Why This is the Wrong Time for Publishers to be Risk Averse

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Trends spring out of seemingly thin air. Who would have guessed that these books would become New York Times best-sellers and start trends that went on for years: Left Behind, Harry Potter, 90 Minutes in Heaven?

One publisher dared to produce each of these books (two of which became series). What did that publisher see that the many who turned it down didn’t? I suspect each publisher of the above books hoped that, perhaps, just maybe, the title would earn back its advance. A publisher took a risk. No one foresaw that these titles would bring in millions of dollars and start trends.

What happens in a risk averse environment, mountain climbersuch as exists in publishing today? Breakout books are unlikely to emerge. We all can predict that James Patterson’s next book will sell well. But what is the next Big Thing in publishing? Who is the next major author? Someone, somewhere is tapping away on his or her keyboard on the 25th revision of that manuscript right now.

But will that manuscript clear the hurdle over the editor’s desk, into the publishing committee, and be greeted with a “Yes, we dare”? In today’s publishing climate (especially in the Christian market, with Family Christian Stores filing for Chapter 11), I have to say I’m skeptical that will happen.

If that trend-starter doesn’t get published, publishers will end up competing for the same authors and the same topics–the sure bets. Then, the only way an author or agent can decide which publishing house to go with is through the size of the advance. Because, suddenly, all the publishers look alike. That’s part of the fallout of not taking risks with what is acquired. Because each publishing house not only will be risk averse in what it chooses to publish but also in experimenting with new marketing ideas and figuring out new sales channels. Risk aversion, once it sets in, permeates a publishing house. It isn’t localized in editorial.

Part of the aftermath of that unpublished manuscript is that the next trend will be squelched. Right now, publishing houses don’t know how to generate sales for novels (beyond the obvious authors). That means they don’t know if they should concentrate on historicals, romantic suspense, thrillers–or something that all the publishing pros proclaim has never worked. In nonfiction, narrative continues to do well, but it doesn’t have the energy it held even a year ago. Should nonfiction editors plummet the depths of other categories?

No one seems to know.

But here’s the thing: You know what happens when a book takes off like crazy? More books sell for everyone who becomes part of the trend that title set into motion. Left Behind opened the New York Times list to Christian fiction; the list and Christian fiction haven’t been the same since.It’s the proverbial idea that a rising tide lifts all boats.

I understand why publishers want the sure bet. Who among us doesn’t? I have no problem deciding I want to represent a best-selling author or a manuscript that taps into the rich vein of a trend. I get that, if a publisher takes too many risks that don’t pan out, the publishing house will jeopardize its health. That’s why these projects are risks–the stakes can be high.

What I’m suggesting is that the publisher undertake a certain percentage of titles each year that are risks, but reasons exist that make a compelling argument to publish this manuscript, not that one. Yes, I’m suggesting this even in our current, tightened belt environment. Risk is what is called for especially now. Everyone in the industry needs a new trend. Publishers need to stop treading water.

Agents can’t make publishers take risks. Authors can’t make publishers take risks. Only publishers can choose to listen to their gut instincts (remember those?) and take a chance. For all of our decrying how many changes are taking place in our industry, perhaps one of the most important aspects of the current environment to consider is the one the industry has some control over: to take a risk on a new author or to publish a book that everyone around the publishing committee table feels needs to be published. The next Big Thing is one “yes” away.

What other risks can you recall that publishers took that paid off handsomely for everyone?

If you were on a publishing committee, what risks would you want to take? What would hold you back from doing so?

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Why risk aversion is killing publishing innovation. Click to tweet.

Trends come from risks, not from sure bets. #publishing trends Click to tweet.

NOTE: I wrote this blog two years ago. Its premise seems more apt than ever so I updated it a bit and am reposting.

Image courtesy of watiporn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

89 Responses

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  1. Janet, Publishing has changed drastically since my first book was published nine years ago, and no one has any idea what it will be like in another year or two. My crystal ball is hazy, but I’d suspect that somewhere along the line a really talented author is going to self-publish after failing to get a traditional contract, and the industry will change significantly. Thanks so much for sharing this information, which is as true now as it was two years ago.

    • Iola says:

      What Richard said.

      In fact, the book my reader friends are telling me I *HAVE* to read is self-published: Kept, by Sally Bradley. I have no idea if she submitted it to agents and trade publishers before doing it herself, but she got a glowing review from Relz Reviews, then won the Lime Award (from Christian Manifesto) and the Novel Rocket Launch Pad Contest. It was also a Genesis finalist.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Richard, the general market has already shown that successful self-published authors can have an even greater reach by going the traditional route after fans discover their writing on their own (e.g., Fifty Shades of Grey). Publishers are thinking of indie-pubbed authors as the new slush pile–along with highly successful blogs. The material is, in a sense being test-marketed before the publisher ever lays a finger on it.

      • Your comment about highly successful blogs makes a ton of sense. The reader base has already been established which is a win-win for both author and publisher.

  2. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall…

    “Who’s gonna buy a story about people who talk funny, wear black, ride around in horse-drawn buggies, and think that building a barn with hand tools is a cool way to spend the day?”

    “Yeah, but remember that movie with Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis?”

    “Okay, call Ms. Lewis and tell her we’ll go with it…but YOU explain it at the shareholders’ meeting if it sinks like a gut-shot duck.”

    Seriously, I do wonder to what degree “Witness” made the Amish cool.

    It seems to me that the shift in publicity responsibility from publisher to author may have made the houses less tolerant of risk, they had advertising paradigms that had been established and followed over decades, and while nothing was ever certain, they knew where to put their publicity dollars to maximize their effect.

