Why This is the Wrong Time for Publishers to be Risk Averse
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, such 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Part of the aftermath of that unpublished manuscript is that the next trend will be squelched.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?
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.
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