Who Takes the Risk?

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We’ve had a lot of talk on this blog about publishers and bookstores wanting “more of the same” rather than unique and original books. It’s a tough topic, because in all media—television, movies, books—nobody ever knows what’s going to sell in the future. All we have to go on is what sold in the past. When we branch outside of a “sure thing” it’s always a risk. Sometimes it ends up to be a huge success, even paving the way for entire new genres or styles to emerge and become popular. More often, the risk doesn’t pay off financially. Still, that doesn’t stop publishers, TV producers and moviemakers from trying. There are always new things coming along, at the same time as there are always plenty of copycat sure things.

An important thing to remember is that, if you’ve got something that’s not cookie-cutter, it’s a risk to put it out there and see if people bite. Are you expecting others (publishers) to share that risk with you? Why should they? If you’re unproven, it might be unrealistic to expect a publisher to share the risk. Just like movie directors who want to make “art films” have to go independent and they don’t expect the major studios to share that risk with them… sometimes an author needs to go independent and self-publish first.

Some directors do so well with their artsy films that eventually they are directing huge blockbusters for major studios. Steven Soderbergh comes to mind. He started off in the ‘80s producing and directing little independent films. He became famous in 1989 with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” and went on to win a few Oscars and direct major films like “Ocean’s Eleven.” But he started out independently, taking the risk on his own shoulders, and letting his work find its audience.

Similarly, William P. Young, author of The Shack, knew he had a unique book with an important message. But his book was just different enough that the big publishers found it too much of a risk. So he took the risk on himself and published it independently. Obviously, it paid off well for him, and his experience is not the rule, it’s an exception. But my point is that a book like this was risky; so the smart thing for the author to do was to take the risk on himself, rather than expecting others to share the risk, until such a time as it became clear it was no longer risky but instead a sure thing.

It’s important to remember that when you’re sending your manuscript out to agents and publishers, you’re saying to them: “Will you take a chance on me? Will you share the risk with me?” You’ve put in your time and effort (blood, sweat and tears… well, hopefully no blood). But you’re asking the publisher to spend tens of thousands of dollars on you. That’s a big risk. Take it into account and understand that there’s a lot on the line when a publisher makes the momentous decision to say “yes” to you and your book.

I hear a lot of authors bemoaning the publishing industry’s supposed lack of interest in original manuscripts. Each of these authors seems SURE that their own book is unique, amazing, totally new and different.. and that everyone will love it. If that’s you, and you aren’t finding any agents or editors interested, and you’re really so sure your book will sell, then consider taking the risk on your own shoulders. Publish your book yourself—there are so many easy ways to do it nowadays. And market it yourself, of course. No matter what happens, you’ll learn a lot from the experience. If you’re right about the value and appeal of your book, then you just might sell some copies, too.

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Dal Jeanis on November 11, 2008 at 8:29 PM

    >When I say “spelling” I also meant grammar and punctuation and keeping the reader oriented and all the other nuts and bolts.

  2. Dal Jeanis on November 11, 2008 at 8:28 PM

    >I know you’re eager to see your baby in print, but do the research first, instead of crying later. Don’t put your name on a bad product because you weren’t patient enough to do the last 5% of the job right.

    If you want to self-publish, then you owe it to yourself to do enough market research to make sure you are dealing with a reputable company. Also, pick three of that company’s books at random and ask yourself if you would be embarrassed to have your book shelved next to them. You are known by the company you keep. Act accordingly.

    Make sure your book is the best you can make it, which means make sure that you have run it past a critique group of some sort, seriously considered the feedback and acted accordingly. If you are not extremely strong on spelling, then have it line edited by someone who is, whether it’s a friend or a teacher or your mother or someone you trade favors with– or a professional editor who you have researched enough to know is worth what you are going to pay.

    You’ve spent hundreds of hours writing the darn thing. Don’t throw it away because you couldn’t spend five more checking out the people who want your money.

  3. Timothy Fish on November 11, 2008 at 5:53 PM

    If that’s all you want, why bother with being computer savvy at all? I had a college professor who wrote the textbook for the class — literally. She took her hand written pages with various illustrations pasted on down to the campus printing press, had them bind a bunch of copies in black hard covers and that’s what we used for class.

  4. Nicole on November 11, 2008 at 11:59 AM

    >PublishAmerica has a terrible reputation. And if you want a professional looking product equal to any royalty publishing book in appearance, you need to spend more than a few hundred dollars. It’s pricey depending on your word count and the package you buy.
    If all you want is your ms. bound, any computer savvy person with the right software can achieve a self-published book. Right, Timothy?

  5. Anonymous on November 10, 2008 at 10:18 PM

    We really aren’t talking about a lot of hard earned cash. A few hundred dollars in most cases, free if you go with CreateSpace, or if you go with PublishAmerica, my understanding is that they’ll pay you a dollar, as well as do the typesetting and cover design.

  6. Kristi Holl on November 10, 2008 at 7:38 PM

    >About the only self-published books that sell a lot (statistically speaking) are nonfiction books where the author already has an audience. The author is already a speaker, or is a pastor, or has a newsletter of 100,000 names, etc. It’s rare for self-published fiction to make a real splash, The Shack notwithstanding. It’s something to consider before laying down your hard-earned cash.
    Kristi Holl
    Writer’s First Aid blog

  7. Nicole on November 10, 2008 at 1:10 PM

    >If you can live with the “stigma” Anonymous described, the self-publishing route insures your novel will be published.