    Today, a breakout novel would call for both a compelling book, and a debut author with an established following Kind of hard to do for a novelist without anything out there; and perhaps even harder for a first-novel mid-list writer whose second book may be stellar, but who doesn’t have a handle on how to leverage social media.

    If the acquisitions were up to me, I’d look very carefully at the social media platform the author had in place, on the assumption, from my own experience, that it can take years to generate a strong and cosmopolitan following.

    If I was faced with a debut novel that drew my interest, I’d place it in a holding pattern, and I’d ask the following questions (aside from the raw numbers) –

    * Is the platform related to the book, or is it aimed primarily at being part of a support system for other writers? Is the social media following consistent with the book’s target market?

    * Are the voice and values fairly consistent, going from novel to social media?

    * Is the use of social media high-value. in terms of takeaways and the more basic stuff…like grammar. Is the involvement regular, or amateurishly sporadic?

    * Is there an action plan for the launch of a new book? Does the author have the stamina and resources (both physical and emotional) to be aggressive in publicizing his or her work?

    * Is the author willing to listen to the advice of social media professionals, and implement them appropriately?

    Concerning the book itself, I’d also have a few questions –

    * Did it leave me wanting more, and is a sequel possible?

    * Does it seem a bit too autobiographical? My assumption is that many novels written in early-career draw heavily on personal experience. Can the author reach beyond that, and produce professional work that isn’t based on their own life? Can he or she get into the heads of characters that are quite different to themselves?

    * Can the author produce new work of high quality within a reasonable timeframe?

    If I were the decision maker, I’d be willing to take a calculated risk based on researching the author’s potential as a representative for his or her work, and potential for brand development.

    Because I would have the livelihood of many people dependent, at least to a degree, on the wisdom of that decision.

    • These are great things to consider, Andrew.

      • Thanks, Jeanne.

        To put it concisely, I really do sympathize with the risk-averse publishers, because their downside risk with a debut author is increased by the current publicity paradigm.

        They’re buying the book, and committing to the author’s expertise in pulling in buyers. That’s a hard gamble to take.

    • Sorry, but all I have in my head now is Han Solo driving a wagon.

      Which is not a bad image. Cough.

      • Elissa says:

        Great, now I’m seeing him propelling an Amish buggy through a maze of boulders with a host of bad guys shooting lasers at him.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, those are all good questions. Certainly publishers don’t want novelists who are one-book wonders. Building a fiction fan base gains momentum as the author publishes more novels. And publishers understand that, especially with fiction, they need to aid the author with solid and smart marketing and publicity. Any gains are hard-won both from the author’s perspective and the publisher’s.

  3. Janet, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the way you push the elephant in the room to center stage. You create a safe place for us to dialogue about things that perturb us. I look forward to hearing from this community today.

    • I ditto what Jenni said. I’m looking forward to seeing the dialog on this post.

      What makes trends, and even what makes a book a best-seller has always been a bit of a mystery to me. I’ve seen books/movies that sell like wildfire, and the plot is lacking, and the storytelling bland, and then there’s those precious little gems that no one ones about that rock your world and change the way you think.

      Thanks for the post, Janet.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Amber, trends are hard to manufacture; they burst to life pretty much without warning. For example, if you look at statistics, grandparenting books should be perennial strong sellers, but today’s grandparents don’t seem to be into buying books on the subject. CBA readers should be avid cozy mystery readers, but so many CBA cozy mystery lines flat-lined early on.
        A publisher can be pretty sure that certain authors will create best-sellers based on their platforms. But then wonderful surprises pop up like Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling. Sarah isn’t in a position to promote the book, but that didn’t matter. The publisher has done a stellar job of keeping readers mindful of the book and creating lots of ancillary books to support the foundational book. But, still, it’s widespread, enthusiastic audience was what gave the book its initial great launch.

    • Hear-hear, Jenni! Just another reason why Janet and the Books & Such team is so respected in the industry–they’re not afraid to tackle the difficult, call it as they see it, and put innovative approaches out there. Brilliance in a blog!

    • I agree, Jenni!

    • Yes! I agree wholeheartedly!!

    • I agree, Jenni. πŸ™‚

  4. In addition to your points, Janet, and Richard’s comment about self-publishing, there is the hand of God:

    Ezra 1:1 — “the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia”

    Authors and agents still have to do their parts, but sometimes unexpected decisions are made because God moved hearts. When that happens, we can only bow in awe and gratitude.

    • I agree with you, Shirlee. I think that Providence, often known as “luck of the draw” is a major player. I think as Christian authors we need to take the advice of Martin Luther. “Pray…and let God worry.”

      The bottom line is that we’re called to write, and we’re called to write the story that He has given us. Being obedient to that calling is more important than becoming a best-seller. God will do what He wants with your work, and it may not be what you had in mind. On the other hand, it just might be that He will bless you by sending your book to the top of the best-seller list.

      Proverbs 21:1
      The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Everyone in publishing can trot out lists of books that surprised and amazed–and lists of books they turned down that went on to set trends and sell millions, much to their chagrin. As in most aspects of life, God is the one who does the unexpected and inexplicable. And one thing I love about publishing is that we all are looking for that special project that insists it be published because everyone in-house loves it. As a matter, of fact, one project I sold had everyone–including the company president–crying over the touching story while they discussed if they should publish it. You can imagine they said a heartfelt yes.

  5. It’s about the money, now more than ever. There are people inside houses who would love to see more risk taking, but they are not in control. Accounting is.

