Edgy Books Are Bad Bets

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"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.

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10 thoughts on “Edgy Books Are Bad Bets”

  1. But it seems that once in awhile a hit happens from an unconventional book…girl meets God, Blue like jazz, the irresistible revolution.
    The key is, I think, a forward-thinking publisher who budgets some money for something different. If their lion share goes toward the sure bets, they may even hit on the unusual book. They can do that because they do have a broader focus.

  2. What we need are more people able to show that the edge is actually the “new center.”
    I like the way you think, Mick.
    Gosh, I hope I’m not a camel. Or worse, a waffle iron.

  3. I suppose edgy = bad is only for people whose center is static.
    Someone has to turn the ship.
    Someone has to be at the edge of the edge, and then let people debate for years to come whose writing (in this case) was actually the beginning of the new movement; the definition of the new center. What fun!
    And ultimately, who cares who started it? People are just glad to be moving; thinking; changing their perspectives in response to a responsive God in a responsive world.
    Yeah, it’s risky. So what? So was the Model T, air travel, and the internet – now look at us!
    Maybe the key lies not so much in ‘pushing’ the edge (with our own agenda to define the new center) but rather to perceive somehow where said center is already heading, to run out ahead of the crowd, and start shouting – directing traffic, even if it means you get run over in the process. Now that’s what I call a good time!

  4. One of the problems I have personally is that “edgy,” like “authentic” and “experimental,” has become a cliched term. What does it really mean anymore?
    Religious readers tend to read more nonfiction than fiction, so there’s more room to play with things like Blue Like Jazz and The Irresistable Revolution. Those readers aren’t necessarily reading the faith-based fiction counterparts.

  5. I hear ya, Heather. When I think of the word “edgy” after reading this post, I think of taking a sugar coated waffle iron and then baptizing it in the river, so you can see that it really is a waffle iron, instead of a waffle iron that looks like candy. Or maybe if the horse licked the sugar off the waffle iron…anyway, despite my mangling of the metaphors the Edgemeister used here, I find that if we are to move away from the aristocratic mindset that the church has seemingly fallen into over the last few centuries and just get real, our literature should reflect that movement. Or maybe, to change our mindset, our literature must change first. Chicken or the egg?
    Fiction, like a crucifix, is an impression of truth. Perhaps our impressions will get broader as time goes on, and we will see more books that allow more reality, even if it isn’t pretty or safe. One of my mentors, Helen Evans, was fond of saying, “We do not see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.” Maybe, as the church, we need to get more real so that our impressions reflect more reality, and thus our books reflect more reality as well, even though as fiction writers we’re making stuff up.

  6. Various writers/editors/reviewers have given their definitions of “edgy” writing/topics. Seems it comes up as diverse as trying to define writing as art or as controversial as the quality of literary vs. younameit writing.
    Having lived on the edge and over the edge as an unbeliever, I keep wondering why redeemed believers want to experience and transpose to their writings the sewers of life all over again. Believe me, I understand the essential need for realism and contrast in fiction, and that is my intent in my work, but c’mon, people, who do you want to honor in your writing? “Edgy” is fine if you honor your Lord with it; just don’t bemoan not being able or “allowed” to write like the world writes.

  7. From within a given context, such as evangelical Christianity, the edge, like the horizon of old, appears to be a place you sail out to then fall off into the abyss. But, as Columbus demonstrated, the edge is really a gate of entrance to another way of life, another perspective, a new world. The authors we love boldly take us to these horizons, offering us a fresh look, a challenge to our ways of thinking, being, and believing. As a writer, one wants to offer that experience. Here is something different, something new. Otherwise, why write?
    But then, back to reality. Thanks, Mick, for the gentle reminder that the horizon is, by definition, a lonely place. Or, when I swashbuckle my way to the edge, who will be there to buy my book?

  8. I just recently found your blog and I really like your style.
    I totally get what you’re saying. Even though “edgy” has become somewhat of a loaded word, we must strive to make our literature, our films, our art cut directly into the human condition bt crafting stories that poignantly display what it means to be human.
    What we need is some familar edgy stories, meaning themes that are timeless. They can be edgy, just as long as they don’t forget one of the cardinal rules of storytelling: to connect.
    Great post!

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