Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Why They Don't Publish What You Want

I feel so virtuous. I just took a nice, long walk. I'll probably need to take a shower before lunch because I'm all sweaty, but I've been out of the exercise habit other than ballet class for far too long, and I think that's largely responsible for my various aches.

Meanwhile, I finished the chainsaw work on the book yesterday. I'm down to a couple of thousand words below my target. I still need to add a scene and there's some fleshing out that needs to be done, but I also still have a lot of tightening to do. Eliminating overuse of the word "just" should knock out several hundred words. This next draft will likely add words. This is when I check for continuity, make sure the transitions work after all the stuff I deleted, enhance the characters and flesh out some of the world building. After this draft, I'll do the really fine editing, cutting out extra words or sentences, finding ways to replace too much thinking with action or dialogue, wrestling with word choices, etc.

It seems like I've got my own little amen corner here on what we all would like to see in books. The challenge is that it's difficult to measure or even be aware of unmet needs. Back in my PR days, one of the companies I consulted for did what they called "demand management." Their idea was that by tracking what was purchased and when, stores could plan for and anticipate customer needs so that the stores wouldn't lose sales from not having something on the shelves but also wouldn't have excess unneeded inventory sitting around. I think I annoyed the software designers when I asked how they could be sure about that not losing sales thing, since if someone comes to the store and doesn't buy anything because the store doesn't have what they want, that doesn't get tracked. If a particular item/size/color/style sells out very quickly, you can guess that maybe you need to stock more of that, but you aren't sure how much more because you don't know how many people walked away unhappy after the sell-out. And if the store doesn't even carry the thing the customer wants, there's no way of tracking that demand.

With books, they decide what readers want based on what's selling now. If dark urban fantasy sells well (which, as far as I know, it currently does), then they'll look for more books like that to publish. If books about elves and wizards don't sell so well, they won't buy that kind of manuscript. When they get sales figures, it starts with the author or series -- are these sales good enough to do another book in this series or another book by this author? Then if there's any kind of trending, they'll look at sales of that general type of book, both within the house and at other publishers. They'll see what the major chains are ordering, and that will influence which manuscripts are purchased.

Unfortunately, there's no real way to determine if there's something people really would like to read that isn't being published because there are no sales numbers to look at. They can only look at what's selling well or what isn't selling well. If it doesn't exist, they have no data to work with other than overall sales. If book sales are down, is it because of the economy, or is it because people aren't finding what they want to read? If something exists, but only in very small quantities -- like, there are only one or two things kind of like it -- it's very difficult to extrapolate demand from those sales figures. For one thing, with only one or two data points, they can't make a good guess on why something is or isn't selling. If there's one lighter fantasy book and it isn't selling as well as the chicks with tattoos and swords books, is it because readers don't really want lighter fantasy? Is it because that particular lighter fantasy book isn't very good? Is it because that book wasn't promoted well, so readers looking for lighter fantasy didn't know about it? Is it because readers who wanted lighter fantasy gave up on going to bookstores after fleeing in terror from all those tattooed chicks with swords and therefore weren't in a store to buy the book? Is it because the publisher was afraid lighter fantasy might not sell, so they put a tattooed chick in hip-hugging black leather pants on the cover, and readers looking for lighter fantasy ignored it? Is it because it wasn't shelved as fantasy at all, so fantasy readers didn't find it? Unfortunately, publishers are likely to just look at the sales numbers and conclude that readers aren't into that kind of thing, so they don't publish more like it.

On the other hand, if something unique sells really well, they can't be exactly sure why. That's why you always hear about publishers looking for "the next Harry Potter" or "the next Twilight" but never seem to strike twice in quite that way. Those books sell well, but what is it about them that makes them sell well? Was it because readers wanted that kind of book in general, was it because of those particular characters? Was it because of the fantasy elements or the relationship elements? Was it because of the marketing and publicity?

Sometimes you do get those things that come out of nowhere, where an editor takes a chance on something different on gut instinct (those are usually the books that have been widely rejected that then become mega bestsellers). Or a trend elsewhere in popular culture may bleed over into books. At the publisher spotlight sessions at the Romance Writers of America national conference, I used to find it amusing how all the editors tended to say they were looking for books like whatever movie was really hot at the time. That doesn't seem to be happening now, since publishing is still trending dark, while at the box office it's the comedies that are performing consistently well, and it's the lighter, escapist fare that's doing well on TV. The lighter, quirkier NCIS and it's even quirkier LA sibling took over from the darker CSI as the top scripted series. The biggest ratings the Sci Fi channel ever got were last summer with the light, quirky Warehouse 13, not the darker critical favorite Battlestar Galactica. You'd think that would be a message, but in the conversations I've had with editors and agents over the past year, they keep repeating the "dark" demand. I even had an agent walk away from talking to me at a cocktail party when she found out I didn't do dark (not that I was agent shopping anyway, so it was weird that she approached me and asked what I wrote to begin with, but still, it was an "oooookay" moment when she abruptly said, "I don't want that," and walked away).

I suppose it's possible in today's wired world to try to gather support for something that doesn't exist in such a way that gets the message out and gets attention. They got Betty White on Saturday Night Life with a Facebook/Twitter campaign. I guess someone who had the time or energy to do that sort of thing and who wasn't utterly terrified of Facebook and Twitter might be able to start something, but you'd have to keep the topic really trending and get at least 20,000 people involved to get much attention in the publishing world.

1 comment:

Chicory said...

The idea that people judge entire (small) genres based on one or two books is maddening. I adore Pratchett's comic fantasies, but I can't stand Piers Anthony's books. If the only comic fantasy out there was Xanthe novels, the only message publishing houses would hear from me would be `you have GOT to be kidding.' Good books are totally about how the writer handles the material, not the genre label.