    Besides, where would those risks be delivered? Bookstores are hanging on by a thread. They need sure things, too.

    Digital-only, no-advance contracts are one idea. Problem there is these contracts can be terribly one-sided. Plus they tend to be genre specific. The “risky” book is less likely to find a home here as well.

    Leaving self-publishing as the true lab of experiment and risk.

    • David Todd says:

      You stole my thunder, James. But since you speak from a big platform, your thunder way dwarfs mine. I think publishers can reduce risks first by eliminating advances, and letting the book sink or swim. Many, if not most debut novelists who are pursuing trade publishing, would probably jump at the chance.

      Digital first, with print runs only after the book proves itself in the digital market, might work for big publishers. However, given that one of their big advantages is print distribution, I wonder just how much this will work for them.

      • Michelle Ule says:

        “A worker is worthy of his hire;” writers need to eat and while most advances will not pay for last year’s living expenses, some pay encourages a writer to go on.

        Some of the big books, think “The Shack” were sold to publishing houses when they displayed long “legs” as self published books. But I think the authors of “The Shack” had to sell copies out of the back of their cars for a long time before they reached 100,000 sold and a publisher took notice.

        Jim may have a platform that could sell that many books (and then, why use a publishing house?), but not most of the rest of us.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Many authors use at least a portion of their advance to promote their books, and that money to re-invest in the book would be lost. Plus some authors just plain old need the money an advance provides to continue writing.
        The digital-only paradigm hasn’t worked for traditional publishers. They do seem to need to have that physical copy to generate sufficient sales to justify producing the book.
        If the answers were easy, publishers would all be pursuing those routes.

      • David Todd says:

        A royalty-based contract puts most of the risk for income on the publisher, since the writer is guaranteed an income. A no-advance contract is a risk-sharing contract. The publisher doesn’t take on the risk of guaranteeing a writer an income. So you would think, with a smaller risk to start with, the publisher would be more willing to take on a new writer or a new type or one-of-a-kind book or series. Risk sharing will, most of the time, result in a win-win situation.

      • Janet Grant says:

        David, I see what you’re saying, and it makes sense. The reality is, with a debut writer, the advance is likely to be one of the smallest items in the budget. The production of the book, including book cover design and editing, plus the printing, marketing and shipping expenses add up to tens of thousands of dollars. So even if the author chose to forego an advance, it wouldn’t lessen the amount of money risked enough for the publisher to move forward.

    • I’m not unhappy that publishers are not taking very many risks.

      We tend to look at the upside, and the successes, but a few sales disasters can kill a house.

      Look at William Kimber (London) – their story is not about ‘risk’ in the sense we’re discussing here, but it points out that every acquisition can be risky.

      In the 1980s they bought and published a memoir by Eric Thomason, “Whirlwind Pilot”, recounting the author’s experiences flying the Westland Whirlwind fighter-bomber on cross-Channel raids in 1942-43.

      It seemed like a sure winner, as there were virtually no firsthand accounts of operations on this aeroplane.

      However…the book turned out to be a fabrication, and Thomason later admitted that he had written it as a ‘tribute’ to the men who actually flew the Whirlwind.

      Kimber recalled the copies in the distribution chain and shredded them; they lost a lot of money, and by the end of the decade this much-loved house was gone.

      Until the new face of publishing is clearer, I would much rather the houses make a steady revenue stream their priority.

    • Janet Grant says:

      James, I’d say the sales team is the ultimate powerhouse at today’s publisher. They’re the ones who project how many copies they can sell–and that’s the ultimate decision-maker. But you’re certainly right that the sales numbers dictate the decisions.
      Self-publishing is a hotbed of experimentation; the problem is that the author might have written a book that could start a trend, but can the author find enough readers for the book to show its potential?
      There’s no perfect system, but I’d sure like to see publishers take their share of the risks because they have the ability to ride a wave (should one develop) by infusing money into marketing and publicity, finding new distribution outlets, overseeing inventory, going back to press at the right time with the right quantity, and developing–with the author–ancillary product. An indie-pubbed author would be hard-pressed to ride that big of a wave.

  6. Sheila King says:

    Thank you Janet for another thought-provoking post.
    Off topic: dying to see the 2015 speaking/appearance/conference schedule for the B&S staff! Thanks.

    • Sheila, I am too. Sent an email inquiry about this just yesterday.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Awk, Sheila, I’ve been working on a website update and totally forgot that our old schedule is still up. Thanks for the reminder!
      I can tell you that Wendy and I will be attending the Mount Hermon Writers Conference and Mary will be on faculty at the Blue Ridge Writers Conference, April 10 and 11. Those are the travels we have planned through the spring.

      • Mary Keeley says:

        Thanks, Janet. One slight correction. Date of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference in May 17-21. It seems worth mentioning here in case someone begins to make arrangements.

  7. Janet,

    Love, LOVE this post! Yes–we all get that money is the bottom line, top line, and everything in between. But like you indicated, sometimes risk isn’t just a trend-setter–it’s the golden egg game-changer.

    Bravo, Janet, for again calling it!

  8. Loved this post, Janet. You make a great point for publishers taking risks. If nothing else is working to sell books, then what is left but to try something new?

    I wholeheartedly agree with what you’ve said. πŸ™‚

  9. Great topic, Janet!

    Here’s my thing, I grew up in a BIG city, in an ethnically diverse home, and we attended an urban church with as many cultures represented as the UN. I met believers from all over the world, highly educated people who loved to read. In my college and beyond years, many of my friends at church attended Regent College, or were doing any number of degrees at the University of British Columbia, also known as UBC. Some of these friends escaped revolutions, and some were farm kids from an hour away.

