Mark Terry

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Publishing Death Spiral?

September 18, 2008
I recently got this rejection letter:

"John passed along to me HOT MONEY by Mark Terry.  I liked it a lot, but ultimately, I couldn’t get the kind of support that we would need to successfully publish it.  I found the pace to be very quick, and I had to force myself to put down the manuscript when other things came up because there was always a new twist to keep me glued to the story.  I also really loved Austin’s voice, his debonair sense of style, his camaraderie with BB and Shelley, and his dry wit.  Unfortunately, though, the Sales Department thought this was more of a caper than a political thriller, and they haven’t sold very well for us in the past.  And without the layers of novels by bestselling authors such as Flynn and Baldacci, I just couldn’t convince them to take a chance on HOT MONEY, so I reluctantly must pass as much as I enjoyed reading it."
In some ways, of course, there's nothing to bitch about there (although I could wonder, exactly, what layers in Vince Flynn's novels he thinks are actually there). I want to also point out that I recently received an e-mail (a few months ago) about another manuscript with a vastly different publisher that said something very much along the lines of, "we really liked it, but our sales department tells us these types of books haven't sold well for us."
I don't know if this blame-it-on-the-sales-department rejection is just another arrow in the editor's quiver in the doesn't-work-for-me, liked-the-character-didn't-like-the-plot, liked-the-plot-didn't-like-the-character, didn't-quite-feel-strong-enough-to-compete-in-today's-marketplace, Choose A, B, C, D or None of the Above list of standard rejections. It's a new trend for me.
I suspect, and in this regard, shame on me for taking a rejection letter at face value, that the editor did like the book, wanted to publish it, and got shot down by the sales department. Rumor has it this happens all the time these days.
Which does not, I don't think, bode well for the publishing industry. Particularly if the sales department isn't basing their rejections on the individual books, but on some perceived overall trend.
First, I don't know exactly what my agent was selling HOT MONEY as. Yes, it could be called a political thriller. Or just a thriller. And I suppose it could be called a caper, although that would not have been my first choice. Frankly, although Austin Davis is a political consultant, he comments early on that when a politician wants a problem spun, they hire a political consultant; when they want the problem to go away, they hire him. I purposefully designed the book and the character to be very similar to a private eye novel, but in this case, his clients are almost exclusively U.S. senators and representatives. I think the sales department is probably kidding themselves if they thought they couldn't market HOT MONEY as a mystery or a thriller. But like I said, shame on me for taking the rejection letter at face value.
Second, and far more importantly and the point of this little diatribe, is that if publishing house sales departments start rejecting novels on the basis of a category or subgenre's track record instead of the strength and unique qualities of an individual book, then we're all screwed--writer, reader AND publisher.
Because I can only see a death spiral there. It's a little bit like the western, I suppose, which many publishers have dropped. And a few years ago, one of the big houses, I forget which, totally dropped its mystery line because it was a little soft. Rather than the publisher saying, hey, mysteries are strong for everybody else, let's really focus on strengthening our line and really promoting mysteries, they just decided to ax the whole line, fold a couple of their more successful writers into their "mainstream" line and sent the editors whose primary focus was mysteries into the unemployment line.
Oh well. Hence the rise of niche publishers, I suppose.
You ever heard the expression about professors? They learn more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing.
I wonder if that's what we'll be joking about big publishing: they published more and more about less and less until they were publishing everything about nothing.
I can see it from Random, Inc: We Only Publish Bestsellers. (10 books, 4 million copies each).
Mark Terry


Blogger Jude Hardin said...

Ah, yes. The old I couldn't put it down but I don't think we can sell it spiel. Makes no sense to me.

7:00 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

They've been saying, in the business world and the internet world, that niche is the new big. Could be true. Could be not true, LOL.

Whatever, I am really hoping the changes coming in the industry are better for authors, not worse. Not even the same.

7:03 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Probably. Like I said, "shame on me."

Oh brother. Niche is the new big? Haven't heard it put quite like that. Niche is the new big, and if the niche gets big, we'll buy them, force them to act like a big company with resulting profit margins and do the same f***ing cycle all over again.

My overall take on the publishing world is that it was staggering alone just fine on its own for years until companies decided to get organized and maximize profits and go public and report to shareholders. Then they suddenly realized, sort of like grocery stores, that the profit margins in publishing really, really, really suck. They should have invested in newfangled TVs or computers or asbestos brake-linings instead of publishing. So they started applying all their biz school thinking to something that's resistant to that kind of market pressure, because, although I know most of us hardcore readers say we NEED books, none of us NEEDS books the way we NEED, say, cars or stoves or a roof over our heads.

7:18 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Oh, by the way, for anyone reading this comment, I'll throw this question out there:

What is The Da Vinci Code?

Is it a thriller?

A mystery?

An adventure novel?

A caper novel?

A historical?

Could you call it a caper?

7:25 AM  
Blogger lucidkim said...

