Publishers Taking Risks

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Apr 11 2012

We’ve heard so often the complaint that publishers never take risks, that agents never take risks, and of course there are some who will say those are the reasons we’re seeing the “downfall of publishing” today. I don’t necessarily believe that. I think given how many new authors are published each year and how many of those succeed as well as how many fail shows that publishers take risks every day. Every book is a risk, whether it’s a debut or not. No matter how much experience we all have we’re never quite sure what’s going to grab the attention of the reader.

That being said, recently when I heard that lament it made me think back to a publisher I once worked for, and by publisher I mean the individual, not the company. This particular publisher was a dreamer and a believer in all the good ways. The publisher loved the business and was enthusiastic about all the things about it, especially the books. One of the things this publisher charged was that each editor was allowed to buy one “book of the heart” each year. What that meant was that even if everyone in-house had doubts about whether the book would sell or could sell, the editor was given the ability to make a modest go of it, meaning the editor couldn’t spend a million dollars for a book no one thought the house could do justice, but the editor could take a chance on something everyone else felt a little on the fence about.

For a young editor like me this was a really exciting opportunity, and while I never was able to buy my “book of the heart” before the publisher went another way, I held that feeling of excitement and carry it with me as an agent today.

I can’t begin to tell you how often I’ve offered representation to an author for a book that I honestly thought would be a challenge to sell, but one I was excited about. And before all of my clients get worried, upon making the offer I’ve always been up front with the author about my belief that the book might be a long shot, but one that I thought was worth the risk. Some have sold, others have not, but either way I’ve never regretted taking the chance.

One caveat to all of this is that, as a writer, if you have an agent or publisher taking a chance on your book you still want to make sure it’s a place that has some knowledge of where they’re taking the chance to. In other words, you probably don’t want me to take a chance on your illustrated children’s book since that’s so outside of my knowledge base that it just wouldn’t be a smart move. I wouldn’t even begin to know where to sell it to. You probably wouldn’t want a business publisher taking a chance on your romance novel. Again, do they have the sales force available to even talk to the right buyers?


10 responses to “Publishers Taking Risks”

  1. Avatar Wry Wryter says:

    Jessica, such an interesting post today.
    As writers we often offer projects that are, as you say, from the heart. Writing is such a personal thing that I think we authors often get caught up on how much a part of us our books are, therefore dismissing whether they are marketable. So, to hear that an agent, or an editor, may also connect with, that which is so much a part of us, I find compelling.
    It’s easy to understand then, when the connection is not made, why it hurts so much.

  2. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I think publishers are taking more risks now. Fifty Shades of Grey is a good example of this. Ten years ago a book like that would never have been sold. And they had to be taking a chance when they did it now. Or, it could have been they were thinking, "You all want to read trash, here you go." Either way, it was a chance they took and it worked out for them.

    I'm not saying FSoG is trash. I liked it. But I do believe that everyone involved with that release thought it was trash deep down inside. I also think there will be more chances taken now and it's going to change publishing in more than one way.

  3. Avatar Robena Grant says:

    Very thoughtful post. I enjoyed this.

  4. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    Jessica definitely took a chance on me. She took me on back in 2001 with a book that had a hero with sexual identity issues and a hard-assed female agent for the DOT who was pregnant by the hero's now dead brother. (and in spite of that, it really IS a good story, and ended up with an epub, but I digress…)

    She couldn't sell that book, but since 2005, Jessica's managed to get contracts for me for 20 novels and 11 novellas. In that respect, she took a huge risk, but she didn't give up, even though it was a number of years before she found a publisher willing to take a risk. That's what this business is all about: Taking risks. Nothing about writing or publishing is a sure thing.

  5. I love that you used the word 'lament' – because it really is. Seems like there's always some wannabe writer who has to self-publish because no one will take a chance on their masterpiece! After all – publishers only want safe bets anymore.
    I love that it's not true (for the most part).
    Every author will likely agree with me in saying each book is the 'book of their heart'. It's one thing for us to think that, but when an agent or editor catches the same vision, it's amazing.

    Yes, this is a business. But books can change people's lives, so it should be about the heart too. I know I put a lot of heart into my writing, it's good to be reminded editors and agents have hearts too!!

    Natalia Gortova

  6. As easy as it is to look at bookstore shelves and lament that all the books "are the same", it seems a bit silly to me to state that no publishers are taking risks. Every book is a risk. After all, how many "next big things" have flopped?

    What publishers do is place bets. They are businesses, after all, and they want to maximize their profits by putting out material that they think will sell. The good ones, and probably most of them, probably also like that material, but they're still businesses first and foremost, and they're using that acumen to try to predict what will do well. Like anything involving money, though, there's no guarantee of financial success, so everything is a gamble.

  7. Avatar CJ Black says:

    I for one am glad publishers and agents are taking risks. As both an author and a reader this is great news to me. Thanks for the insightful article.

  8. Avatar Meg E Dobson says:

    What a rare and special publisher you worked for Jessica.This post and that comment warmed my heart. I fear that type of 'heart' promise is not as easily given today. I certainly would not want any writing friends to know that I had such an open slot… 🙂 What a wonderful gift for the editor!

    Do you recall any success stories from those books?

  9. Risks are always worth it, because they teach. And hey, sometimes it's just a fluke, and that's pretty cool. Not everyone can get their book published, or the bookstores would be overflowing and there would be no trees left. But that doesn't mean risks are not taken.

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