A woman recently posted in a Facebook authors’ group I’m a part of that she was rejected after submitting her series to a publisher. She wrote, “It was an audiobook company who said my sales aren’t enough for them to be successful. What stung the most was when she said, ‘you just released your fifth book in the series and the sales are unimpressive.'” A bunch of comments followed, consoling her and posting angry responses about the publisher.
Literally, there’s nothing personal in this rejection. It isn’t criticizing her writing, her genre, her cover, her blurb, her storytelling, or anything else she’s created. Heck, it isn’t even rejecting her based on her identity. It’s just looking at the numbers and predicting that it’s not worthwhile to spend the money to create audiobooks for a series that is below a certain sales threshold. In theory, audiobook publishers could release a formula that tells writers “for a series of this length, you need this many sales before we’d consider making an audiobook version of it”.
It’s not a judgment on the writer, it’s a mathematical equation.
Follow The Money
When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. The only thing unusual is how honest and frank the feedback was. Any company making audiobooks is doing it to make money. Any time they’re considering creating an audiobook, the first thing they’ll ask themselves is how much will it cost to make and how much will we make selling it? When creating an audiobook from an already released book, this becomes a much easier prediction. There really isn’t even much of a judgement call: above a certain threshold it’s worth making, below that threshold it’s not.
I’ve had traditionally published authors tell me that it’s important to them to have the seal of approval from the official gatekeepers. One told me “I want someone who knows what good literature is to tell me yes, you are good enough for us to publish you.”
This is fine as a motivation, except that isn’t what is guiding the judgement of agents, editors, and publishers. They’re not evaluating “good literature”, they’re figuring out what will sell enough copies to be worth the cost of publishing. This has been viewed as synonymous with “good literature”, but it really isn’t.
There are many stories about books, like Harry Potter, that were rejected many times before finally being published and being a worldwide sensation. It’s easy to shake your head at the people who rejected it, but I guarantee you that THOSE PEOPLE are the ones who feel the absolute worst about it. They were handed a winning lottery ticket and they threw it away. Likely it makes them sick every time they think about it. And it isn’t because they didn’t recognize “great literature”, it’s because they had a chance to grab a money maker and they missed it.
The occasional misses (rejected books that become huge successes) also shouldn’t surprise us. People in the industry are looking for similarities between new books and existing, successful books. When something different comes along, it’s not going to match up to existing successes. Usually this is a good basis to reject the work, but OCCASSIONALLY one of these oddball works will change the industry. It’s going to be tough to recognize when a particular work is one of these.
A Thought Experiment
Imagine you decide to become your own publisher. You’ll buy creative works off of people, then either hire, or create yourself, a cover, blurb, do editing and proofreading, etc, then release it to the world for sale. Bam! You’re now a publisher. You could literally do this for a few thousand dollars or cheaper if you wanted to.
In this position, now that you’ve transformed yourself into a publisher, do you have any special insight into what makes something good literature or not? You’re willing to put your money on the table and bet on a particular book, so you’re deeply invested in it being a good book, but where does your special insight come from? Nowhere, because you don’t have any special insight. And neither does anyone else. All they have, that you don’t right now, is the experience in the industry to make SLIGHTLY better predictions on what’s going to be successful.
Take this a step further and think about what book you’re going to bet on with your thousands of dollars. You only get one, and if it’s successful you can repeat the bet on future books, but if you lose money, you’re done with your publishing venture. When you consider books to buy, are you going to buy a book that you’d like to read? Or a book that you think has a chance to be a classic and will be well regarded through the ages? Or are you going to buy a book that will most likely sell copies and earn back at least what you paid for it?
If you’re smart, you’ll buy a book that’ll sell a lot of copies, since that’s the only way you’ll stay in business. And it’s exactly the same for other publishers.