Monday, February 1, 2010

The Case For Profit

In my day job, I work in an engineering environment. Surrounding me on a daily basis is a bunch of really bright guys. There are some women, but mostly guys. A lot of the time, an engineer will be working on a project, just trying to get it done, but keep in mind that these are bright guys. Someone will come up with an idea. It may be something that can be implemented right away, or it may be something that requires some research. Inspiration strikes and someone decides that he would like to go investigate something, rather than doing what he is doing. Well, the company sets aside some money for that, but that money is limited. While it’s good to pursue fresh ideas, there are too many of them to let everyone do whatever he wants, no matter how good his intentions.

There are similarities between this and the publishing industry. For an engineering company, there is usually some group of people who decide which ideas are worth pursuing and which aren’t. Those that show the most promise get funded. This is not unlike a publishing company agreeing to publish a book. But I think engineers are less vested in their ideas than are authors. If an engineer’s idea is rejected, it is disappointing, but there may still be plenty of work he can do helping to develop someone else’s idea. For authors, it tends to be feast or famine. Still, I think there are things that authors can learn from the engineering process.

Research money is made available for a couple of different reasons. One, the end result could save the company money. Two, the end result could provide more income from product sales. An engineer who wants to research a concept that does neither would be better off working for a university. The point is that when an engineer walks into a meeting to make his presentation, the thing that must be at the forefront of his mind is how his idea can increase the company’s profit. A beautiful concept is not enough.

We authors sometimes forget this. We take rejection much too personally and we compare our writing to published authors. We highlight the quality of our writing. We highlight that we have followed “the rules.” We highlight that our mother liked the story, or whatever. None of that matters. Of course you wrote a well written story. Of course it is a higher quality story than most of the published stories out there. You are probably absolutely right that if the literary agent would read it then she would see how good it is. But none of that matters. The real question is, Why will readers buy this book?

We can talk about the quality literary nature of the book or the importance of the subject all day. All of that is important, but if we can’t make the case that a publisher will be able to make money from the book, we’re wasting our time. We sometimes think that just because a book is good we have all we need to make the claim that the publisher can make money, but that is far from the case. If the market is over saturated with the type of book we’ve written, the publisher will have trouble pushing it, no matter how good it is. If people don’t know who we are, it doesn’t prevent a publisher from selling the book, but it doesn’t help either. If this isn’t a high concept story, it may be good, but it might be hard to sell. If we can’t show a publisher how they will make money by publishing our book, we shouldn’t be surprised if the publisher declines.