presence in Canada would have the advantage of potentially bringing in sufficient Canadian sales for that to be a plus to the publishing committee.

  13. I’ve been to very few ‘high powered’ meetings. But I did have a meeting last October that was critical for my book moving forward.
    Nor have I ever had a meeting with a politician, let alone a thoroughly exhausted one who was almost 90 minutes past quitting time, and still had to sit down with me and hear me beg for help and mercy.
    He was what we Canadians call “up a little past his bedtime”.
    It really was a “if I don’t get his endorsement, this book will face terrible odds” moment.
    But it was as if God rained peace down upon that man, and now his name is attached to the proposal and given his clout, I know doors will open where before, they were cemented shut.
    One thing I took away from that meeting was how intense it was, and how much more I appreciate having an agent with nerves of Kevlar.
    And if I NEVER have to sit through another meeting with grown-ups? That would be fine with me.

  14. So, do agents and the agency go through similar approvals? And where in the process does the agent take on a client, vs. presenting to the agency taking on a client? In other words, when an agent reads a manuscript, and likes it, does it need to go through a similar process before an agent thinks about taking on a client? Wow…I think I just gave you your next blog topic! Thanks.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Elizabeth, the short answer is, it depends. That is, it depends on how the agency functions. Our agency doesn’t work based on any kind of committee. But the individual agent isn’t free to make the decision to represent a writer without consultation. You’re right that I should create a blog post on this topic. Stay tuned!