Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Publishing Trends - modified Graphs

Huge thanks to the many people who have contributed to the recent discussion about the present state and projected future of the publishing industry. Many of you are people with first hand knowledge of the industry.

I have adjusted the graphs from yesterday's post to take into account your various observations and suggestions. The y-axis represents profits generated by the publisher from each title. The x-axis represents books from the No. 1 bestseller on the right down to progressively less well selling titles on the left. As the graphs are only guesswork, I'm not going to suggest an x-axis scale this time.

Graph one - the publishing industry 20 years ago:

Graph 2 - the publishing industry today.

Thus larger amounts of money are being made by a smaller number of titles, the total size of the market remains more or less constant and the mid-list is squeezed to almost nothing.

This leaves me with two questions - after which I will shut up on this topic (for a while at least!). 1) Why do some really excellent novels get rejected by publishers large and small? 2) How in the future are the excellent books below the bestseller list going to have any profile?

My working hypothesis for question 1) is that the number of novels being written now is SO great that excellent writing is sometimes missed in the slush pile, even though more novels are being published than ever.

As to the second question, perhaps I will just have to wait and see.


Niki M said...

I think excellent novels do end up in the slush pile, usually in an agent's office rather than a publishers. I also think that sometimes they are rejected by inexperienced readers on work experience, or scuppered by the readers reports of slightly jealous aspiring writers or bitter unsuccessful published writers.

Maybe also some of the issue is how people are presenting their work. I've always been surprised how you can tell people over and over again about industry preferences for layout and presentation and they can steadfastly ignore you. Perhaps some of these excellent novels are being sent out as full MSS unsolicited, or with random chapters (the ones the writer considers the best) instead of the first three. Or on orange paper with strange fonts, the writer thinking this will make their work stand out, which it does, except for the wrong reasons. I've also seen people give up on their work way too easily. A couple of rejections and they move on. You need to be a lot more resilient than that to get a book out.

Agents are also trying to think ahead of the game and guess what the next big thing is and they don't always get it right. Tbh I think trying to guess ahead is impossible. If you were given the precis of some of the novels that have done very well in the last ten years, you wouldn't spot them as potential best sellers. Perhaps surprisingly, I think good writing often wins out. Sure, some people would point at the Da Vinci Code as proof this wasn't the case but, as much as that book isn't an example of elegant prose, I think it has lots to recommend it as a thriller. Exciting storyline, incredibly fast pace, really fascinating blend of fact, legend and fiction. I really enjoyed it.

I'd also point to other interesting examples of really good quality writing that won out. Jon McGregor's If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable things was a beautiful book, definitely of the ilk that agents and editors might have been wary of. It's almost two long prose poems interweaved, one of them just about the events in one day on an unnamed street. It got published. Eventually, it sold over 100 000 copies. Good writing won out.

Maybe I'm still a cockeyed optimist but I genuinely believe that excellent novels will get published if the writer is very persistent, sends out the proposal in the right format and keeps going. And keeps going. And keeps going. :D

Rod Duncan said...

Thanks for that, Niki.

I hasten to add that though I have had novels rejected, I believe (in retrospect) that the agents and publishers were correct in those cases.

The unpublished excellent novels I was referring to are all the work of other people.

Whenever I was rejected I told myself to go and write something better. At some stage the writing would be SO good that no one would be able to turn it down.

I can't say that any of my novels have been so unambiguously excellent, but happily I could see progress each time. That kept me going.

Katy said...

On yout 2nd question - ...searching out excellent books below the best seller list...

I've *found* lots of excellent books I'd never heard of through the "Amazon recommends" function, whereby the site suggests books to you based on previous purchases, and in *proper* bookshops where similar types of books are shelved together.

However - and it's a big caveat - I do read and buy mostly non-fic (of my 40 or so book purchases so far this yr only about 4 are fiction, fairly typical ratio for me) where this kind of related-suggestion thing works very well. It may work equally well in fiction recommendations - I've not so much experience there as a buyer.

It's possible then that the power of this is one of the motivations behind publishers driving ever-more-strict 'categories' (even within genres) for their books. So not just 'natural world' now, say, but nature writing / literary nature writing / literary nature writing featuring birds, and so on.

Which of course in turn means that they may be narrowing / refining their focus on what they publish. Leading to many potentially fabulous books being passed over?

Oh I don't know. Just a thought :-)