Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
We all desire publishing–and life–to be a low-risk deal. But that’s not the way things stack up, not if we want to reach our potential.
Risk is involved in daring to write what’s on your heart and mind. Risks are taken when you first show your work to someone else, let alone someone whom you ask to critique it. Risks run higher still when you submit your writing to a contest, to an agent, or pitch it to an editor at a conference. Having your book published inherently holds a different type of risk: What if no one buys it?
Here’s the thing about risk: If you don’t grab for the brass ring, you’ll be left just gliding through your merry-go-round ride, never having achieved what you had hoped. Rings might not be your aspiration, but you see where I’m going with this: DARE to try.
These thoughts tumbled through my head as I read Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’ annual letter to shareholders. In part, he said:
One area where I think we are especially distinctive is failure. I believe we are the best place in the world to fail (we have plenty of practice!), and failure and invention are inseparable twins.
When I think about Amazon, failure isn’t the word that springs to mind. But, looking back, I can see that the Amazon staff have dared to think the unthinkable, and sometimes they came to realize that a certain concept should have remained unthought. Except that seeing why it failed leads one to invent a way around the problem.
Bezos explains in his letter what he aspires for Amazon to achieve: “to be a large company that’s also an invention machine. We want to combine the extraordinary customer-serving capabilities that are enabled by size with the speed of movement, nimbleness, and risk-acceptance mentality normally associated with entrepreneurial start-ups.”
I appreciate the phrase “risk-acceptance mentality.” Every start-up attempts to assess the risks but also the reasons to believe the company can succeed. A skydiver takes a grand leap but also prepares in every possible to come through the risky move intact.
“Can we do it? I’m optimistic,” Bezos writes. “We have a good start on it, and I think our culture puts us in a position to achieve the goal. But…there are some subtle traps that even high-performing large organizations can fall into as a matter of course, and we’ll have to learn as an institution how to guard against them.”
The biggest danger, according to Bezos, is a large-organization tendency to “slowness, unthoughtful risk aversion, failure to experiment sufficiently, and consequently diminished invention.”
Raise your hand if you thought about the larger publishing houses when you read that description; I certainly did.
- They’ve been slow to respond to indie publishing by looking at what indie does well and asking themselves how they can one-up what indies can do.
- They’ve been slow to understand digital book sales and how to make those as profitable as possible.
- And they’ve been afraid to experiment. It’s hard for me to imagine a publishing committee saying, “We might fail with this book, but we need to see if we can make it work. Let’s be inventive and figure out how.”
I groaned when I read “unthoughtful risk aversion.” My mind turned to two nonfiction projects I’ve sold recently. The sales were made in an odd way.
The publishers turned down these projects initially, saying the topics weren’t of interest to readers. My clients had enumerated in their proposals how they could connect in significant ways to readers who were interested. But the publishers were “unthoughtfully risk averse” and were afraid to believe my clients could deliver, despite these connections already being in place.
Yes, publishers have been burned by author promises. For awhile publishing houses wanted their decision to publish to be easy by signing writers based on the size of their blog readership. Except publishers found out that blog readers don’t necessarily translate into book readers. But still, that doesn’t mean publishing house staff shouldn’t take the time to delve into whether a writer’s connections to that audience are authentic and likely to result in significant sales.
So how did we obtain offers for these two projects from publishers? My clients produced spin-off product from their proposed books and sold oodles of the product–and used those sales to connect with even more potential readers. In other words, my clients pretty much took the risk out of the equation for the publisher by demonstrating their own ability to sell to interested readers.
That was great for my clients, but that’s not how a successful publishing venture operates at its peak. A growing company understands risk-aversion translates to lackluster performance. It doesn’t mean you should be stupid and leap out of the plane without a parachute; but one must jump at some point. And the biggest sales will come when a company innovates–not just in what it publishes but also in how it reaches a book’s audience, how to play with pricing, how to sell to vendors,how to find new markets, etc.
Agents aren’t immune to the desire to skulk away from risk. We need to listen to our gut when we read a manuscript and think, This is something special. We need to risk being honest with a client who has come up with an idea that isn’t likely to find a publishing home because it doesn’t focus on a core audience.
What about you? What’s the biggest publishing risk you’ve ever taken? What risk do you need to take?
Why publishing is addicted to the urge to avoid risk. Click to tweet.
Without taking risks you’ll never succeed in your writing. Click to tweet.