The Publishing Casino

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"’It’s the way this business has run since 1640,’ he says. That is when 1,700 copies of the Bay Psalm Book were published in the colonies. ‘It was a gamble, and they guessed right because it sold out of the print run. And ever since then, it has been a crap shoot.’"

“People think publishing is a business, but it’s a casino.”

Those of you serious about writing, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read this article in the New York Times about publishing. Then come back and share your thoughts.

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11 thoughts on “The Publishing Casino”

  1. I’m not sure whether this is encouraging or discouraging to the aspiring author. It’s kind of like hoping to win the lottery. In a way it’s good to know that book people still have their heads in the clouds despite the bottom-line orientation of business in general, and despite publishers being bought up by huge conglomerates. But one does wonder how long they’ll get away with functioning that way.

  2. If publishing is a casino, Mick, I guess that makes you James Bond.
    I sympathize with those outsiders from other businesses who are shocked by the way publishing works, because I was (and in some ways still am) shocked, too. Let me put it this way: the only profession I can think of that seems more risky than writing novels is publishing them. As much as I wish things worked differently, my hat is off to those who take big risks on the things they believe in.

  3. mmm… so it’s about timing and hunches and tingling up the spine…and risk…
    sounds a lot like freedom to me.
    sounds a lot like the point of The Tipping Point.
    Try as we might, we will never fully understand God. That’s what makes this whole thing an adventure worth embarking on…
    Sovereignty is a beautiful thing.

  4. I honestly believe it all comes down to vision. The article describes this as “intuition” and “a tingling feeling that went up [one publisher’s] spine.” For some strange reason this seems to supersede quality of writing (which I still believe is necessary) and platform. I also think it is extremely important for those closest to the project (writer, agent, editor) to have a similar passion and vision. But there is a definite “intangible” essence that I’d hate to define as chance. I’d rather call it the God factor.

  5. Should it be a business? I believe this to be one of those “yucky” fall-outs of the romantic period. Sure, we got the image of the starving artist, but we lost our patrons and had to write/compose/perform for the masses, not just for them as in enjoy the work but for them as in cater to. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe not.

  6. It seems to me that the executives running TV and movie studios often face the same problem. No one knows why some are hits and some are misses. I like the comments above about God ultimately being sovereign over it all. It takes the worries away, at least for this aspiring writer. If God chooses not to bless my work with success, so be it.
    On the other hand, do the publishers really do this little market research? I do find that extremely perplexing.

  7. Interesting article. The sovereignty factor is the one thing the article doesn’t cover, of course. This “casino factor” business end of writing could make a writer crazy. That’s why it’s best to just write and not get distracted by what’s hot, what’s not, etc.

  8. “On rare occasions, you love it, bypass the numbers crunching, do back of the envelope in your head, call the agent and get in early and offer half a million,” Mr. Thomas says. That can lead to auction fever.
    Ah, the age-old question: Are salary and job performance positively correlated?
    Are they?
    Could we write “up” to specific advances?
    I think it’s an interesting dichotomy- Christian writers are fairly well socialized at professional gatherings to toss all hopes and dreams of cash out the window (which is also the proper positioning for a writer who is a Christian- any salary hoped for better be groceries hoped for, diapers for the kids, none of those fancy Christian cruises). I wonder if this is a feminization of Christian writing? Nurturers, not providers. Or maybe a modicum of success re: Phil. 2 and all of the money-lovin’ verses?
    On the flipside, the Christian editors, agents, marketing folks. Tossin’ the dice, raising and calling in their sporty sunglasses and baseball caps: “Please, please sell!”
    We seem to like it this way. Humble Christian Author takes godly message to Tiger Agent, Hippo Acquisitions. (I hear that hippos kill more people in Africa every year than…well, something). And of course we like it this way because self-promotion is really an “Ew” of a thing. Not so accomodating of passages like Phil. 2, Gal. 6.
    But here’s something interesting. Authors need to look not only to their own self interests, but to the self interests of others, perceiving pub houses as more important than themselves.
    What might that look like?
    How can we do better jobs of serving?

  9. Publishers don’t sell books, they offer love affairs. And that is exactly what we want: a book to curl up on the couch with, a book to hold hands on the subway with, a book to rattle our lives.
    But because love is complex and, as they say, a many splendored thing, its patterns excape the nets of market research. I don’t blame publishers for not throwing their hard earned money after that particular research project. Such research can help sell perfume, shaving cream, and pet food. These are simple decisions. But love?
    This leads, I suppose, to the horns of the publisher’s dilemma. Offer simpler books to create (perhaps) more predictable results but shallow commitments or offer more complex books with more casino effect and (maybe) more profound affairs. I’m glad I’m not making these calls!

  10. “Publishers don’t sell books, they offer love affairs”
    Wow. So true. A book is an experience; an emotion (or several!); sometimes people fall in love for the strangest reasons…and with the strangest characters…
    That’s what keeps it interesting.

  11. Great thoughts, all.
    Yet let’s be careful about the supposition that profitable publishers exist by caving to publish simpler books. If complex books are inherently riskier, how are many publishers able to mitigate that risk without publishing crap?
    This discussion, like any, is fraught with assumptions. Ultimately, it comes down to identifying your market and, as Ted points out, knowing what they love. Book lovers are not so rare, and there are new ones born every day. Few ever forget their first affair and they constantly search for it again in new books.
    Maybe it isn’t as “risky” as we think…

Discuss...