I believe it was The New Yorker that ran a cartoon depicting a stereotypical, balding, blue-suited executive sitting behind a large desk with an earnest, young, stubble-bearded creative-type standing in front of him imploringly. The executive says, “Your job is to propose. My job is to pooh-pooh.”
Jonathan V. Last in a First Things blog brought this to mind when he wrote:
The Farrelly brothers are known for their profitable, occasionally droll, gross-out comedies, notably Kingpin, Dumb & Dumber, and There’s Something About Mary. In 1999, they wrote and directed the disastrously earnest, and bad, film Outside Providence, based largely on their personal experiences growing up in Rhode Island. It took in a total of $7 million at the box office. Noting this misstep, a studio head later observed (I’m paraphrasing here), “Inside every filmmaker’s heart is one deeply personal and important story that they want to tell. My job is to make sure those movies never get made.”
(Of course, one could argue that the studio should have made sure those other Farrelly brothers movies didn’t get made either. But I digress.)
In a similar way, it’s hard for authors to believe that a publisher might be doing them a favor by not publishing their book. But sometimes that is the case. A book that performs poorly in the marketplace or that is reviewed poorly can make an author’s reputation–and not in the way they want.
It can make the publisher reluctant to take on another project from the same author. It can also make other publishers reluctant, especially these days in which statistics of retail book sales are readily available throughout the publishing industry. It is much more difficult for authors and agents to pad sales figures of past books.
Of course, publishers need to fight against their own cynicism and negativity. But it is hard. Of every thousand proposals received, likely only fifty might be publishable (having both editorial value and sales potential). The publisher says no and needs to say no to 95 percent or more to stay in business and to save authors from failure.
As I’ve said before, self-publishing can be a way to prove to publishers a book is salable. And publishers should listen. At the same time, authors who may have published only one or two or three books would do well to pay attention to the broad base of knowledge and experience publishers have accumulated over the years about what works and what doesn’t in publishing one, two or three thousand books.