I don't know that my two cents matters about it - but I think it's a caper, without a doubt. did ok.

This post was rather depressing to me (I know it wasn't meant to be cheery) - since I'm still on the writing-my-first-novel-learning-the-ropes end of things.

I think too many companies have MBAs making decisions about things they don't understand beyond the bottom line - and what might make sense in a financial statement world doesn't really always translate to the reality of whatever the 'business' of the company is.

I worked for a home builder for many years (accountant) and they were extremely successful in their niche - making more than 50% profit on each home built. They decided to hire their business-school-grad son to run the family business and he turned the company around by making things fall into acceptable parameters, etc. on paper - and turned the company into one that was barely breaking even (this was before the housing market crashed and our current economy). It's just one small example but I think the point is the same. You take the running of the company (editors, etc.) and hand it over to people with clinical business points of view and you won't have success and they'll never acknowledge why, they'll keep pointing to the writers "they aren't writing what the public with their heads" - at least this is my experience. They don't and won't learn from their mistakes.


8:08 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well, yes, it probably is depressing. Publishing can be like that. Over and over again, particularly in terms of fiction writing, you hear writers describe it as brutal. And not just writers like myself who only nibble around the fringes of fiction publishing, but bestsellers like Allison Brennan and Tess Gerritsen and others. The word that comes up is: brutal.

But your point about the construction business is exactly right. A business person's job is to eke out every penny, but that doesn't always work well in all industries, particularly where "art and craft" are significant aspects of those businesses.

8:28 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

An adventure puzzle thriller?

9:59 AM  
Blogger R.J. Keller said...

Throw in a vampire. That'll sell.

Seriously, and I'm not trying to be a kiss-ass here (I've nothing to gain by being one), if Hot Money is anything like Serpent's Kiss, these guys are idiots for passing on it.

And, yes, we--writer, reader, publisher--are screwed.

1:30 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Thanks and, yeah, vampires...

(Actually, the kids novel I'm working on, Monster Seeker, does have a vampire in it. But then again, I'm 5 chapters in and I've got a windigo, magic, a vampire, and 12 animated skeletons. And I'm just gettin' started.)

1:51 PM  
Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I never read The Da Vinci Code (fell asleep during the movie), but I think most people refer to it as a "religious thriller." It seemed like a lot of authors tried to jump on that bandwagon after DVC made the genre hot.

7:24 PM  
Blogger EM Lynley said...

I think that it's a very positive letter, even though they didn't take the book. Why else take that much time to explain it to you?

It offers suggestions: try a publisher with a different focus, or add some layers. Or maybe talk with your agent about what he/she is attempting to do that isn't clicking with editors.

But if your novel sucked and wasn't worth publishing, I think they'd be more direct. It's much easier to say 'I didn't like the character' or another aspect than to take all that time to discuss the issue.

I know your point is about genre overriding quality levels, and that's no definitely no good, but it also means try somewhere else where the editors and marketing departments work as a team and not against each other.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Oh yes, I know. Although, really, I don't get rejections any more along the lines of "your writing sucks and so do you." They're typically along the lines of "Mark Terry is clearly a strong writer, but we don't feel this manuscript is quite strong enough to compete in the current crowded marketplace" sort of thing.

This may or may not be more of the same, but what I wanted to specifically point out about it was the clear indication that the sales department made a decision here, not the editor.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

Thats the nicest no thank you I've read in a long time.
Keep sending it out. Grisham had a 100 rejections on A Time To Kill. When I get to 100 then I shelve the book.
Someone out there doesn't agree with this thought. The hard part is finding him.

PS: I hated the DaVinci code.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

This is exactly why I am off this hamster wheel. Traditional publishing can bite me.

And I can say that will all confidence, because should the happy day ever come when I can sell bunches of books all by myself, publishers would beat a path to my door because money talks. If they didn't, so what, I'm making money.

If they did, so what, deal probably isn't good enough to put up with the BS of the "industry."

If I never sell much, so what, probably wouldn't have sold with a trad publisher either.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Good luck finding 100 publishers.

Hamster wheel probably describes it pretty well, actually.

1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keep sending it out. Grisham had a 100 rejections on A Time To Kill. When I get to 100 then I shelve the book.

Yes, if you're querying agents, this is great advice. Unfortunately, when it comes to legitimate, royalty-paying print publishers, the list is extraordinarily small. My agent submitted my ms to about a dozen editors at the major houses before we called it quits. (I wasn't interested in going the small press route.)

10:47 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Even if you were going the small press route you'd be hardpressed to come up with 100 (or 10).

I read once that Elmore Leonard's "Big Bounce" was rejected about 88 times and I don't think they could come up with that many today either.

When one of my kids' books was marketed recently my agent came up with about 13 publishers. Although we had near-misses, nothing bit and I went after indies and could only come up with a handful and some of those aren't accepting submissions because they're so swamped with them.

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