Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Risky Business

If I weren't careful I could spend all day just surfing blogs about writing and publishing (and sometimes I have)--there's an astonishing amount of commentary out there, much of it worth reading, and more than I can keep up with. I just recently discovered the blog of literary agent Nathan Bransford, who offers frequent and savvy posts about the book business and very good advice for writers.

In a recent report on a tour of New York publishing houses, Bransford talks about the buzz phrase of the moment, "moving the needle," which is tossed around by editors looking for blockbuster books. Only the phrase is new--commercial houses have been obsessed with big books for some time.

And in the comment thread he nicely phrases the paradoxical situation of much commercial publishing now:
I think the weak link right now is that publishers are increasingly taking huge risk and shying away from small risks.
Publishing is always going to be a risky business. Publishers should take risks. I'd even say that by and large, the best publishers are the ones who take the most risks (successful risks, that is; the ex-publishers are the ones who take the wrong risks....) But the perceived need for blockbuster books, for some companies, pushes them to chase books that seem to be potential blockbusters, even if that means overpaying for them one after another--and overpaying for those titles means overpaying by hundreds of thousands, or millions, of dollars. 

The industry, and readers, might be better served by more houses taking a greater number of modest risks--on new authors, titles with niche or regional markets,  word-of-mouth, hand-sell kinds of books.  There are serious challenges in the "small ball" business model, too, which I'll talk about in an upcoming post.  But it's a workable one.