Sunday, June 5, 2011

Take a Chance with a Weird Book

I have a pretty awesome job for a book nerd.  I get to read books only a handful of people will ever read.  Sometimes I read great books with fascinating characters and engrossing plots.  The trade-off for this privilege is that I also have to read a lot of really awful books as well.  I also get to sit by and grumble as decent, but mediocre, books climb the best-seller lists while the books I like collect dust on an editor's desk.

The only thing more painful than having a book one champions continually rejected is the practice of self-censorship one must engage in from time to time just as a matter of expediency.  Some books that I find fascinating, I know from experience, most editors won't touch.

It pains me to think of all the average, but marketable, books that get published every year, and all the weird, but deliciously good, ones that don't.  If you're curious about how this fascinating selection process works, I'd recommend taking a look at my colleague Denise Little's blog post about the way books are acquired and published entitled Two or More Years Before Publication: The Publisher at Work.  

To summarize: the acquisitions process is a group process involving the editorial staff, as well as marketing, sales, and the art departments.  Books are chosen by popular vote and evaluated not just for their artistic merits, but for their saleability.  Lots of funny things can happen in these meetings that can prevent a book from making it to publication.  Often times editors are crestfallen that their pet project didn't survive the scrutiny of their co-workers.  I've been on the receiving end of many a regretful rejection letter from an editor who, as much as they loved the book, failed to get it picked up at their acquisitions meeting.  Separate from the acquisitions process, some imprints also have editorial meetings, wherein they winnow down selections before even presenting them for acquisition.

There are many ways that this process is effective from a practical standpoint.  Group decisions help build coalitions and foster a sense of group responsibility that will guide a book through each stage in the process of production and sales.  The hope is that these group decisions will more closely mirror the current zeitgeist, and that the books chosen will therefore reach the maximum number of readers.  This is sometimes the case, but  the downside of these group decisions, in my opinion, is that they create a culture of self-censorship which then trickles down to agents like me.  Editors don't want to bring oddball projects to their editorial or acquisitions meetings if they know they're going to get shot down, and so they avoid them altogether. 

I don't believe that there's any special talent editors or agents possess that make them any better in their role as taste-makers than your average reader.  The decisions they make about which books to keep and which books to toss, are similar to the type of decisions shoppers make at bookstores every day.  No one likes to be bored, and editors and agents are no exception.  The one thing that differentiates them from other readers is the surrounding cultural influences of the industry itself, and the narratives constructed around the successes or failures of the books they publish.  While publisher's like to think they're giving their customers what they want, in truth it is a publishing professional's preconceived notions about what a commercial book should look like that most influences what readers end up with.

The lessons a publisher extrapolates from the data compiled on a book can be rather unscientific.  One poor showing can mean writing off an entire sub-genre and some successes are falsely attributed to the popularity of a theme when they're really based on the popularity of an author (or visa versa).  In leaner times, like the ones we're experiencing now, this sort of problem only gets exacerbated. On the one hand publishers are being very cautious about trying different sorts of books, and on the other they are looking to throw their weight behind previous successes that are rapidly approaching their expiration date.  People tend to respond to scarcity by being more conservative, and that can be a recipe for stagnation. Is it possible that in our efforts to better serve existing readerships that we're limiting the opportunities to connect with new readers, and to open the door to new styles and genres? 

What are we so afraid of?  There are several admirable books that pass muster with the acquisitions team, but which flop anyway.  No one has a complete lock on the marketplace, and bubbles are bursting all around us.  What would be the harm in taking a crazy risk once a season, rather than once in a career?  If your bubbles are bursting, why try to prevent the others from bursting when you can just blow more bubbles? 

I propose that imprints seriously consider publishing one hare-brained book a season, and market it as such.  Restaurants have specials every day as a way of experimenting with which dishes to add to the menu, why can't imprints create a slot each season for that one experimental book that editorial can agree is so crazy it just might work?  The rest of the list can be meat and potatoes, but once a season a book should make it to publication that will either blaze a trail to the stars or end up as a beautiful pillar of smoke at the end of the runway. Otherwise, why bother?

Likewise, readers should get their sense of adventure back.  Read something freaky once a year, why don't you?  You could read something that you don't connect with at all, or you could wind up having a revelation.  Either way, at least you won't be bored, and you'll be saving the publishing industry from itself.


  1. I'm finding that indy presses are more likely to take these wonderful chances, and because of that, I'm more likely to buy the books. I don't want regergitations of the same thing over and over, thus I'm looking more at the indy presses to fill my Kindle. It is with them that allows for more creative distiction.

