Tuesday, August 01, 2006

78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published

I'm back home in Chicagoland now, and it’s been a hectic time of getting resettled, going through piles of mail and messages, and fighting off hordes of ants that seem to have moved into our living room. I have not really had much time or space to reflect or blog further on the Calvin seminar. I'll try to get to that soon.

In the meantime, let me recommend 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published & 14 Reasons Why It Just Might by Pat Walsh, who’s the founding editor at MacAdam/Cage. It was not part of our seminar reading, but I borrowed it from a colleague, brought it along and read it during the trip. This book demystifies the book publishing world, explains why book proposals are rejected and unpacks the behind-the-scenes of the business of publishing. A few excerpts that ring particularly true:

The main reason your book, after you have written it, will not be published is because it is not good enough—it probably even stinks. When I say your book probably stinks, I mean statistically, it probably stinks. Of the roughly four thousand submissions our publishing house receives a year—unsolicited and unagented—at least half reek of bad writing and sorry story lines. Another thousand significantly lack in one area or the other. The next eight hundred are not horrid, just not good enough—mediocre efforts, rife with clichés and tired plots. Of the two hundred left, I would say a hundred and fifty have some real merit but are a good idea badly executed or a bad idea nicely realized. From the fifty remaining, forty are heartbreakers—almost but not quite there. In some way, that is difficult to explain other than to say it usually manifests itself when a reader puts down the manuscript and is not excited about picking it back up. Or they fall apart at a crucial stage in a way that is difficult or impossible to fix. The remaining ten are very good and a few of them are exception. This crap-to-gem ratio is the reason why most publishing houses do not read the slush pile seriously and why agents depend on referrals to find clients.

The defining characteristic of publishing, particularly fiction, is subjectivity. What is pure gold to one reader can be utter rubbish to another. . . . One of the worst moments editors face is finding a manuscript they love and then having all their coworkers and bosses hate it. There has never been a book published that every single reader has loved.

How an editor’s book sells is the final number. You do not get judged on how the book reviewed, or how smoothly it went through production, or how happy the author is. It has to sell. This is a business.

The saddest victims of publishing’s cyclical whimsy are those who write the dire and tragic memoir, stories of cancer and the Holocaust. Terrible as it is to say, a Holocaust survivor’s cleanly written memoir recounting brushes with death and memories of loved ones probably will not be published today unless it has a hook we have not heard before. Cancer is another topic that publishers are overwhelmed with. It is kind of sick and I feel bad about it, but if an editor tries to sign up a book about surviving the Holocaust or cancer, there had better be a new take on the story or the higher-ups are going to roll their eyes: Not another one. The sad truth is that the genre is currently considered overpopulated.

Brutal stuff, but very true. Several times during our seminar discussions we praised particular books for their literary merit, but the sad fact was that several of these books had not found much of an audience. Sometimes authors were reclusive and not inclined to promote their book (it is an ironic rule of thumb that many of the best writers are introverts who are averse to self-promotion and marketing). Other times the books were oddly crafted or positioned and did not signal its uniqueness or contribution to the reader. Bottom line - if a book does not sell enough to stay in print, then its ministry value (for Christian books with the goal of Christian witness or proclamation) will be quite limited.

As an acquiring editor, I look for books with fresh, substantive ideas that flow out of the author’s expertise and experience, and ideally they should fill a gap in the marketplace and be written by self-motivated, networked and “platformed” authors who have mastered the craft of writing and are media-savvy enough to distill their book-length work into sound-bites for radio interviews. How do publishers find these kinds of authors? If I knew, I wouldn’t tell you!


Anonymous said...

So true for the traditional publishing and "sellability" of books; but now with print-on-demand technology, perhaps the long-tail effect will enable smaller niche authors and writers to reach their smaller audiences, yet much more cost-effectively than vanity presses! The publishers can still reach the masses (and stay in business) while the authors can reach some people and get their stories and ideas to start circulating.

Al Hsu said...

DJ - I tell folks that it's harder to get published than ever before, and it's also easier to get published than ever before. When I started out in publishing in the mid-90s, there were about 55,000 new books published in the English language each year. Now it's 178,000 (some say over 200,000!) new titles every year. This reflects the fact that print-on-demand and self-publishing has become much more affordable and feasible. Also, just in the past few years, over 70,000 new publishers have come into existence! Many of course are small start-ups that only do a few books a year, but as traditional publishing gets bigger, more independent small presses get launched. And online booksellers with infinite shelf space as well as the blogosphere are giving indy and self-published titles much more of a chance to find an audience.