A comment on a recent blog post grabbed my attention. In my blog post on Is Good Writing Really Enough, Eric made a really interesting comment about how agents and editors know that a book won’t sell. It seems that publishing professionals use those words all the time, but Eric questioned how we could really know that. And that got me thinking: I’m not sure I’ve ever done a post on the criteria of why I don’t think a book is marketable. How do I get that information and where does it come from? Similarly, how does the publisher get that information?
Before I get started I want to repost Eric’s comment and thank him for making it. I thought it was thought-provoking enough to be deserving of a full post. . . .
I’m close to burning up my quota of posts for the week, so I promise I’ll clam up after this.
But here’s a thought to consider:
In any other industry, the sales people have a clear picture of what they can and can’t sell. Their job is, more than anything, to know the customers.
In the book industry, fads are rampant. Every Harry Potter has a thousand, “Just like Harry Potter!” books following it.
If the people who are in charge of knowing what readers want really had their job nailed, they wouldn’t chase every single fad. They would work on product differentiation, which is what a real sales strategy looks like, not copycatting.
So when someone tells me that “This book won’t sell,” I have to wonder how the Hell they think they know that. There’s considerable evidence that the book industry does not have its most basic market research down at all.
If someone wants to prove me wrong, they should address the “It’s just like Harry Potter!” routine that you will not see in any other industry.
Last thought – I know it rankles book industry people to the point that I am routinely ignored when I compare it to other industries. Yet when it comes to entertainment dollar, that’s what the consumer is considering. Why do people read? I’ve elicited a lot of very useful comments off of my blog recently. The same arguments that tell us that the book industry is about what sells, not literature, can be used to say that this is just another industry that has to understand its customers, trim its distribution system, and control costs.
The truth is that publishing, agenting in particular, is not like most other sales jobs. In the real estate market, for example, you can compare like houses that have recently sold to determine a price point and the selling potential of your house. How many bedrooms? What is the square footage? How many bathrooms? Is it recently updated? What’s the neighborhood or school system like, etc.? But with books it’s much more about personal taste. Few people judge the value of a book by how many words it has or how many characters. And no one can put a value on style of writing or voice since personal tastes all get in the way. I mean, yes, we do value great prose and wonderful writing, but I can’t tell you that you will earn an additional $20,000 because your voice is an A Voice or a B Voice, etc.
But, like real estate agents, we do comparables to a certain degree. For example, if I recently tried to sell an alien cowboy erotic romance only to be told by 30 different editors that they are all glutted with alien cowboy erotic romances and none have been selling well, then it’s very likely I am going to tell an author with an alien cowboy erotic romance that I don’t think I can sell her book and she should probably come up with something new. Or let’s take chick lit, for example. Why am I telling all authors to avoid writing or at least calling your book chick lit? Because every single editor I talk to tells me not to send them chick lit. Who told editors that? You, the reader, when you stopped buying all of the chick lit books they were publishing.
And as for the lack of creativity agents and editors have when looking for books, or the inability to differentiate book choices, when the Da Vinci Code was hot everyone was buying the next Da Vinci Code, and of course the same held true of Bridget Jones’s Diary and Harry Potter. Why is that? Because when readers find a book they like and are excited about they usually want to read more books in a similar vein. For example, right now I’m reading a really incredible historical romance by one of my own clients. I will guarantee that when I finish I will head out to the bookstore to find another historical romance. I’m in that head and I’m excited about what I’m reading. Does that mean we aren’t looking for something new? Not at all. In fact, it often means we are looking harder for something new. Usually because we get almost immediately sick of all the next books we see heading our way. When something becomes hot I rarely spend time looking for the next of that hot book. Instead I will talk to my clients or co-agents about what we can come up with that will dovetail off that trend in a new and exciting way. When vampires first hit the scene, for example, I started talking to my clients about werewolves (and yes, this was before we were bombarded with werewolves).
As for whether or not we see the “just like Harry Potter” mentality in other industries, do you watch TV or movies? What do you think The Golden Compass was, or the dozens of television shows that were “just like Lost”? Or let’s look at the beverage industry . . . does anyone remember New Coke? It was “just like Pepsi.”
The difficult task of an agent is not just to know what is selling now, but to try to guess what will be selling one year from now, and that is contingent on so many things—what else is hot in entertainment (books, movies, and TV), world events, what people are burned out on, etc. I can’t just look at what people want now, because books I sell now aren’t published now. I need to help predict what people are going to be craving one year from now. As for why people read, I’m very aware of why people read, as are most industry professionals. We’re aware for the simple fact that we’re all readers. The problem with that question is that not all readers read for the same reasons. Business book readers usually read to learn about business, but learn what? I read business books to gain new insights and ideas, while others might read them to get an edge on the competition. What about fiction? Some read for escape, others for great prose. Some read for plot, while others read for characters. Publishing is a business, but books are a number of things to readers. They are entertainment, they are art, and they are an escape. The trouble with trying to pinpoint what works and what doesn’t in publishing is that what works and what doesn’t changes not only market-wide, but also individually. Books I used to love and read ten years ago were very different from what I find myself reading today, and I suspect that holds true for everyone.
I don’t mind the comparison of publishing to other industries, but it’s difficult. People buy cars because they need transportation. People buy fast cars for speed, trucks for durability, etc. People buy houses because they need a place to live. What they need in a house might differ, but the basic components are the same. That can not be said of books. Yes, they all have words, characters, and a plot, but how that is built and the needs it satisfies are entirely different to each reader.
This is a very interesting discussion and I’d love to hear more of Eric’s thoughts as well as those of other readers. Why do you read? What are you looking for in a book? What are you sick of or what would you like to see more of? What would you never want to see again? And do you have any suggestions? If someone can give me a more concrete way to evaluate books (and therefore make easy sales) I would love to hear it.