    And very few of them were entertained by fiction in which the hero drove a wagon and the heroine’s biggest challenge was finding her lace gloves.

    If the big pub houses do not wake up and smell the coffee, the curry, the fry bread, the borscht, the hummus, the sushi, the lentils and the bok choy?

    The will all go under, and then stand around wondering how on earth it happened.

    • Sheila King says:

      Jennifer, I love your point of view!

    • That should make someone hungry for progress! πŸ™‚

    • Janet Grant says:

      If we’re talking about the general market, it’s so in agreement with you. The editors, who tend to be cosmopolitan, are curious about other cultures and the points of commonality we all share.
      In CBA, the editors I know tend to have far-ranging reading habits. But time and again, CBA readers vote for the insular Amish culture or the white American exploring a country the reader has never been to. But to read a book about a very different culture and characters from that culture seems to make the readers uncomfortable. Since they vote via their wallets, the editors’ challenge is how to give them gentle pushes out of their nests to test their wings rather than pressing them so far they plummet to Earth. More adventuresome believers flew out of the CBA nest a long time ago. Now, how is CBA to get them back? It’s a conundrum.

      • Iola says:

        Well said. It is a conundrum, but if the CBA don’t work it out and start attracting a more diverse range of readers, they’ll literally die out as their existing customers go to their eternal rewards. Yes it may take two or three decades, but it will happen.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Iola, nothing like being faced with turning into a dinosaur to motivate change! Christian fiction is especially susceptible to extinction. I do feel heartened when I attend conventions such as American Christian Fiction Writers, where many younger women are hard at work to become strong novelists. They are our bright hope, if CBA publishers will give them megaphones so they can tell their stories.

    • Piper says:

      Well said Jennifer, only I disagree that it will take two to three decades for it to happen. The CBA market does not seem to understand that their lack of diversity will be problematic very soon. I think indie pubbing is showing the way on this.

      • Nadine says:

        I agree, Piper. As a longtime reader and big fan of Christian fiction, I hope to see more diversity from traditional Christian publishing houses soon–and not just “separate” diversity via separate imprints, but a diverse range of authors and books that are published and marketed together for a wide, diverse audience.

  10. One thing that may be worth mentioning is that a risk, successfully taken needs to be followed up to gain maximum leverage.

    Case study from WW2 – in 1942, the German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and the cruiser Prinz Eugen, were effectively trapped in the French harbour at Brest

    The decision was taken to try to get them to Kiel, in Germany, and so the epic “Channel Dash” was born; the Germans steamed up the English Channel in the face of overwhelming airpower…and made it through.

    And then…the Gneisenau never left the Baltic, and was eventually beached to serve as a “fixed fortification”.

    Prinz Eugen survived the war in safety, only to be expended in an atomic-bomb test at Bikini. She’s still there, if you care to visit.

    Scharnhorst was dispatched to interdict a Murmansk convoy, but was herself caught and sunk by HMS King George V.

    In short, the Germans (of whom I am NOT a fan) gambled and won, but theirs was a Pyrrhic victory, as they had no concrete plans (or, really, ANY plans) to use the ships they saved.

    So the whole exercise was rather a waste. Resources were expended that could have been used elsewhere, and they may as well have let the ships rust in French waters, with their crews entertaining themselves in French style. Everyone would have been happier.

    The moral would seem to be that a successful gamble calls for another, with higher stakes, lest the momentum and “mojo” be lost.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, your point is well-taken. Publishers are well-suited to respond whenever a book shows unexpected sales energy. Most publishing house executives know how to take advantage of momentum by increasing marketing and publicity support, managing inventory (which, if not done well, can sink the entire publishing house because the print runs are so big and must be warehoused), creating ancillary books and product from the successful title–and buying more titles of that ilk. It’s a crazy dance to do well. But publishers tend to know the dance steps–unlike the Germans who had no plan for their ships.
      The way I read where publishing is right now, everyone is on high alert to spot the trend and then–this is the crazy part–over-produce titles. But that’s another blog post entirely.

  11. Janet, you mentioned that you wrote this post two years ago and updated it to repost. It makes me wonder how the commenters on your previous post have fared since then. Would you be interested in linking back?

    • Janet Grant says:

      Here you go, Jenni. The original blog post. http://www.booksandsuch.com/?s=how+risk+averse+publishers+kill+trends

      • Thank you. It was eye-opening to read back. I recognized two commenters there who are now indie published, and one who has published a few titles with a small press. Since you posted in late 2013, it’s encouraging to see their progress.
        Because you at B&S know what publishers are buying, you’re on the cusp of trends, but it seems like the wind can shift so suddenly. You wrote, “We’re looking for clients with staying power, whose writing will enable them to ride out the changing tide.”
        This makes me excited, and motivates me to keep at it.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Jenni, so it sounds as if a few commenters have gained traction since the last time I posted this blog. Considering that in traditional publishing it can take two years from the time you contract to having a book release, it’s hard to know what projects might be in the works.
        Those of us who have observed the biz for awhile know that trends are a great wave to ride, but staying true to oneself and staying on course is the best way for long-term success. It’s just that sometimes the wave gets momentum going from the outset.

