I was talking with our intern Sarah the other day (hi Sarah!) and she had some questions about a couple of my recent posts. In It’s About What’s Selling I explained that publishers tend to make future decisions based on what has sold well for them in the past. Yet in Don’t Ask Me About Trends I said that while I pay attention to what’s selling, I also take trends with a grain of salt.
So Sarah’s question was: Which is it? How do you make decisions?
Once and for all, I’ll try to explain this.
Years ago, a famous screenwriter named William Goldman coined a phrase that came to be an oft-repeated mantra in Hollywood: Nobody knows anything.
By this, he meant that we can’t predict the future. So when a studio plunks down millions of dollars to make a movie, or a publisher shells out thousands to produce a book, there is no guarantee that it will sell. This has always been true, and it will always be true.
Still, we have various tools at our disposal that help us make decisions about what kinds of books to publish (or what kind of movies/TV shows to produce). They are:
1. The past. We look at what has done well in the past, and ask ourselves if this new project could imitate that kind of success, or piggyback off it to find its own success.
2. The culture. We observe cultural developments. We watch what’s going on in the arts—music, movies, theater, TV. We stay aware of what people are talking about.
3. Politics, the economy, and the news. We consider the potential impact of current events. A presidential election, a hurricane, a recession—these are all major factors in Americans’ daily lives. We ask ourselves how these events might influence a future book buyer.
4. Our own instincts. We trust what we know. We like books and we like to read, which is why we’re in this business. We’ve spent considerable time honing our tastes and our ability to predict whether others will like the same things we do. If we don’t have confidence in our instincts, we don’t last in this business. This is one of the greatest assets for many people in publishing.
Whenever an agent or publisher considers taking on a certain book or author, this complex web of criteria comes into play to help us make the decision. It’s never just one thing. It’s not, “I like the book and that’s that.” It’s not, “This is like Harry Potter, and Harry Potter sold well, therefore this will too.” It’s always more complicated than that.
It’s sort of like the way you make decisions about big purchases—a new car, or a giant TV. You look at a number of different “objective” factors, add in your emotional response, and make your choice.
You pays your money and you takes your chances. After all, nobody knows anything.
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