    I will give an absolute solid, reputable plug for WinePress Publising and their POD branch Pleasant Word. Total professionals who work hard to produce a quality product and do–equal in quality to royalty produced books in appearance inside and out. Content is subject to opinion like any royalty published book. With certain purchased packages, they require/use professional freelance editors (just like Rachelle once was) to go through the entire manuscripts, to proof, copy edit, and to suggest plot changes, implausibilities, and corrections.
    Marketing packages can be purchased. Their reps attend all the major CBA writing conferences.

  8. Anonymous on November 10, 2008 at 11:52 AM

    >You made no mention of the stigma attached to self-publishing. Agent after agent says. “If you self-published, we don’t care…that’s not a publishing credit.”

    The industry generally views self-publishing as a mark that the book’s not good enough.

    As for the sure thing. Great idea. Why not have everyone self-publish and then the trade houses can cherry pick the results and save themselves the trouble.

    I’ll paraphrase what William Young said on the Shack’s website: After the book was successful, we started getting offers from publishers. Two of them were people who’d turned the book down. Why would be interested in them now?

    As far as the publishers investing “thousands of dollars” in the book, what has the author invested in writing time, conference fees, postage and envelopes for querying, etc.?

    It’s hard for me to feel sorry for these guys.

  9. Vince on November 10, 2008 at 11:48 AM

    >Hello Rachel:

    I believe that as soon as you try to write something that is new and fresh and outside the box, you already have two strikes against you. These qualities should not be goals, they should be byproducts.

    I believe that the goal should be to write something that only you could have written and write it in a way that it will delight a given target audience. You should feel in your “heart of hearts” that your target audience will love what you are doing. Why? Because you understand your target readers and you have gone one step further in giving them what they like best. Now, if this product, which delights your readers with the best reading experience, happens to be new, fresh, and paradigm-busting, so be it. If not, then nothing is lost.

    I see the fiction writer’s job as producing the “best possible reading experience” and all else is window dressing.


  10. Kim Kasch on November 10, 2008 at 10:12 AM

    >One thing I would recommend to anyone who is considering self-publishing is to go to a conference that offers information about this avenue and successful speakers experienced in this genre.

    Most writers would have no idea how to go about self-publishing a quality product and learning from those who have done it – first – would make the end product better, cheaper to produce and, hopefully, gather more sales.

    Just my .02 – Oh, and BTW, I’ll miss you on Wednesday 🙁 but maybe that will give me more time to work on my WIP.

  11. Rachelle on November 10, 2008 at 10:01 AM

    >Lynn, with so many different companies offering variations on “self publishing,” I can’t answer the question with a generality. Most self-pubs don’t do any significant editing, but I’ve heard a few are now offering it.

    Read this post: Self Publishing and ePublishing for a more comprehensive look at self-publishing.

  12. lynnrush on November 10, 2008 at 9:50 AM

    >Interesting post, Rachelle.

    I’ve heard the case FOR and AGAINST self publishing. But I have a question…who edits the book when it’s self published? Does the author do it? Or do self publishing companies usually have editors on staff?

    I ask because I’ve read a few self published books and find many errors usually. I was just curious what the editing process is on a self published book.

  13. Janny on November 10, 2008 at 9:16 AM

    >Just one nitpicky thing on this post I feel is misleading, at best.

    Comparing an author self-publishing to an independent movie producer “starting small,” IMHO, is apples to oranges. Even independent movies have backers. Yes, sometimes the major “backer” is the person whose idea it is to do the film, and lots of the resources are his or her own–but just as often, “independent” films aren’t really “independent” at all in the sense of being one-person productions; they’re merely financed by lower-profile, lower-budget entrepreneurs. If every independent filmmakker had to foot the entire bill for an independent “small” film, there’d be even fewer of them than there are now…because they’d only come out when the indy producer had enough “bake sales” to pay for them. 🙂

    By contrast, even the biggest self-published book doesn’t have entrepreneurs launching it; its launch money, its marketing money, its production money–ALL its risk–comes from the author. For an independent film producer’s risk and investment to be comparable, he’d almost have to be building the studio himself from the ground up.

    So while the comparison *sounds* like it works…to me, it really doesn’t.

    As far as why a publisher should take a risk on a new author or a new idea or the like–it’s understandable that they have to carefully count the cost before investing in something that they don’t know will sell. But then they need to also stop telling authors that they’re looking for the “fresh” and “original.” They’re not. They’re looking for something that appears to be “fresh” and “original,” but has as its foundation the tried and familiar. That truth’s not nearly as hard to take as being led down the garden path by a vision of “breaking the sides out of the box”…and then discovering that what one can actually SELL doesn’t even come close to pushing the walls out.

    My take,

  14. Timothy Fish on November 10, 2008 at 8:06 AM

    >Obviously, The Shack has some things in it that most Christians will find shocking, or at least should, but I think we could argue that even The Shack is more of the same in its own way. If I were an acquisitions editor and I saw The Shack come across my desk there is no question that I would have rejected it and still would, but having 20/20 hindsight that allows us to see how well it has sold and why people have encouraged others to buy it also allows us to get a better understanding of what it similar to. Doctrinally, The Shack is similar to what you might find in a book by Joel Osteen, who has a huge following. So the more of the same may have contributed more to sales than the different part.

  15. Avily Jerome on November 10, 2008 at 3:17 AM

    >Howdy, Rachelle!

    Which publishing avenue to pursue is such a hard decision to have to make!

    Everyone would like to have the major publishing houses fall in love with their manuscript and beg to be the one to have it make millions.

    But that is obviously really rare! Thank’s for showing us the other side of the coin, and balancing out the perspective for us!