Thursday, 11 June 2009

How Readers Drive Publishing

Publishing is a business which produces books in order to sell them. It depends on writers, agents, editors, designers, illustrators, copy-editors and printers to produce those books; and on marketing staff, publicists, sales agents, wholesalers, distributors, bookshops and booksellers to sell those books.

All of the people who are involved in the production and sales of books depend on one thing to fund the work that they do: the reader. And because readers fund publishing, they drive the whole of the publishing process. When readers don't buy books, the publishers lose money and everyone involved in that supply-chain suffers.

So when publishers recognise that a particular type of book doesn't sell well they stop publishing it, or they stop publishing so much of it and get really picky about the books in that genre which they will consider.

Conversely, when publishers notice that a particular type of book is selling very well, they will look for others of that type to publish.

If publishers won't consider a particular genre, agents won't be able to sell it to them; so agents quickly learn what publishers will and will not consider. As those agents don't eat if they don't make sales, they don't take on books they don't think they can sell no matter how much literary merits those books might have.

So please: don't suggest that literary agents are unfairly stifling new writers because of their own personal agendas, or that publishing is ignoring whole swathes of talented writers because those writers write stuff that is somehow too contentious or unpopular to make it onto their lists: agents, editors and publishers all look to the reader when deciding what to take on, and if readers aren't prepared to buy a particular type of book, then that type of book is very unlikely to get published.

It comes down to this: to stand a chance of being published, your book has to be well-written, but that’s not enough on its own. If readers are likely to buy your book and it is well-written, then it has a good chance of getting published; but if publishers know from their years of experience that a book like yours is unlikely to attract enough readers to make it commercially viable then it is not going to get published no matter how well-written it is.


none said...

Ain't it the truth.

Have been hoping for years now that readers will sicken of 'misery lit'; maybe the recession will finally kill it.

Nicola Slade said...

Sad but true, but do they always get it right?
I remember years ago thinking historicals were the way I'd like to go, only to gather from the writing fraternity that historicals weren't being published. However, when talking to 'ordinary' readers I lost count of how many women said they loved historical novels and couldn't get enough of them.

Historical novels are all over the place now but during the wilderness years I think the library publishers, Robert Hale, Severn House, et al, were the lone suppliers of what large numbers of women said they really liked.

Anita Davison said...

Historical Fiction is certainly one of those genres hit by the 'no one wants to read it' plea of the publishers streamlining their releases. Does that mean those HF fans have stopped reading it? I don't think so, it's simply that we aren't a majority readership so are being sidelined. This is a rejection my agent received from a publisher earlier this month:

I really enjoyed the chapters you sent, which I found intriguing, well-written and atmospheric. It's exavtly the sort of story we normally publish, but in this current climate we feel the author is not well enough known for us...........

Vanessa Gebbie said...


I understand about the marketing, and business (have run my own marketing consulancy for yonks, and I understand the need to ensure viability.

But is it not true that in the past, many publishers would 'take a punt' on something fresh and new based on 'gut feel' rather than on historic data? Abnd many many new writers have been discovered that way. To my mind, it is that element that has gone, or is close to going.

So if readers don't know about a writer, because the publishers are more unwilling to stick there necks out and maybe get it wrong...especially now, in a recession...the 'more of the same' rule holds more sway, seems to me.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

''' and yes, I can spell 'their'.

aaagh. jet lag. sorry.

Jane Smith said...

Buffy: I am with you there. My local Waterstone's has a section called "difficult lives" which is full of misery and abuse. I can almost see the tears dripping off the shelves and find it most unsavoury.

Nicky and Anita, here's the thing: while people might say that they like a genre, if they don't buy the books the publishers can't afford to publish them.

Publishers are in this to make money so if a market exists then there'll be a publisher keen to exploit it. So if there was a good market for historicals, why would the publishers NOT publish them? It's not logical, and it's not good business sense. Unless you think there's some odd conspiracy theory which justifies the publishers' decisions, in which case I want to know about it. Just so I don't meet my end in some dark publishing alley one of these days!

Lexi said...

As a teenager, I worked in Marks & Spencer, in the tights department. I was given a clicker to note which products sold best.

Useful information for the buyer up to a point - what the system didn't address was what would have sold well had M & S stocked it.

Publishers who stick to proven sellers risk missing the next big thing, which by definition will be different from what has gone before.

Jane Smith said...

There, their, Vanessa!

(You're excused the odd lapse because you're jet-lagged, and because you write such brilliant stories. Quick, everyone, go and buy Vanessa's collection now and then come back and continue reading this discussion.)

I think you have a point. In the past publishers were more willing to take a punt on something risky; now they're not so keen and will turn down things which are doubtful.

However, they are still keen on publishing those rare novels which don't fit into any particular genre or box, but are glittering in their gorgeousness.

There's a difference. And while it's easy for some of us to blame the publishing business for our failure to get published, a bit of distance can make it clear that the problem lies in the book and not the business. At least it has in my case (but that's not the issue here, so pretend I didn't say that).

Jane Smith said...

"Publishers who stick to proven sellers risk missing the next big thing, which by definition will be different from what has gone before."

Lexi, I see your point but I don't agree with all of it. Because I think that the only way publishers stick with what's worked before is by publishing books that their editors and sales staff think will work. They acquire new books every week; which means that they're not sticking with what's worked before, because each new book is different. And if all publishers did was to publish guaranteed successes, why do they have books which fail? And why do they risk publishing new writers at all? Surely they'd just stop acquiring risky new writers, at least for the duration of the recession, if they weren't prepared to try something new?

You also wrote, "Useful information for the buyer up to a point - what the system didn't address was what would have sold well had M & S stocked it."

