Taste vs. Marketplace: An Editor’s Dilemma

by Erin Brown

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

One of the most difficult things that an author can hear is, “I love your manuscript, but unfortunately, I can’t buy it—[fill in the blank of your genre] just isn’t selling right now.” “But, but, wait,” you think. “Everyone who’s read my paranormal Regency comedic romance says he/she would buy it in a second!” Ah, yes, your cousin, your mother, and even your writer’s group members would pony up some hard-earned cash for Lust Amongst the British Bogs: A Lady Philomena Love Story, but unfortunately the editor who also adores the story knows that the market is down for this type of bodice-ripper. (Please note that I am using this genre as an example only—do not throw away your paranormal Regency comedic erotica tale without doing some market research first.) 

Trust me, it’s just as frustrating for an editor to fall in love with the submission Brittney Jones’ Diary: One Woman’s Adventures in Parenthood and Secret Betrayal on the High Seas, only to pitch it to his or her boss and hear that the sales team was just discussing how B&N isn’t currently interested in any mommy lit/historical maritime mysteries, or whatever the downtrodden genre of the month might be. The market can be fickle and fleeting, which is why a previous column of mine focused on notwriting to the market—once your book is finally ready for publication, that Twilight meets The Shack idea won’t be worth squat to a book buyer. Its time will have passed. 

Just know that you are not alone. Editors (and agents) have subscriptions to Publishers Weekly for a reason. And they listen to their sales teams closely. Editors and publishing houses must keep their fingers on the pulse of the market. To do otherwise would mean huge profit losses. No matter how much an editor might love a submission, if the market dictates that it’s not selling, then the publisher is not going to give an editor the green light to buy. Even if an editor knows that by the time the book hits the shelves (in about a year, give or take), the market will have changed completely again, without in-house sales support during the here and now, the wonderful novel won’t have a chance. An editor always pitches submissions armed with a boatload of comparison titles, so we know the sales of similar titles before we go into the pitch meeting. If we recognize in advance that a genre or subject is tanking in the marketplace, we can save ourselves the effort. However, sometimes editors have been known to get a little ridiculous and try to pitch something in a unique way. For instance: “Now we all know that literary novels set underwater featuring sassy heroines with drug addictions have been on the downslide lately, but I’ve got one that takes place near an estuary, not in it! And our impertinent leading lady is hooked on cupcakes, not meth!” In other words, we can get creative and try to make the pitch anyway. But this is generally not a good idea as publishers don’t easily have the wool pulled over their eyes. The bottom line is just too important to them. 

When I worked in women’s fiction, we went through a period when bookstores were clamoring to buy anything chick lit, and lady lit, and hen lit, and sister lit, and blah blah blah lit, etc. Oy, if I ever saw an illustrated pink cover again, it would be too soon. Then, the market turned and only the truly gifted authors of the genre floated to the top. No buyer wanted to hear another thing about a young, twenty-something publicist in New York with a penchant for bad relationships and goofy hijinks. I was in heaven—finally, we were moving on. Then, I received in the mail the most fabulous novel I’d read in a long time. Sure, it featured a young woman who happened to live in the big city, but it was so much more than that. It was snarky and intelligent and had twists and turns no reader could see coming or resist. Oh, please, wasn’t there room for just one more? This wasn’t chick lit, this was “commercial women’s fiction” at its best. No pink cover was required! But when I pitched this amusing tale of female urban angst, everyone said the same thing: “The market is oversaturated. The sales numbers don’t work anymore.” No matter how hard I tried and how much everyone in-house loved the writing, it was a no-go. No projected sales, no cash to buy. I wept, thrashed about in my boss’s office, pouted, tried blackmail, but nothing worked. It is a reality editors often face. 

So what’s the solution for authors and editors who want to publish fabulous books that aren’t currently selling? As an editor, I found myself often saying goodbye, reluctantly, to brilliant books that I personally loved, merely because the market wasn’t supportive. As an author, put your work aside for now, and see what the future brings (if you’ve been consistently getting the same sort of feedback—that such-and-such simply isn’t selling). It’s usually just a case of plain old bad timing. At some point, the market will turn around. If you’re lucky, an editor will remember your book and will get in touch again. In the meantime, keep in mind what John Steinbeck observed—“The profession of book-writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.” So go place some bets and never give up. Your time will come.

Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at www.erinedits.com

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