In this month’s edition of ACTWrite, Evana Ho investigates publishing trends by interviewing publishers, talking Harry Potter, and discussing working with authors. Here, you’ll find the extended version of her article.
-by Evana Ho
Even in this digital age of eBooks and self-publishing, having your book picked up by Random House or Allen & Unwin is still a budding author’s big dream. But what drives a mainstream publisher to say yes to your manuscript over the thousands of others that sweep through their inbox every year?
Sophie Hamley, literary agent at the Cameron Creswell Agency, current President of the Australian Literary Agents Association and former Senior Editor at HarperCollins, sheds light on this question.
‘Every publisher and agent has to start from the position of really loving the work that’s in front of them, or at least liking it very much,’ she says. ‘You work with what’s in front of you and take it from there to see if you can find a market for it.’
For Sophie, what’s trending on bestselling lists plays little role in her decision-making. ‘If I’m reading a story that I think is fantastic, I do not pause to think whether it fits into a trend. I just think, “This is fantastic and I want to work with this author”.’
‘For publishers, it’s more about what worked well for them in the past and what they think other publishers might be doing at that point in time.’
According to Sophie, their main consideration is what they think a bookseller might stock.
She explains, ‘If publishers are the gatekeepers for authors coming in, then booksellers are the gatekeepers for the publishers to reach the readers. Publishers are businesses, and there’s no point publishing something if they can’t get distribution for their products.’
In Australia today, the biggest book distributors are the so-called discount department stores. Big W, Target, Kmart. The question is, to what degree does the bookseller influence what a publisher chooses to publish?
Mary Cunnane, who was a vice president and senior editor of the respected New York publisher W.W. Norton & Company from 1976 to 1996, thinks that for the big commercial publishing houses, volume is paramount. ‘If they can’t print 5,000 to 7,500 copies – although this was probably until a year or two ago – they won’t take it on.’
She adds, ‘But more and more books are now sold online. So I think that for physical books, the 5,000 pound gorilla is Amazon.’
Editor of Books+Publishing magazine Andrea Hanke says, ‘I think publishers have more influence on what gets published than booksellers, although obviously publishers need to consider what the market is reading.’
Like Mary, Andrea also acknowledges the effect online bookselling has had on the industry: ‘That said, a lot of people still buy books from bricks-and-mortar bookstores, so publishers need to think carefully in their acquisitions meetings about where a book will sell,’ she says, referring to discount department stores versus independent bookstores.
In this tug of war where literary agents have to consider what publishers might pick up and where publishers have to consider what booksellers might stock, one gets an inkling of why stellar successes such as JK Rowling’s books about the little wizard that could almost didn’t get published.
I asked Sophie Hamley how it was that twelve publishers could have gotten it so wrong in turning down Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
‘Because Harry Potter wasn’t Harry Potter until it was Harry Potter,’ Sophie says matter-of-factly. ‘Every publisher and literary agent has to make a choice based on whether they think they can do the best thing for it. A publisher could read something and think it’s good, but if they don’t love it – especially for a debut novel – they’re never going to be the champion that manuscript or book requires in order to find its audience.’
She continues, ‘Whoever it was at Bloomsbury who took that on obviously championed it. And by that I mean they talked it up to their colleagues and to the sales reps; if they infected the sales reps with their enthusiasm, the sales reps go and talk to the booksellers, and they’re enthusiastic. That’s how hits come about, quite often.’
It’s quite easy to identify a hit book once it has settled comfortably at the top of a bestselling list, but can publishers spot a hit before it becomes one? And more broadly, does the book industry, with all its insider knowledge and specialist know-how, have the ability to pick trends?
Sophie isn’t sure that they do. ‘Sometimes I feel that it’s the writers who pick them for us. If we see a certain number or certain types of stories emerging then I start to think, “Okay, something’s going on here”. And if we’re talking about fiction, we’d all be fudging the truth if we could predict what people wanted to read. No one saw Fifty Shades of Grey coming.’
The implication for writers in all this is that writing to fit a trend isn’t a useful strategy. As Sophie explains: ‘There were lots of writers who said, “Oh, should I write erotic fiction?” but by the time that trend was identified, it was over, as is the case with all trends. So unless authors had that erotic fiction ready to go, at the point in time that Fifty Shades became a massive hit, there was no point sending it out.’
Her advice to writers is that while they shouldn’t write to the market, it’s useful for them to know what other books are out there in their chosen genre.
‘But beyond that, I do think that storytellers really need to identify stories that they want to write and do the absolute best they can by them.’
Harry Potter was something of a rarity in the pantheon of hugely bestselling books. The Da Vinci Code, Fifty Shades of Grey, the Twilight series – none of these could be accused of being quality writing. But if publishing is ultimately a business, does that mean less well-written manuscripts with greater commercial potential are favoured for publication over their higher-quality peers? Or do publishing houses take a strategic approach and treat books such as Fifty Shades of Grey as the ones which will help fund the publication of more literary, but less popular, titles?
‘Yes absolutely, that’s always gone on,’ Sophie says. ‘Until quite recently it was probably likely to be non-fiction titles that were subsidising the fiction list. And that’s where we get the idea of publishing as being an industry with heart.’
‘I think anyone involved with the publishing industry would say that we have cultural obligations. We need to be finding stories, producing stories and publishing stories that people deserve to read. We all acknowledge that it’s very hard to get novels, particularly literary novels, to a readership. So they do need subsidising to begin with. And that’s where those bigger selling titles come in.’
‘The best publishing is passionate publishing,’ Mary Cunnane affirms. ‘It used to be that the editorial board would make a decision about what to publish and take into account what the sales manager may feel and what the publicity director may feel, but it was an editorial decision that we were going to publish something, and it was the sales manager’s job to sell it.’
‘And I think that’s the best publishing,’ Mary adds. ‘It’s the kind of publishing I was involved in.’