Let’s chat about the business of books

I spent all day writing this. Give it a go. I didn’t get it to where I wanted it to go, but it’s good enough.

I would like your opinions. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the book business, the book market, book publishers, book writers, and most importantly, book readers. I have some comments and questions.

I do not know the book business. But I do know retail (read large chain companies like JCPenney, Macy’s, etc.). I know how retail has changed over the last 50 years or so. A lot of that change was concomitant with the growth of computers and the internet, but there is more to it than that. Without going into unnecessary– but fascinating– detail, the bottom line is that a store’s merchandise assortment, i.e., the stuff on shelves, tables, and racks, went from being almost completely controlled by a human being who lived and worked in the same town as her customers, to being controlled by someone who did not– someone who had no earthly idea what the local market liked or wanted.

This happened gradually but the end result was huge. Of course, you have to be of a certain age to appreciate this. If you grew up knowing that the stuff that was available in your local JCP was the same stuff in the JCP 300 miles away, you wouldn’t know there was a time when it wasn’t. You would not know that at one time your choices varied, sometimes significantly, depending on where you were. You wouldn’t know, in other words, that the assortment of merchandise in a store once reflected the tastes and styles of the local market, and not the buyers who worked on 7th Ave. in New York City.

What does this have to do with books? Everything. There’s an old fashioned idea that consumers create a demand for a product, and creators/producers fill that demand. A creator may create something previously unknown, some people saw it, and before you know it, everyone wanted it. In steps a producer who churns out enough for (nearly) everyone who wants the thing. This idea assumes producers know the market.

Let’s look at the principles involved in the book market. We have first, the creator– the writer. The writer is to books as the designer is to clothes. Just as the designer needs to convince the manufacturer to produce quantities of her piece, so to does the writer need to sell their book or idea to a publisher. (For clothing, manufacturers could be buyers at Walmart who’ll pick up the design under the WM label, name band fashion houses, etc.; Birkenstocks. Jordache. Turtlenecks. Dolman sleeves.)

So we have the writer and the publisher. In the book world nothing happens in traditional publishing without the agent– the person to whom a writer pitches his book, and who then sells the book idea to a publisher. There are then book distributors (stores, online). And finally, the book reader.

Let us look now at an example of something I keep coming across:

I have written a book aimed at 4th-6th graders. It is a guide to ghosts and ghost hunting written in the guise of a nonfiction book but it written in the first person by a fictitious ghost expert who tells funny, fictional stories about his experiences throughout the book. I am having trouble knowing how to describe it to a  publisher in my initial contact with them.

Not going to site this, it’s from a members only children’s book writing forum.

Let’s just assume this is well written, funny, and a good story. What do the comments say?

There are comps … This is time to talk to a librarian or bookseller. Once you have comps look at their blurbs on websites and see how they were marketed. But I think you did a fine job here, a middle grade fantasy in which a fictitious ghost hunter guides perspective hunters through anecdotes of his experiences. Just make sure you include a child somewhere.

A “comp” in the book world is the same as in real estate– a comparable. This commenter is always upbeat and positive. Her final piece of advice is something like gospel. Kids books should be about kids.

Next comment said it sounded like a good idea. (Agreed.) Then this:

I had the good fortune to come across the term “high concept” at one of the boards here. If there’s a high, there must be a low, no? The first characteristic of a low concept story is that it is “not easily explainable.” Could your story be low concept?

And then this:

I would definitely not pitch it that way, [low concept] as it may come across as “not exciting” — or, indeed, hard to explain, which can equal hard to pitch or shelve, which can equal No. … What concerns me is that you may not have a child front and center. … I pictured your ghost hunter as an adult. If you can’t make the ghost hunter a child, maybe give him/her a child “sidekick” who is actually the MC. … According to recent experience and industry talk, comps and how you choose them are becoming more and more make-it-or-break-it to your query or pitch. [my emphasis]

So again with the main character being a kid. I don’t have much to say about that other than kids real biographies. If they can comprehend a book about a real historical or famous person, why wouldn’t they get a book with an adult main character?

Finally

I wrote the book of my heart a few years ago (MG). It has a child MC and two young adult sidekicks. The kid is proactive, saves the day, drives the plot, etc.–but it was a hard no.  (My agent told me this and a Big Five editor confirmed.) Having an adult sidekick is an automatic dealbreaker right now; that could change in a few years of course, but if the MC themself isn’t a kid you should probably reassess.

I have the same thoughts as above. Why can’t a story have an adult sidekick from whom the main character– the kid– can learn, or who can offer help?

All of this brings me to two larger things– one specific, the other general.

Specifically, The Comp. This is going to vary with agent/publisher, but the general rule is a children’s book writer needs two comps, published within the last five years (that’d be 2016).

Now, I get that I’m old fashioned, but WTH? I’m not going on the five years rant b/c you already know it. But the idea that “my story is just like this story but instead of two boys and a girl who live with their evil step mother in the desert and have to slay a giant kimodo dragon to change her back into a loving mother, and just like that story but instead of two girls and a boy who live with their evil step father in the jungle and have to slay a miniature bullet ant to change him back into a loving father, EXCEPT THAT IN MY STORY THERE ARE TWO GIRLS AND THEIR SIDEKICK TALKING MONKEY WHO LIVE WITH THE GIRLS’ EVIL SECOND COUSIN TWICE REMOVED IN A VILLAGE NORTH OF THE ARTIC CIRCLE AND HAVE TO SLAY A THREE-LEGGED POLAR BEAR TO CHANGE THE EVIL SECOND COUSIN TWICE REMOVED BACK INTO A LOVING SECOND COUSIN TWICE REMOVED” is the book that needs to be written and pitched is just nuts.

Nuts.

How about offering something a little different to kids and see if they and their parents like it?

Kids? Who cares about kids?

That’s the general point which can be summed up thusly: Publishers are cramming stuff down parents’ and their kids’ throats.

I am not saying that all contemporary kids books are bad. There are smaller niche publishers, and there are large publishers which cater to particular markets that do demand certain standards be kept in kids’ books. I’m talking about the majority of kids books being pumped out by large– and by the way, due to acquisition and consolidation, an ever decreasing number of– publishing houses.

Wanting your kids to read, but having no real choices (i.e., the assortment is not broad), what’s a parent to do? Obviously old books but that’s not where I’m headed today.

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