As an agent trying to sell my clients’ work, I’m always analyzing the book business and adapting to the ever-shifting sands beneath our feet. And lately I’ve been hearing the words that have been striking if not fear then downright dismay in my heart ever since my days as an acquisitions editor: “Bigger books, fewer books.”
Every so often, the publishing industry falls for this “bigger books, fewer books” lie. It used to be around every five to seven years, but as with all cycles in this ever-faster-moving world we live in, it seems to be happening more often these days.
What is this lie and why should you care? Read on.
The bigger books, fewer books lie
“Bigger books, fewer books” is how publishers rationalize cutting the number of titles on their lists. The first half of this idea—bigger books—is that publishers will make more money if they only publish the most successful books. This much is true. And at first glance it sounds good, even obvious.
The second half of this idea—fewer books—is where the problem lies. The idea is that if they publish fewer books that make more money, they’ll be more profitable. Again, this sounds good.
The terrible truth is that when it comes to profit, publishing is a very slim-margin business. Most books do not earn out their advance. Big publishers rely on wildly profitable blockbusters to subsidize all of those other books that don’t earn out. Small- to medium-sized publishers often operate on a different financial model. Since they produce fewer blockbusters, they expect each title to make a profit, however small. Since they typically pay smaller (or no) advances, this is easier to achieve. But these publishers, too, have books that become surprise bestsellers—and help bolster that all-important bottom line.
The key word here is SURPRISE.
The element of surprise
As acclaimed screenwriter and novelist William Goldman once said about the movie business, “Nobody knows anything.”
Nobody knows what the biggest books will be. (If we did, we’d only write and sell and publish very successful books.) The Big Five gamble fortunes on books that fail to capture the public’s imagination, never earning out their million-dollar advances. And books acquired with low expectations and even lower advances become huge bestsellers.
Everyone tries to figure out what “the formula” is, but ultimately the formula fails. Who predicted that the book-buying public would go nuts for an obscenely titled picture book for parents (Go the F—k to Sleep) or tossing anything that does not give you joy (The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up) or BDSM (Fifty Shades of Grey).
What goes around, comes around
Nobody knows anything, and because of that, publishing fewer titles ultimately means fewer chances of capturing the public’s imagination. Which inevitably means that the “bigger books, fewer books” strategy does not work, and publishers go back to more sensible strategies—a topic for another day.
As writers, the best thing we can do is write the best books we can. And, by that, I mean writing from a place of emotional truth and authenticity. When Adam Mansbach wrote his laugh-out-loud-funny picture book, he was expressing the real frustration of sleep-deprived parents everywhere. When Marie Kondo wrote her de-cluttering book, she was using techniques she’d developed as an organizing consultant, techniques she knew could help us get rid of all our stuff. (And we are drowning in stuff.) When E. L. James wrote…well, let’s not go there.
Write the book you were born to write, the book that people need to read, the book people want to read, the book people will pass on to friends and family. The book that will capture the public’s imagination, just as it captured yours.
These are the books that become bigger books. And we need more of them—not fewer.
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