Thing is it's very difficult for editors to be certain of what's good outside their usual genres (which is why you see so many agents and editors specialising). I don't read much SF: but when I do, each SF book I read seems full of bright new stuff which I've never read about before. Of course, the hardened SF reader might well read that same book and realise it's derivative of all that has gone before, and doesn't do it as well as those older books either; she'll know that there are better examples of the genre out there to be read. And that's what an editor risks doing each time she takes on a book outside her genre: not knowing if it's the best example of its kind. Which is partly why imprints, and publishers, specialise. Hmmm. I feel another blog post coming on about this!

Unknown said...

A very interesting post & conversation.

Surely a new idea, plot, place or even genre appeals to many publishers. It's what can be the unique selling point as long as the book is well written. In the case of a new, unknown, author the writing has to be beyond excellent.

Or have I misunderstood how publishing really works?

none said...

GUD reviewed Vanessa Gebbie's collection here :). (FYI: the contest is closed)

I think publishers will jump on something new if they think it'll sell; heck we have entire genres now that we didn't have when I was younger, misery lit being one of them.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting discussion! Although I agree with all you say, Jane, it's so frustrating when you hear from readers (and often it's library readers, who can't influence the sales figures even if they do provide me with some welcome PLR!)that they like a certain type of book (in my case, middle-aged heroines in contemporary women's fiction) - but because these 'don't sell', I can't write them. Well, I could, but they'd be turned down!

Sheila Norton said...

I so agree about misery lit. Where did that 'new trend' come from? If only we could all start a new trend for the books we like writing, that somehow grew as big as that one did - we'd all be laughing! I SO could not write anything miserable - can't help it - even if I touch on serious subjects, I have to put some humour in. Who wants to read about other people's miserable lives?
(Sorry, that was a rhetorical question - evidently loads of people do!)

Melinda Szymanik said...

I agree the reader drives publishing but its even harder when your reader isn't your book buyer. One of my books was languishing until its junior readers gave it a big tick compelling the parent and grandparent buyers to give it a go.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Memo to Self: Next project will be a comic misery memoir.

(And a red-faced thank you to Jane and Buffy Squirrel for their generosity above.)

catdownunder said...

And then there are exceptions - Stephen Hawking's book "A short history of the universe" was a "best seller". It is said that the vast majority of people who bought it have never read it. Given that it requires an understanding of mathematics and theoretical physics this is not surprising.
The reason it sold was almost certainly because people are fascinated by the idea of someone with a disability doing what he has done. If he was an able-bodied professor of theoretical physics very few would be blog issue for the day Jane!

Dan Holloway said...

Jane, ooh so much to say on this but I'm due in Docklands too soon to say much of it (btw - the cause of chaos yesterday in London less to do with Tube strikes, more to do with Beckham appearing in selfridges window in his undies!)

I'm sure you know, for me literature is the conversation between readers and writers. I have no truck with ivory tower writers. I likeqwise don'ty think publishers are monsters for not publishing writers - they have very good reasons for not publishing many great manuscripts, most to do with lack of readers. I blogged about this yesterday (

The problem I have as a writer with the reader-publisher-writer relationship rather than the reader-writer one is (I'd love to discuss at length - you probably know I'm one of those annoying Myers-Briggs "E" types [as opposed to the lovely Jaguar E-types] who thinks by talking - but I won't be back to the web possibly till Monday - will gladly carry on then - not being rude if I don't get back before) not that readers drive publishing (of course they do, publishers are businesses). It's the timeframe. If you're an established writer with whom publishers are in contact, they'll know about your trending book in time to publish it before the wave subsieds. If you're new, they won't know about it until it's finished, by which time you'll be lucky to secure a spot in the rip-off of a rip-off bin.

The problem (and from where I sit as you know I think it's the publishers' problem not the writers') is that publishing is a big old ocean liner - it's generally not flexible enough to respond to the market in a swift way, and not subtle enough to respond in a nuanced way. Whereas writers and v small collectives/presses ARE. They can adopt the flat business model I think publishing will turn into - with a highly skilled and savvy manager (who may be agent/writer/PR in the new model) at the core, who is in direct contact with outsourced editors/printers/marketers.

Dan Holloway said...

Interesting question/thought: I'd love to see some longitudinal research on publishing "trends" - are trends getting longer/shorter; how soon do they peak, and how quickly do they tail off (i.e. what's the shape of their curve) I think lots of us have an idea they're cycling quicker than ever (which is one of the axionms of muy argument - if they're actually getting slower I'd be prepared to admit I'm wrong), but has anyone done the maths?

Cindy R. Wilson said...

You make some great points in this post, something new and aspiring authors should know. Publishers are in fact running a business and they do have to publish what will sell and appeal to the masses in order to keep afloat. It is important to have a great book, but being published also takes research and timing. Knowing where to submit, what to submit and when to submit.

Unknown said...

Look, I've told you. She's not a cat, she's an alien. Next she'll be taking over the world and doing other little jobs... like taking the kids to school in your tank.

Mind you, she is a bit tasty.

Pelotard said...

One thing I'm curious about is the amount of market research that goes into the opinions of publishers and agents. Are they harassing people who walk out of bookshops with questionnaires, asking what they would like to read, and whether they actually found a promising item inside the shop? Or are they simply looking at sales figures?

Because while the first method is a decently good way to pick up emerging trends, the second has a nasty tendency to lead to stagnation, no matter what business you're in: you will start to look to your customers to do your innovation for you. I think that's what many writers fear. (I also think they're at least partly right in this, but that's simply because I've never been harassed by publishers with questionnaires outside the bookshop.)

Of course, most aspiring writers also have a very inflated view of 1) their own originality, and 2) how marketable the truly original is.