  12. Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    I read a lot of YA and middle grade, both for my own pleasure and to my 3 sons. We tend to start a series on recommendations from friends and have read a lot of best selling books together. Something I’ve noticed with the best sellers that I’ve read, they tend to just sing! The pacing is fast and effortless and you forget that you are reading way too late past bed time (for my boys) and the best sellers have at least 1 really cool concept attached to that quick pace. A boy genius who takes over his father’s evil empire, abandoned boy finds out he is a wizard, what if the Greek gods were real, a girl’s school for young spies, the Roman coliseum meets reality TV, a boy who can’t become a knight gets trained to be part of the king’s secret society of spies, what if you could talk to dragons and they are just as disobedient and snotty as you suspected…. The best sellers have that core of “fun” and even books with a higher vocabulary like Ranger’s Apprentice and How to Train Your Dragon tug you through the story at a lightning speed. Now…all I’ve got to do is perfect those elements myself. Argh!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Kristen, you’ve done a nice job of analyzing what makes a YA/middle grade fantasy work. The concepts for each book create a strong hook. I’ve always advocated that it’s incredibly difficult to get any traction for a book–in capturing an editor or agent’s interest to getting a contract to the book selling well–without a great hook.

  13. Interesting post. I’d love to see CBA publishers take risks – and for them to pay off (there’s the catch).

    For several reasons I decided to mix traditional publishing (LIS) with indie and it’s working well for me. I’ve found many readers who enjoy my writing and are willing to talk about my books. Romantic suspense lends itself to publishing frequently – and readers seem to consume the genre at an astounding rate.

    But that foundation of books + readers means I have room to explore new things within my own writing going forward. I can be my own risk taker, and if it doesn’t pay off then no one loses but me. Sometimes experimentation is worth it, even if it fails – as someone else mentioned.
    Plus, it’s fun!

    • Sounds like you’ve found a good balance, Lisa. Do you think one reason is because you’ve focused on a specific genre? You didn’t have to start from ground zero when you chose to go indie. It seems to me your reader would be loyal to your style and voice regardless of who published the books.

      • My first self-published book came out 2 months before my LIS debut, which is when their books go to book club readers. So I was very strategic with the timing, and I try to space them out evenly.

        I think the genre has a lot to do with doing well, which is where ‘brand’ comes in. But at the end of the day, I can take my voice into sub genre’s like futuristic romantic suspense, or supernatural suspense. It’ll be an experiment, for sure.

  14. Janet, I truly enjoyed this blog and it really brought up some great questions.

    One risk publishers took coming to mind for me is Nicholas Sparks. Writing romance is one thing, but writing it with inspirational twists and themes is another. I’ve always appreciated his depth of realistic characters and how he brings in small town communities in his writing. These stories also make great movies. His books have helped many inside the inspirational romance genre and sparked an appetite for books that move and motivate people to have better lives and relationships.

    If I were on a publishing committee I would seek books striking an emotional chord inside me. Those that inspire, teach valuable life lessons, and make us all better for reading them. I love books and movies that leave me feeling better about myself when that last page is turned or final word is spoken on the screen. Rare to find, but so worth it when they come. Books not doing this I wouldn’t take a risk on because I think publishing is looking for that next author who can deliver responses to the things we all crave: Love, answers to emotional questions, and something giving us a renewed belief in the future and each other. And this could be coming from either fiction or non. One only needs to look at the success of “American Sniper” to see what’s drawing crowds.

    Risk is something I wish publishers would take more of, though from a business point of view I see why they rarely do. However I’m a firm believer in taking chances on something I feel, in my gut, is really special.

    Thank you for posting this article. It’s one of my favorites!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Thanks so much, Randy, for your kind comments and your thoughts on what publishers should be looking for. I think you’ve hit on something important: Many of us want to be uplifted by what we read. We don’t necessarily need a Pollyanna type of book, but so much of what we’re exposed to is dark.
      I would also point out that the publisher who produced Nicholas Sparks’ first book took a chance by publishing a romantic novel written by a man. A high risk decision indeed.

  15. Peter DeHaan says:

    Janet, thanks for an insightful post!

    As some of the comments alluded to, if Christian publishers are risk adverse, the only option for most Christian authors will be to self-publish.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Peter, the decision to self-publish makes sense if your goal is to get your message out there, recognizing that most writers’ best efforts to market their books will fall short of what they could have done if they could team up with a traditional publisher. For some writers, traditional publishing is a dream they don’t want to set aside. Each person must make the best decision in light of a risk averse industry.

      • Peter DeHaan says:

        Thanks, Janet. I’ve been so conditioned to understand that I’ll need to market with a traditional publisher, I’ve forgot that they will help some.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Peter, they don’t always bring a lot to the table, but the marketing-publicity team knows how to reach audiences that are out of reach for the average writer.

  16. Such an on-the-moment blog post, as myself and other would-be,new, and published authors have been talking about the same thing on fb, twitter, etc. Even three years ago, most of the writers I talked with wanted traditional publishing. Today that is not the case. When I talk with others, I hear about Indie publishing’s freedom to be within a genre but outside the box, quickness of publication, and profits. Many Indie authors (especially younger ones) have no real desire to trudge through the long halls of traditional publishing and don’t necessarily believe it will bring them more $$. And as everyone is saying, you have to do so much of your own marketing anyway. One author I was talking to at a recent mini-conference has published two suspense series and is making–she says–about $100,000 a year. She put her first book out there 5 years ago. She is her own master and talks with distain about traditional publishing. Just an opinion, but I think if traditional publishing is to survive, they will need to develop some guts and new ways of doing things–quickly. πŸ™‚

    • Janet Grant says:

      Linda, I so understand why writers would skirt around traditional publishing.
      Just to fill in some details of the publishing landscape, all the data I’ve seen indicate the authors who make six figures (or even five figures) in indie publishing are miniscule compared to those who make a couple hundred per year. Just as in traditional publishing, the “1%” make very fine livings, but the 99% make extremely little. The gap between the 1% and the 99% in self-publishing wages seems even greater than in traditional publishing. I would also take the proclamations about what authors make with a grain of salt. I’ve found people tend to exaggerate their success and underplay their failure–regardless which publishing route they’ve chosen.
      While authors DO need to do their own marketing regardless how they publish, traditional publishers DO support their authors with marketing and publicity. They bring to the table connections and savvy about what works that an indie-published author would be hard-pressed to garner. Recently I’ve been impressed with some of the creative and effective marketing plans I’ve seen for my clients. I think publishers are beginning to figure out how to market well both online and through other mediums that hadn’t been considered before.
      And never forget that, while self-publishing allows a person to be one’s own master, that means you have to undertake every role that a traditional publishing house has staff for–all the way from publisher to administrative assistant.
      Ah, if only one answer were the right answer for everyone, or if one answer were a clearly superior answer, life would be so much simpler.

      • Janet, I wouldn’t take what indie publishers report as sales/income with a grain of salt. I’m part of a secret Christian indie FB group (secret because FB keeps trying to send us people who don’t belong), and we share lots of numbers with each other. So without knowing exactly what you’re hearing, I do think there’s an excellent chance that the numbers are correct. There are voracious readers out there who read four to seven books a week, and indie publishing has opened doors for them to afford that formerly expensive habit.

        Also some of us in the indie loop have qualified for ACFW’s Qualified Independent Publisher status, and we have to take screen shots that show exactly what we made and the time period we made it in. I believe that I’ve made more going indie than I would have as a debut novelist. I’ve already earned out (based on what I hear is the typical beginning novelist advance), and my book is not yet six months old. There are years and years and years ahead for me to sell that book and, hopefully, continue to provide an income for my family.

        This group I’m in has a lot of the big-name Christian indie authors. If you look at the top 20 bestsellers on Amazon’s Christian contemporary romance list for example, typically all but one to three are indie published, and many of those bestselling indies are in my group. (As I write this post, the entire top 20 in this list are indie books. No trad-pub books.) A number have quit day jobs because the indie job pays well enough. Which gives them more time to write, to put more books out there, to make an even better living.

        I actually think the difference between the 1% and 99% is not as drastic in Christian indie publishing as it is in traditional publishing. My book was just on sale last week for $.99–and I kept 2/3rds of that. Sold hundreds of books and made a wonderful income while finding new readers at the same time. As indie publishing has become more and more accepted as an option, I’m hearing from more and more writer friends who’ve found themselves stuck in their trad pub careers–not able to sell any more books because their book sales weren’t strong with their debut–and the publisher wasn’t willing to take the time to build them. Indie publishing really is an honest-to-goodness viable option. Not an alternative, an option. And we’re starting to see a few successful, well-known, traditionally published authors join our group and publish indie novels.

        This is a rather long post; my apologies for that. In essence, I felt I needed to respond to the comment that the numbers put out there aren’t correct. Without being in that section of the market and knowing that firsthand, that’s a risky statement to make. It’d be similar to me making statements about the finances of traditionally published authors and their houses when I haven’t worked for a publishing house since the late ’90s. πŸ™‚

        What I loved about your post is your willingness to call out publishers on being risk averse and how it can ruin the market. I do pray that publishers, editors, etc., listen to this and act on what you’ve said. I love the Christian publishing world, and I want to see it succeed and grow and reach Christian readers with the kind of fiction they’re longing for.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Sally, thank you for your enlightening response. First of all, congratulations on the success you’ve found through indie publishing. And to the others in your secret FB group who are doing well.
        I appreciate your reminder that you do need to reveal your sales numbers for certain writing awards.
        I was basing my comments about sales on data that are gathered each year and reported at Digital Book World, in which the amount of money made (gross, of course) from self-publishing versus traditional publishing is explored. And also from my subjective experience of talking to indie published authors who aren’t making as much money as others in the industry think those authors are.
        I wonder why you think Christian romance writers, as opposed to general market romance writers, can do better self-publishing rather than going the traditional route. Or did I not understand your statement. I hadn’t thought in terms of Christian writers being able to do better. That’s an interesting thought.

      • Janet, I missed your reply before. Don’t know how. I appreciate your reply. God bless you for bringing forth this subject. We all want Christian publishing to survive. I don’t want to see these houses we so respect go under, but I am amazed at all I am learning and seeing on Indie sites. This is not a passing phenom. It is here to stay. However, if the two sides could meet together and figure out a way to work together to the benefit of all (more respect and profits given to the writer by the publisher is one of the things I see as needed, and I could be off on either of those, but don’t think so. Notice I am not saying individual editors, etc. but the publishing house) we might all benefit. But we are going to have to wait and see. Indie, though, is going great guns. By the way, I have tried for 7 years, 4 conferences, critique groups, writing books,an agent, and editors telling me my writing is good to very good,and spent quite a bit of money on all this to try and get accepted by trad house. Rejects! πŸ™‚ If one person would have taken me under their wing to say what I’ve finally figured out is a genre problem, maybe I would have been published. I think. πŸ™‚ Anyway, I’ve worked hard and Indie people are encouraging and give their help free! I know it costs to go Indie, and I haven’t yet, but that is my plan for this year. I can do it instead of paying for another big conference.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Linda, that’s sad to think you invested so much in trying to get publishing traditionally yet no one offered you the insight that your manuscript was being rejected because of genre blending.
        Going indie is the best decision for some writers; for others, it’s not how they want to publish. I don’t think there’s one right answer that fits everyone. I certainly understand your perspective that, for the price of a conference, you could have a published book. It sounds as though you’ve found the path that makes sense for you. And that deserves a big congratulations.
        I hear you when you say traditional publishers should think about changing their modus operandi with authors, finding ways to express how invaluable authors are to the entire ecosystem and paying accordingly for the creative work authors provide makes long-term sense. An intractable approach to writers drives them to find places where their work might find more receptivity. I get it; I wish more publishers did.

