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.