What Publishers Don’t Know

Many people seem to have a notion that publishers somehow are (or should be) a superior form of human being. It’s nice to be so highly thought of–until you find out what they mean. Like the question many of us have heard. “I thought you guys were smart. Why don’t you just publish bestsellers?”

So, true confessions, we’re not omniscient. And I’m here to dish. What don’t publishers know?

  • Publishers don’t know if a contracted book will be published before another competing book is published first.
  • Publishers don’t know if a trend or current issue will still be of interest the year or two years or three years after they decide to publish a book on it.
  • Publishers don’t know how many copies of a book will sell.
  • Publishers don’t know whether or not they will make a profit on any given book.
  • Publishers don’t know how many books will sell as a result of any given promotional effort, such as placing an ad in a magazine or on a website.
  • Publishers don’t know what effect electronic publishing will have on the industry in general or on their bottom line in particular.

These “not knowns” could be multiplied easily. (Maybe you can think of some.) And not only do publishers not know these things. No one else does either.

Given this situation, what do publishers do? First, they obviously try to get approximate answers to these questions, fine-tuning them as close as possible based on past data and future projections.

Second, they hope the law of averages will work in their favor. Some books will do really well. Some not so well. The successful ones carry those that are less successful.

Third, they build in a buffer. If publishers planned for every book to be a bestseller in regard to the advance paid, the print run manufactured and the promotion budget allocated, most wouldn’t be in business in the long run. So publishers make judgments about which books to invest in heavily and which to do so more modestly. As I said before, “It’s not an exact science.”

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.

3 thoughts on “What Publishers Don’t Know”

  1. Andy — There’s a fabulous new book out about risk and uncertainty that you might really enjoy and benefit from: Sam Savage’s “The Flaw of Averages.” (And isn’t that a title that meets your “great title” criteria, btw? 🙂

    His accessible-yet-rigorous explanation of how to understand risk and uncertainty and how to mitigate it could directly address some of your “not knowns” as well as some of the solutions you identify here.

  2. Andy – another big one: Publishers don’t know why great writing can tank and terrible writing can become a best seller. There is a somewhat related “do know”: Publishers do know that we all judge a book by its cover even though we say not too (and we don’t know which products sell becasue of or in spite of said cover).

  3. Kevin

    Good point! You’re quite right. It does seem rather random sometimes why great writing goes nowhere–at least in the short run.

    I have more faith that great writing will last. The bestsellers from a hundred years ago are totally unknown. But often books that are obscure when they are published do show staying power and become classics.

    So was P.T. Barnum right that no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public?


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