      • I could definitely be wrong on why I think the Christian market writers have less difference between the highest and lower/more average earners. My thought is that the top sellers in the general market seem to make so much more than the top sellers in the Christian market–Stephen King, Patterson, Nora Roberts, etc. I don’t know that CBA’s top sellers have reached that $ amount.

        As for the potential to make money… I do think the successful general market, indie romance writers probably earn more. Sadly, there’s a lot of really raunchy fiction out there and lots of readers buying it up. πŸ™

      • Janet Grant says:

        Sally, general market novelists have the ability to reach a broader audience simply because they aren’t fenced in by incorporating the spiritual element into their stories. Nor are there restrictions on the way sex or violence is depicted. A book that is marked as “Christian” will appeal to a more limited market. But Left Behind opened up the New York Times list to Christian fiction and to such authors as Karen Kingsbury. Not only is the premiere best-seller list open to Christian fiction but also general market retail outlets are much more interested in carrying Christian fiction because they’ve come to realize it makes them money. But the way Christians write fiction tends to be self-limiting in that it will appeal to a smaller segment of the overall market.
        At this point in the discussion I like to think about Debbie Macomber, who writes heart-warming stories that could easily fit in CBA. Her books remind us all that the general market likes sweet stories as much as CBA readers do.

  17. Janet,
    Thank you for all of your wonderful replies. This post has been most educational and encouraging, and I appreciate you taking the time to respond to our comments and questions.

    God bless you,
    Amber Schamel

  18. Agree with Amber on that! Thank you for the post.

  19. Sara Bradley, thank you for your wonderful response–from someone who is there. This is what worries me. That traditional Christian publishers are not taking risks or changing the way they do things these days so that they can survive. I want them to survive! They say they are selling less fiction, You and I know that’s because so many people are buying Indie–not buying less Christian fiction, but buying from Indie authors! I love Christian publishing and its books! Publishing houses can help authors instead of standing in their way. Publishers and even agents can jump on and redefine some things they do by being the editors (line, content, whatever) and the means (cover designs, book set-ups for all ebooks and print), and picking up more of the marketing (of yes) and also teach writers to write!!! An agent or editors comments have helped me so much more than classes in the very expensive book conferences I have gone to. And Indie authors need to know how to write as well as trad publishers. Fear is not of God. πŸ™‚

    • Janet Grant says:

      Linda, are you suggesting that Christian publishers and agents should align themselves with successfully self-published authors by offering editing, cover design skills, etc. to enhance what the authors are producing? That those connected to traditional publishing redefine themselves and ask indie authors how we can utilize our skills in the self-publishing world? That would be quite a topsy-turvy change for publishing to undergo.

      • Janet, as I wrote that last reply, I thought it could sound like that–a topsy turvy publishing world. And yet, going forward, something like that might have to be done if big publishers want to survive. I admit I am looking at this after spending many hours/days/weeks reading on Indie sites. I really feel that trad publishers are already losing money, because I do not believer people are buying less Christian fiction as much as people are buying more Indie Christian Fiction. It is out there and more is pouring onto the internet each day. These authors (and many that use to do trad pub) are prolific writers. Agents (and I say this with all respect to what you do now) would be in the best position to help Indie authors. Say a new author came to you, you would help critique and edit their work (one of the most needed things I see), you would also help them format and get a cover for it, and market it. Right now, the author must do it all alone, and that sometimes looks overwhelming. Help in the form I’m suggesting would be wonderful. My agent at the time suggested this to me, but later decided she was not ready to go that route. Of course, the Indie world knows what they are doing. An agent or editor with a publishing company (if they took on this mission :)) would have to know how all the pieces work. The learning curve for me has been and will continue to be great. I could be so off the mark on this that it is crazy, but all that remains to be seen.
        I thank you again for your replies and patience and will continue to read the blogs. One other impression I wanted to correct–I have loved going to all those conferences and getting to know great people and learning more of the art of writing! God bless you.

      • Janet Grant says:

        Linda, we all benefit from the conversation we have via the comments section. The idea that Christian fiction readers are being satiated by indie-pubbed books is one I hadn’t thought of. I’m going to take a closer look at that. And, while fiction as a whole is struggling right now at publishing houses, the big five are making profits. When profits are being made, publishers don’t feel compelled to make changes, even though long-term that could be an unwise way to go.
        I’m sure the conferences were wonderful connecting points for you; still, it seems you should have found the help you needed to redirect your manuscript. That’s part of the reason you paid the big bucks.

  20. Nick says:

    I would add that a publisher shouldn’t just take a risk on a book because it’s different. Someone at the publishing house has to have passion for the risky book. And if that person can convince others in the building to have that same passion, the book will have a greater chance of success. Publishing risky books we’re passionate about is what makes publishing exciting.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Nick, amen! If one person at a publishing house is passionate about a project, that won’t add up to a successful title. The team has to agree that this is a book worth taking a risk on, not because it’s different but because it’s a book that needs to be published.

