"You can possess all the ‘must haves’ publishers talk about—an uncommon topic, writing chops, proven interest in your subject, a ‘platform’—but none of it matters if what you’re saying is not what people want to hear."
Ran across this nice reminder today from Linda Konner in the June 30th edition of PW: "No Room for ‘Edgy.’" Konner eventually gave up trying to publish her book about her "living apart" relationship with her partner, concluding that publishers are “followers, not leaders.” It’s a good point and one I think is easy to forget, obvious as it may seem. Big publishers, successful publishers are followers—of trends and market forces. And publishers are followers of these things because publishing is gambling. Every single time, a house is putting money on the horse who they believe has the best chances of winning. Any successful business makes predictions based on piles of market research.
Now for Christians, gambling poses an obvious ethical problem (my own angst with that reality is well-documented over there in the sidebar). But even aside from the inherent pressure cooker of capitalistic opportunism, this game is incredibly and increasingly high stakes. Huge chance and devastating losses.
But can we blame publishers?
They would throw a party if the audience who claims to want “edgy” actually bought more edgy books. I’m not alone in wanting more edgy, innovative books. Far from it. And writers, that’s good news for you. Maybe I’m more foolish in my “edgy” statements, but I’m not arguing that edgy isn’t still risky. A bad bet is a bad idea for any publisher. So "edgy" is a term I think we need to be careful with. If you’re on the edge, you need to realize that publishers see edgy as a bad bet.
What we need are more people able to show that the edge is actually the "new center." The coveted spot to be. There you’d have something. Show publishers the recent research that tracks a shift toward your type of talent. Prove how many people are looking for what you specifically offer. Who are the recognizable names of people who agree, and how many do you have personal access to? This is a big part of what good agents do. They dress up a horse to look like a safe bet. Some are amazing at it—you’d never know it, but there are horses out there that are actually camels. Or waffle irons.
Okay. The metaphor’s getting a little weird. But get this: "edgy" is constantly transforming, just like the publishing game. And like anyone, I struggle with the dynamics. I’ve attacked assumptions where I might have been a better diplomat. I’m learning. But I will say that I will never divorce my heart from the process. I love books.
And for my bet, it’s only by gambling everything on our shared vision for the books that matter that saves me from the despair in those who have stopped struggling to stand on that always surprising, shifting edge.