Big Idea: Bringing Instincts Back to Book Acquisitions
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There are agents and editors working in book publishing who may love a new project under consideration but realize they cannot justify it given the likely modest sales. This is especially true for first-time novelists, but also for other midlist authors who have been published before and are running out of options as the trade print marketplace continues to narrow around bestsellers.
Editors have lost much of the power they once wielded to marketing and sales. It used to be easier to operate on a hunch, to believe in the merits of a riskier work and "push it through." Some of publishing's biggest success stories have been the surprise, low-advance breakout titles. That is much of the fun of working in publishing-the Vegas aspect.
As publishers consolidated into larger media groups with other more profitable business units, the pressure to operate less on instincts and more on "science" was inevitable. This trend towards evaluating product ideas based on what sales and marketing thinks the market can support is common within most industries today. The conflict between a business unit product manager championing a new idea and the sales and marketing people challenged with selling it has been a tension created precisely to improve accountability.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs I have known all share one common belief: If the market can actually identify what it wants, then the product potential is already limited. A trend is gone as soon as you can spot it. Which leads me to why I feel ebooks offer large publishers a great way to rebalance how they operate back towards the hunch method.
Why not create ebook imprints focused on editorially-championed titles, hoping that some books will find larger audiences than marketing and sales predicted. This becomes a form of affordable test-marketing for publishers (their own R&D) and allows them to bring their editorial expertise to authors who may deserve to be published, but not under the riskier hardcover and paperback advance payment pathways. Forget about crowd-sourcing and contests; do what you already do well but confined to the ebook realm. More breakout books in the publisher system would be good for overall business health, especially as the print and digital readership mix continues unfolding in ways no one can predict.
This is a recommendation to create a farm system in support of your own imprints, knowing full well how subjective reading tastes are. The costs to run these imprints should be kept very small. Two-person teams work well on new challenges. An ebook from the farm system must first prove it warrants subsequent release in paperback under this model. Possibly it will deserve print-on-demand availability as that method expands, but not pre-printed. This has the additional benefit to publishers of further building your own database of digital readers, which can be shared with other in-house imprints for marketing their titles. Learning can be shared both ways.
All this would allow for the rebalancing of artistic instincts versus market-driven book acquisitions, which many publishing people desire for the sake of a more entrepreneurial environment.
Caleb Mason is the Founder and Publisher of Publerati.
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