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Friday, August 23, 2013

HYBRID BOOKS, ARE THEY SALEABLE?

WHEN I WAS AT WHEN WORDS COLLIDE IN CALGARY, one of the reading panels I was on was the ‘Hybrid Historical Readings’ panel, which I shared with Graeme Brown and Ronald Hore. As we only had an hour to read, we didn’t have time to talk about what we considered a hybrid novel to be, or how cross-genre books fit into the ever changing paradigm of the publishing world.

Six months earlier and before I signed with Five Rivers Publishing: when my agent was hoping to interest one of the Big Five Publishers in New York, she was told, over and over, that the editors liked The Tattooed Witch, but there was one problem: they didn’t know where it would fit in a bookstore. I went to Jasper, Alberta, on a writing and evaluation retreat. On one of the worst weekends of my life, I considered rewriting the book as a women’s historical. I thought of giving up the vision, of tossing the magic, of limiting the love interest to only one (because, by formula, romance readers want only one love interest, not two). I spent an entire Saturday re-reading Witch and not knowing whether the book was any good or not. On the following Sunday, I vacillated between feeling numb and crying my eyes out. I’d spent six years on this novel, and I was being asked to consider rewriting it. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn’t. If I turned it into a strictly historical, I would destroy it. I would snuff the life from it, I would kill its soul.

One month later, I foresook visions of fame and riches and signed with Five Rivers Publishing, a small, but high quality press. Robert Runté, Editor in Chief, had heard me read the first two chapters from Witch two years earlier at When Words Collide, 2011. He told me then, that if I couldn't interest a big house, he would take the book. Luckily for me, not everyone thinks or works the way the Big Five do.

After the When Words Collide panel, I asked Robert for his take on hybrid books and how often they cross his desk at Five Rivers Publishing. This is what he had to say:

“It’s true that a lot of hybrid books come our way. The big presses are run by their marketing departments rather than editorial. After an editor pulls a book from the solicited submissions and advocates for it through the chain of the editorial department, it's the Director of Marketing and his army of sales reps who get the final word. And there’s no arguing with that, because the big presses have to make money for their shareholders. It would be irresponsible of them to choose books merely because they are good, when what matters is that they sell. They owe it to their shareholders to make a predictable return on investment (and the big publishers carry gigantic levels of debt and overhead) so they have to rely on the tried and true marketing channels.

Even the smaller presses, if they are tied to the legacy model of fixed print runs, cannot handle hybrids. It's difficult to risk your shirt on a novel you don't know how to market. In contrast, we at Five Rivers have no problem marketing it, because our category is 'great novels', or  ‘yet another Five Rivers-vetted novel'. We can take risks others can't, because we have low overheads and because the editors are still in charge - not marketing, not shareholders looking for a safe investment. Our sales model is built on the slow build, on word of mouth, on teachers adopting class sets. Three or four thousand copies a year would be too few for a large publisher to bother keeping a title in print, but over a decade, that's 40,000 sales the author didn't make. With the new publishing model, we'd be quite satisfied with 1,000 copies of a title a year, because that adds up to a significant piece of change over a couple of decades, and sales go up each time an author releases a new title, plus each time the press has another hit. So we can risk books that are cross-overs, or are too original, or are too ‘not-exactly-like-this-year's-best-seller’, because we're looking for great books, not safe, predictable sellers. 

 We believe there are still discriminating readers out there who follow authors and imprints and are not necessarily limited to a single bookshelf or category in a bookstore. And so far, we've been correct. We're already in the black after only three years in operation, which is considered an exceptionally strong showing in the publishing industry (and that, without any government subsidies).”

(Me again: I think what really makes me feel happy about Five Rivers taking on a hybrid book like The Tattooed Witch is summed up in this final statement from Robert.)

“I want to publish quality books, which means books that authors are really passionate about, not books dictated by agents and editors based on what they think (notoriously inaccurately) will sell. I want books with soul, not books that have been engineered to market specifics. I want to hear the author's voice, not that of a focus group. I’m not looking to publish titles that sell by meeting the lowest common denominator. I want, and have been getting, quality writing by writers who are writing from their vision, not a publishers’ needs. My fear is if we get a cross-over shelf in bookstores, then we'll get agents telling authors, “I could sell this if you just added a romance-paranormal sub-theme!" Bah, humbug! All it has to be to me is brilliant.”

(Thank you, Robert. You've restored my faith in the industry and in myself.)

4 comments:

  1. Suze, it brings tears to my eyes to think of the pain and soul-searching you went through at that retreat. I'm so glad that you followed your heart and kept your book's soul intact.

    I got so sick of hearing the same thing - "We don't know where it would fit," "We love it! But..." "Could you take out the SF?" or "Could you take out the forensics?" or "Could you take out the romance?" It crushed me. It honest to God crushed me.

    I'm so happy for you -- you've worked so hard, and you deserve it. :)

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  2. Jena, you write great stuff. You should be published. I hope you get back to your writing, re-find the faith. I'm happy to help in any way I can. I want to see your books out there.

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  3. Hi Susan,
    This post is truly encouraging because it shows the publishing market is not controlled by the Big Five alone. More importantly, Robert's words represent one of several calls in the growing publishing world for good quality books, rather than books that follow a given formula known to sell.
    While you dared to dream for six years and have been true to your vision, he has dared to bring your vision to the niche of readers who will be transformed by it.
    I wish you all the best, and encourage you to keep sharing your unique stories!

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  4. Thank you, Graeme. I was of two minds about sharing my own story, but I thought it might give others who find themselves in the same situation some hope. All is not lost if you write different stuff, and you don't always have to fit into the mold. I appreciate your words and support.

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