An insightful article in The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/26/us-writer-self-publishing-industry-rusch) highlights the strength of self publishing as a way to circumnavigate the editorial censorship of publishing houses. In the piece, award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch explains that a book she wrote in the 1990s based on a black detective and set in the 1960s Memphis, was turned down by publishers upon the realisation that she was a white woman writer. Shockingly, Rusch claims that three publishers had initially offered substantial sums of money for the rights to the book, all of which were later withdrawn when they learnt the racial identity of the author.
The publishers who decided not to take the book on explained that their decision was based on the fact that they couldn’t see how they would market a book about a black character written by a white author. This has sparked debate about whether the publishing industry is correct to make race an issue in such circumstances, but that’s one for another day. Prejudice aside, this is a perfect example of how publishers and agents make decisions which are heavily based upon the ‘marketability’ of a book, with the actual quality of the content often being an after-thought, or overridden, as in Rusch’s case. Certain elements of a book will undisputedly make it more, or less, marketable, and publishers tend to be fairly well-placed to make a judgement on what those things are. But publishers are often risk-averse and tend to make decisions based on what has worked in the past, meaning that they are not always correct in their judgement on whether a book has marketing potential or not, now.
Self publishing allows authors to throw caution to the wind and get their book out there, even if the marketing potential may not be immediately obvious. Had E L James gone to a publisher with Fifty Shades of Grey they would almost certainly have turned her down on the grounds that they couldn’t see the marketing potential; she was an unknown author and, at the time, erotica was a fairly limited niche. Through word of mouth and good reviews, the self published book sky-rocketed up sales charts and proved that there was a market for it; a publisher then very quickly snapped it up as a result. Chicken Soup for the Soul is another great example of how publishers can get it wrong. Granted, the book did eventually find itself a publisher, but only after 140 rejections which were made on the grounds that anthologies rarely sell well and that the book was far too ‘positive’. How wrong they were. The lesson to be learnt here is that if a publisher says ‘no’ that doesn't mean that the book won’t be a success.
There is usually a valid reason for an agent or publisher to have a reservation about a certain book, and this is often based on its commercial potential as opposed to its literary merit. Publishers are often risk-averse; they need to know that there is a sure-fire way of selling a book to the target market before they take it on. This is perfectly understandable and often their perceived prejudices are simply a case of good judgement and knowing the market very well. On the other hand, there are plenty of books that have broken the mould and proven publishers wrong. It was once the case that such a book would be rejected by everyone until eventually being picked up by a small independent press - self publishing has come to replace that small press as the breeding ground for risk taking and innovation.
Next time you get a rejection from a literary agent or publisher, it’s worth asking yourself on what grounds that rejection was made. What qualifications does an agent have for making that particular objection; do they have a background in business or marketing for instance, to be able to judge if something is or isn’t marketable? Are they necessarily correct? Are they making assumptions based on factors which are less relevant today than they once were? It may just be that, for all of their experience and knowledge, they are just plain wrong. Perhaps their input should start and stop at editorial? A rejection can sometimes help you realise that your book needs some work but it could also be that the market for the book isn’t immediately obvious or that it needs refocusing, requiring the author - or their publisher - to think creatively about what that market is and how to reach it. Ultimately, an author will always be willing to go that extra mile and take the risk that a publisher won’t; it’s their job to play it safe, but that doesn’t mean that you have to go alone with it.
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