How a Weak Book Kills a Strong Book

I’ve seen the pattern all too often. We as a publishing committee are enthusiastic about a book because we see it as unique or because we are passionate about the topic or because it touches on a trend that it is rising. Then a year or two after publication we look back with disappointment. It didn’t catch on. There weren’t many readers as passionate about it as we were. It may have had fine editorial quality, but the experience left a bad taste in our mouths.

Then another book comes along on the same topic or in the same genre–and this one is even stronger editorially and has even more sales potential. What happens? The committee is reluctant to contract it. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice . . . and we’ve been fooled again!

What has happened, however, is that a weak book has killed a strong book. What is the solution?

Publishing is by definition a subjective business. And sometimes it is OK to go with your gut. But that should be the exception. The vast majority of the time we need to force ourselves to take our personal tastes, preferences and hunches out of the decision-making process and stick to the facts. How? Objectively ask and answer some of the following questions:

What About the Big Picture?
+ Does this fit us as a publisher (one of our imprints, the topics we are strong in, or our history, etc.?)
+ Does it advance our publishing vision or mission?
+ In the hierarchy of our priorities, would this book be 97th of 100 or 18th of 100?
+ Will this book improve our overall quality and image?

What About Marketing and Sales?
+ Who is the audience for this book?
+ What is the felt need for the audience that this book fulfills?
+ Are there one or more identifiable market channels?
+ What is the code (e.g., trim size, cover treatment, binding, title, etc.) that is typical for a book of this genre, and does this book fit that code? (If not, don’t go there.)
+ What is the 30-second pitch? (If you can’t clearly articulate what a book is about or who the audience is, if the central idea is complex or involved or difficult to explain for the target reader, you should probably say no.)
+ Is my reaction due to personal taste/need or due to its fit with us as a publisher? (The issue is not, “Do I understand and like the book?” but “Will the target reader understand and like the book?” The issue is not, “This book would be fun to do because we could have a lot of fun creatively marketing the book.” Rather, “Does the book fit us, and what will the financial margin be?” The issue is not, “I enjoy mysteries,” but “Is this genre an area of strength for us as a publisher?”)

What About SWOT?
+ What are the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats that this book has?
+ Can the weakness or threats be turned into opportunities?
+ Are the challenges fixable (and if so how) or not?

What About Group Dynamics?
+ Is there groupthink going on? (If so, be willing to voice a contrary opinion.)
+ Is the group pretty evenly or pretty strongly divided? (If so, you should probably say no. If editorial forces a book on sales and marketing, the latter may be unmotivated–just because it is human nature–and not serve the book or the author well. If marketing forces through a book editorial judges to be of poor quality, publishing such books is likely to hurt the reputation of the publisher and perhaps the ability of editorial to acquire good books.)

Publishing decision makers and In-house champions (whether from editorial or marketing) need to shine the cold, harsh light of objectivity on every proposal and on their enthusiasm, and ask, “If we publish this book, how will that affect our ability to publish similar books in the future?” If I am very committed to a topic, so much so that I will attempt to push through a marginal book with marginal sales potential, and if that book does not succeed–that could quite easily put the kibosh on a better, more salable proposal next year.

Every yes is a no to something else. Be sure every yes is worth it.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.