Friday, May 27, 2011

One Reason Editors Say No

Tim O'Reilly, whose blog and Twitter feed are always worth following, pointed in a tweet today to an interesting post by Bryce Roberts, a venture capitalist who's partnered with O'Reilly in Alphatech Ventures. His post is called "My Least Favorite No." I had never thought much about the parallels between venture capital and publishing, but both editors and VCs do similar things: make bets, whether it's on books or companies, based on an evaluation of what they're creating, a sense of the market and where it's going, and a gut feeling about the people behind the product--be they authors or entrepreneurs. Bryce writes: 
I hate saying no. But, its the most common answer I have to give when an entrepreneur asks me if I’d like to invest in their business. 
For "entrepreneur," insert "author," and it's true for me as well. He continues: 

The product could have an audience. Even worse, I may really like the team. But there’s a problem: I just don’t care.
Yes, a market may be big, but I just don’t care about it. Yes, a product may be getting popular but I would never use it. Yes a team may be well suited to win a category, but I don’t want to work with them. These are my least favorite no’s because there’s no feedback I can give them that changes anything. 
I was in this situation just recently. I received a proposal from a good agent, by a well-qualified experienced author who had written a well-organized outline about a worthy topic. But it was simply not a topic that I'm excited about, so I passed. My rule of thumb is, if I wouldn't go into a bookstore, as a consumer, and buy this book, I shouldn't be the editor. I'm not going to have the right feel for how to connect this book with its audience, because I'm not part of that audience. 
It can be easy to talk yourself into taking on a project when the subject seems hot, or you have an author with great media connections or a successful track record. But when you lack that gut feeling for why someone will want to read the book, you're asking for trouble. As Bryce puts it: 
As someone who is only going to make a handful of investments a year, I prefer to back every check with cash AND conviction.
I make more than a handful of investments each year--call it a couple of handfuls. But I feel the same way: if you don't have that conviction, it's probably not a good bet. It's hard enough to get a new book off the ground when you are passionate about it. When you're not, it's almost impossible.


Steve Roth said...

While I can understand using personal enthusiasm as a rough and ready proxy/barometer of potential market enthusiasm, I think it's kind of a lazy one.

Back in the 60s when H-P was a bunch of engineers producing products for engineers, they did what was called "next-desk" marketing or product development. The engineer would ask the guy at the next desk, "would you want one of these?"

What I've seen a million times in businesses I've worked with over the years is one step beyond that: I call it "this-desk" marketing/product development. "Would I buy this product?"

There are certainly people whose personal tastes happen to align with a large market. More power to 'em.

And, the decision could be purely personal: "I only want to work on stuff that I think is cool." That makes perfect sense (at least if you own the publishing house); life is short, and it's totally worth passing on lucrative deals if accepting them makes your life less good.

In reviewing the hundreds of book proposals I looked at back in the day, I quite consciously sought to tame the "would I buy this book?" voice inside my head, and tried to view the world of book buyers -- the customers I was trying to serve -- from a wider perspective than my own.

Personal enthusiasm often won, of course. Which was good for me. Not sure if it was good for others.

Peter Ginna said...

@Steve, please note that I didn't suggest using personal enthusiasm as a "barometer of market enthusiasm." I believe editors need to think carefully about what the potential market for something might be. But as a publisher, I need to figure out, how do I get readers excited about this book? If I am not excited about it myself, it's very difficult to know how to present the book to the market. And it's hard to get all the other people between me and the marketplace--colleagues, book sellers, book reviewers, media people, bloggers, whoever--excited either.

I don't think I'm being lazy if I turn down a proposal I'm not excited by, because I don't think it's my job to publish every title I could possibly acquire. It's my job to publish the books I can do most effectively. I would say that my least happy publishing experiences have been the times when I took on a book because something or someone--usually well-intentioned colleagues--persuaded me there was a market for a book where I didn't have a gut feeling for it myself.

rmsf said...

And so you've defined what we perhaps romantically hope is a dividing line between selling soap and publishing books. Editors who make decisions on numbers and market potential alone may technically be publishers, but they're simply shipping a product that happens to be a book.

Not in and of itself a bad thing, I suppose. People have demonstrated they're capable of far worse.

Someone recently told me a certain very successful cat series was the product of demand analysis, conjuring up a storyline and characters simply because they were likely to appeal to a particularly broad base of readers. But there was no "author" behind the books. That came later.

Both market potential and passion for the work are required, seems to me you're saying. And come to think of it, how could it be otherwise? The question is, passion for what? Clearly, the content of the work must be meaningful to you. For others, it will be the increased likelihood of achieving big or at least respectable numbers that ignites the passion.

Both have their place, both have utility. But in a moral universe, where we expect publishers to bring us works that move us or change the nature of our experience, your approach is the one to be proud of.

Peter Ginna said...

@rmsf, Thanks for your comment. I believe there is a moral dimension to publishing, but I want to be clear that I'm not advocating "my approach" because I think it's morally preferable. For me it's actually very pragmatic. As I said to Steve above, I just can't publish a book very well if I don't start with a gut-level excitement about it. You are right that both passion and a sense of market potential are required.