    Karen Dales

  2. Ah, but do editors read your good advice? Sigh.

  3. I Agree! Some of the most wonderful books don't fit neatly into any one category. Instead they pave their own "weird" paths. These are the books I remember and love years later.

    Thanks for sharing a little inside-publishing insight.

  4. Wow. That was a fascinating read.

    As a reader, I was once mired in quite the reading-rut. I read my favorite books over and over again. Ender's game. Anything by Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, etc . . . I found a safe little niche and all but barricaded myself in it. The question of "Will I enjoy this?" never had to be asked, because I already knew the answer.

    One of the best parts of embarking more fully into the world of authorship, publishing, etc . . . is the staggering fabulousness of expanded horizons. I read from a wide variety of genres now and get to experience newfound delights and hilarity-inducing horrors. It's an absolute blast.

  5. I love your honesty regarding the process. Keep blogging. I do have a question though. I have recently published two books using createspace and amazon. I have been doing well marketing these books in Iowa via indy stores and coffee houses and a ton of small town book signings, but outside of my own point of contact concentric marketing circles, growth is a snail's pace and I know they have mass market appeal. Do agents ever consider looking at complete CS published novels, or would it be better to submit the next one and look at doing something more with the first tow later? Buzz Malone

  6. Self-published titles are okay to submit to agents. You own all the rights, and those rights could be licensed to a publisher. Agents typically frown on queries from self-publishers that tout their relative success. If you're not selling thousands of copies, then it's best not to mention it.

    The three things to remember are:

    1. if you're going to submit the book in the mail, don't send the self-published copy unless the agent requests it. Follow the submission guidelines, and send sample material on regular 8 1/2 X 11 paper.

    2. Don't refer to yourself as a published author or your book as a published novel. While it's technically true that your book is published, self-publishing is different than licensing the rights to a 3rd party for publication. You don't want to confuse the agent or give them the impression that you don't know the difference.

    3. Treat your self-published book like a regular submission when writing your query. The information agents most want to know is still the same whether your book is self-published or not. We want to know what the book is about more than it's regional success, or the trials you've had as a self-publisher. If the book really is commercial, then we'll be able to tell from the plot description.

    That's not to say that there's nothing beneficial to your self-publishing adventures. Think of it as a trial balloon. you can learn about who your readers are and where your book fits in the market-place on a micro level in ways that can help you market the book on macro level. Add the info about who your book's reader is to your query letter and that will be more helpful to an agent than the fact that you sold 500 copies throughout Orange County and your local librarian recommends the book to all the patrons.

  7. Ha. Part way through reading this blog, I wistfully thought, "Publishers need to have a 'fool around' book spot for each season. And that's where the weird books will go. Like the famous google thing where workers get some percent of work time to fool around on projects that might be nothing, but might be something." Then, lo and behold, you came to the same conclusion.


  8. Such a great post! Love visiting your blog!

    Lola x

  9. I have an odd-ball book that has gotten some agent love, but so far no one has dared to take a chance with it. I wish I could say that this post made me feel better about that! Still, it is good to know that there are minds like yours that are open to something a little different.

  10. Great post! When it comes to music and books, my tastes are all over the place. I'd love to see the industry take more chances.

  11. I'm very, very late to the party here (lateness, not of the "Sorry I'm late" order, or even the "Shoot, did I get you out of bed?" order, but of the "What do you mean he hasn't lived here for more than a year?" order of magnitude), but that's never stopped me showing up before, so:

    What I appreciate about this post -- that nobody seems to have mentioned -- is that you've connected your call to publish strange new things with a call to *read* strange new things. I know it's obvious, and not your main point here, but it's overlooked (by readers) often enough to be worth saying: the best way to encourage a publisher to publish adventurously is to *buy* adventurously.

  12. I don't necessarily care about the genre of the book, or if it is published by a big house, or a small, indie print, as long as it is well written one with a good plot. There has been quite a few NY bestsellers that I never finished reading, despite their press and a heavy marketing.

    On the other hand, how do you find a good book, when its not heavily marketed? I had to pull my own book from the Amazon self-publishing. I don't mind haters, there always will be people who can only tear down other people's work, without doing anything productive themselves. But to have a book out there, seeing that its not going anywhere at the speed I wanted it to, that is not my cup of tea.

    I also do believe in hard, physical books, I always buy paperbacks at the airport that are not marked bestsellers, even though I am an I-pad reader.

  13. I love this post, old as it is. My book started out weird, but sadly I am rewriting it to tone it down a bit. It will never be truly mainstream, but I think it's getting closer.