  21. Janet, this is an excellent post about publishers being risk-averse. It is something that concerns me a great deal, particularly for the CBA market. I’ve been following this discussion over the last day and finding it fascinating. Your comment here struck a chord: β€œThe idea that Christian fiction readers are being satiated by indie-pubbed books is one I hadn’t thought of. I’m going to take a closer look at that.”
    Yes, I think this needs a closer look! Especially after the Nielson numbers came out decrying the decline of Christian fiction over the past 2 years. My understanding, correct me if I’m wrong, is that Nielson is limited in what it can track if the book is sold online by Amazon, and/or does not have an ISBN number. Given that Amazon is reported to sell a large portion of the book market, these figures are particularly skewed. Especially since they sell a larger percentage of ebooks and ebook readers are not the same as paper readers. Figures show that ebook readers favor fiction, therefore as more fiction readers transition to devices, fewer of these fiction sales will show up on the Nielson stats. I also find it interesting that the great decline in Christian fiction sales occurred during the same time many prominent Christian fiction authors began to offer indie titles, and less prominent authors began a career in indie Christian fiction, and are doing well. Are these numbers on Nielson? Most of them do not carry ISBN numbers for the ebook version, so my guess is they are NOT.
    I hope the industry is not making decisions based on Nielson alone. They may want to try peeking at the Amazon Bestseller lists now and then to see what they are missing. As Sally mentioned, those lists are rife with indie authors. I am not mentioning this in an β€œus vs. them” type of tone, so I hope this does not come out that way. I am concerned for this industry and for the brick and mortar stores that are struggling. They will continue to struggle if they are not meeting the needs of the consumer. They will not meet the needs of the consumer if they are not aware of ALL that is happening in the industry. There is a lot surrounding indie that is not being reported. Is it because professionals are not paying attention to ebook sales? Is it because they are not tracked due to lack of ISBN or Amazon’s skirting of reporting data? I don’t know, but it needs to be considered.

    • Connie makes an excellent point that many (perhaps even a majority of) indie novelists do not attach ISBNs to their books so they can’t be tracked. There are references to these books being a shadow market that groups like Nielsen and DBW can’t track, and it’s very true. My book has been on seven Amazon bestseller lists for the last week, and since there is no ISBN attached, all my sales will go unreported by these groups who tell the industry how many book sales happen during any given time.

      This happens over and over and over, not just in the Christian indie world but in the general market indie world too. When you start studying each Amazon list and see all the bestsellers who don’t have an ISBN attached… It’s very eye-opening. And like Connie said, many of us indie novelists are concerned for how publishing houses, agents, editors, novelists, etc., read–or don’t read–this information. We don’t want these Christian publishers to fail or downsize or fold. I certainly don’t. I still read some of the fiction they put out. But over and over, we indies see statements made on the the number of e-books sold, and no reference is ever made to this shadow industry.

      Thanks for bringing up that important aspect, Connie.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Connie, publishers rely on Bookscan numbers. While Bookscan is working hard to report on more segments of the market all the time, my personal opinion is that Bookscan’s numbers are given far too much weight in the decisions publishers make. Bookscan claims to cover 75% of sales, but if they aren’t reporting digital sales, the numbers clearly are an inadequate reflection of a title’s performance. Even discounting the lack of digital numbers, the sales figures for some of my clients has been woefully under-reported.
      I appreciate your pointing out that many self-published titles don’t have ISBN numbers.
      This turn in the conversation has been enlightening for me. Thank you.

      • Janet, thanks so much for your thoughts on this. I love that you’re willing to listen to aspects that might be slipping by. That’s huge! I wish more would do that. πŸ™‚ Have a wonderful Friday!

  22. Virginia Carmichael says:

    I think these comments cover most of the thoughts I have on this subject and the rest are too complicated for a blog thread comment.
    But this whole post does remind me of the stage in indie publishing when traditional publishers are agents were crying foul at indie authors dropping the prices of their books (having free runs or .99 sales). Many said it cheapened books, devalued the work, and was going to doom publishing by conditioning readers to expect cheap or free reads.
    We all recognize now that those are very savvy strategies and just today, I saw Bethany House had several books for .99 in order to boost reviews, reader base, and push a sequel.
    I think most of the “complaints” against indie publishing will be next year’s traditional publishing marketing.
    Not that we’ll get any credit for it, of course. πŸ™‚

    • Janet Grant says:

      Virginia, actually I think few traditional publishers have figured out how to effectively market via free or heavily discounted digital titles. Most do it, but they don’t understand when it will work and when it won’t. Plus they have so many titles to juggle it’s challenging for them to pay attention to all the details necessary.

  23. Virginia Carmichael says:

    P.S.
    As for indie authors hitting the best seler lists and selling their rights to traditional publishers… I did sell my Austen Takes the South series to Howard Books/ Simon&Schuster but I made that decision after much thought and research. I was previously self published and I understood that I would NOT be able to market the books as I had before (free or sale runs, releasing on a certain schedule, making sure meta data was correct, etc.) I also knew how much to ask for an advance because Of posts like Courtney Milan’s How Much Your Series Is Worth.
    Anyway, in short, when other authors tell me that they’re indie publishing in the hopes of getting a traditional contract, I quote J.A. Konrath:
    “Self publishing in order to get a traditional contract is like smearing yourself with honey and tying yourself to a tree in order to catch a bear.”
    You MUST be educated on what you’re giving up and what it’s worth to you to sign over those rights. A successful self-published series is a gold mine and not to be thrown into the void without due research and consideration.

  24. Virginia Carmichael says:

    Sorry, in the comment above, it should read “I was previously traditionally published and I understood that I would be able to market as I had before.”
    Dinner time distractions. πŸ™‚