Wednesday, January 7, 2009

On Numbers

Many moons ago, I interviewed for an editing job at a house that was expanding its romance lines. The VP of Something Or Other walked into our meeting, shook my hand, and told me, "You'll be happy to know that here at Big Ole Publishing House, our acquisitions are editorial-driven." And then he proceeded to outline all the various ways that their sales and marketing staff directed the acquisitions process -- by attending editorial meetings, generating concepts for books, even giving a final decision on whether to acquire a certain project pitched by the editors to the sales staff.

Not so at my house.

The thumbnail version of how it works is that, first, an acquisitions editor evaluates your manuscript. If she likes it and wants to take it on, she sends it to me for review. If I like it and have a slot for it, I approve it for acquisition.

That's a very broad overview, of course. Before an acquisitions editor even reviews your manuscript, she has already been prepped on our editorial vision. We have periodic conversations about our editorial direction, both in a generic sense and with respect to individual manuscripts under consideration. We talk about everything from where the lines are drawn on permissible sexual content, to how "beta" a hero can be before he needs revisions, to what makes a story slanted more toward male or female readers. Periodically, the publisher steps in and offers her guidance. All of these factors, and more, can influence an acquisition decision.

So I could tell you that sales doesn't lead editorial, but in a different sense, it does. We might not have sales staff attending editorial meetings and making editorial decisions, but sales prospects can certainly make or break a manuscript.

There are really two questions I'm asking when I read a recommended manuscript. One, does it fit with our editorial philosophy? And two, will it sell?

Our editorial philosophy includes a recognition that my house is known for publishing stories a bit off the beaten path. We weren't just one of the first places to publish erotic romance. We were also publishing vampire stories before those hit the lists, and we were moving away from the "big" books approach and into smaller, tighter stories back when romance paperbacks could be used as doorstops.

So we actively look for stories that might not sell elsewhere. Yes, we publish our werewolves and Scottish lords and international tycoons, but we are also hunting for really top quality stories unlike anything else on the market.

In that sense, at least, we're not sales-led. I find it unlikely, for example, that sales staff with approving authority would have approved Megan's Choice. It's an interactive branching story in e-book form. The reader can actually click on choices at the end of each chapter to tell the heroine what to do next. I imagine a sales person would have taken one look at that proposal and proclaimed it too risky. There's no cumulative sales data for books like this on the market, because there aren't any books like this on the market. Not that I've seen, anyway, and I've looked. (Yes, there was that old children's series of branching adventure books. But they weren't clickable. And they certainly didn't lead to holographic alien sex through particular story paths.)

So, we gamble when we can justify the risk according to our in-house criteria for publishing something outside the box. But really, other than those calculated risks, we care a lot about sales data. A lot.

Last week, we closed a royalty period. I don't have anything to do with preparing royalty statements or checks, but I get sales figures, and believe me, I study them. Those numbers are more than a report card for the editorial department. They're also a roadmap for the future. I break these numbers down twenty different ways, and then break the breakdowns down. There are dozens of different factors that might influence a reader's decision to buy a book -- the covers alone can change a yes to a no, or a no to a yes, for something as simple as whether the heroine wears lacy lingerie or nothing at all.

The difficulty lies in finding the trends. Interpreting data can be tricky. Did this werewolf book sell better than that werewolf book because of the lighter colors on the cover? Or because of the description of the hero in the jacket copy? Or because of the length of the story? Or because of the price point? Or because of some plot detail?

I'm in the process of sorting all that out now, and so far, I've reached only one conclusion:
The economy -- which tanked almost exactly in the middle of this royalty period -- is making any attempts at analysis and prediction all but impossible. I actually have two sales patterns, one from before October and one from after. We can't ignore the pre-crash data, because that indicates what people wanted to read before they got scared. Maybe if they stop being scared, they'll want that type of book again. And we can't dismiss the post-crash numbers ("that's just the economy") because this is what people want to read right now, when things are bad, and we know it's going to get worse before it gets better.

My analysis is far from complete. In fact, I came here to post about this mainly because the numbers are swimming before my eyes, and I needed a break. If I'm a bit scarce for the next week or so, or if I say things that don't make perfect sense (such as that post on agreement -- a thousand apologies for being so confusing), please take pity on me. Twice a year, I have to predict the future. And this time, thanks to the economy, that task is extra impossible.


*I should note that most houses have greater sales involvement than ours. That's one of the things I love about Red Sage.


Riley Murphy said...

Gee, if no one else is willing to offer, I'll do it.

Theresa, you may borrow my magic 8 ball, to predict the future, anytime you would like...cause you know? According to recent news accounts - the Psychics are all booked up these, I wonder why? :)

Edittorrent said...

But of course, the 8 ball requires interpretation... how about a Ouija board?

Liane Gentry Skye said...

Oh, to be a fly on *that* sales report.

I've a hunch that darker fiction is a rapidly becoming a harder sale right now. I think with all the dismal news, readers are looking for lighter, or at least more fantasy based fare.

Dying to see if my hunch holds out in light of your data.

Riley Murphy said...

Too spooky. I'd prefer taking my chances doing eeni meenie minie moe or throwing darts at the dart board. I figure I'd rather get stuck making the wrong choice, than getting the absolute right one, from some disgruntled spirit, who jumped through the oracle and decided to stick around and haunt me for the rest of my life. I’m just weird like that. But hey, if you’re willing to take the risk - I can respect that.

...I was reading your last blog again. Thinking...and more thinking.:)

Edittorrent said...

Some days I think a Magic 8 Ball would have a better shot at making sense of the current environment.

Liane, I don't see any bright line evidence of that. My hunch is slightly different. I think that big catharsis is what readers will want. That means big emotion, thrilling reads, total and overwhelming escape from reality. Dark paranormals could easily fit into that category. So could light contemporary comedies. Or just about anything, really, as long as they can take a reader totally outside their existing head space.


em said...

I hope dark paranormals are still 'in'. I have almost finished mine and I hope that I haven't missed the boat.:(

Anonymous said...

I'd love to see your take on what people want now compared to before the 'big bust' or whatever we're going to be calling the point when suddenly all the economic news was so bad.

I see you commented that people want a total departure from their reality. Some examples would be wonderful. I hope you do a blog post on that topic soon.