There is one very powerful word in commercial publishing. It’s but.
I love the concept of this novel and really connected with the main character BUT I don’t quite feel it’s commercial enough to appeal to a broad spectrum of readers.
This sample blew me away when I read it and I’ve been desperate for a unique twist on the genre like this. BUT the team worries it’s a little too unique and niche to take a risk on.
I really enjoyed this submission, especially the new ground it breaks in a tested area. BUT I worry it straddles genres so won't break out in a commercial sense.
This risk-averse approach is understandable in this difficult economic climate. But are these excuses becoming a little too common lately, meaning the balance is tilting too much towards playing it safe, and not enough towards taste-making?
While it's important to publish books that clearly fit into popular genres, it's also essential to seek out new voices and ideas that can keep the industry fresh and relevant. Editors who take risks and champion new ideas can help shape the literary landscape, setting trends rather than just following them.
This is particularly interesting when you consider first, the growing success of indie authors, and second, the BookTok phenomenon.
The growth of indie bestsellers is often attributed to indie authors becoming more professional, not to mention the strength of their own direct-to-consumer platforms. But we also need to consider another likely reason: there are ideas out there that will be absolutely loved by an editor. But ultimately, they're rejected because they're not deemed ‘safe’ enough. Sometimes, this prompts an author to publish it themselves anyway and then that same initial spark an editor felt is shared by readers who lap the novel up in droves, not caring if it straddles genres or takes a unique twist on that genre.
And then there’s the BookTok community, which has propelled books to bestseller status and encouraged editors to offer deals to authors they may not have before because of this aversion to publishing something a bit out there. Is this where the tastemakers are now, on TikTok? If so, that means the taste-making adventure that publishers once enjoyed–and why many editors got into the industry in the first place–is slowly being taken over by BookTokkers.
But where does that leave books that aren’t yet published? Or the many authors out there who aren’t among the small circle of authors miraculously and organically discovered by BookTokkers?
It leaves those authors relying on editors who have that special combination: a talent to spot something wonderful on the edges of a genre, and the rank to push it through the rest of the team, even a more risk adverse team.
This is what happened with author Charlotte Levin. Many agents and editors didn't know how to sell or place her debut novel, If I Can't Have You, even though they loved it. But all it took was one editor who snapped it up in a pre-empt and the novel has since gone on to be a critically acclaimed bestseller.
Other examples include megasellers like Stuart Turton's Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough, Impossible by Sarah Lotz, The Other Side of Night by Adam Hamdy... the list goes on. These novels sit in a specific genre, like crime, mystery and thriller, or romance. But they offer an interesting quirk on it. Maybe first considered too niche, too unique, not commercial enough, but each going on to be huge bestsellers, proving while readers do love their clear genre-specific reads, many are also willing to take exciting risks too.
Ultimately, the success of any publishing house depends on its ability to identify talented authors and bring their stories to readers in a compelling way. While being safe can be lucrative, as readers often gravitate towards familiar themes and genres, it can also be limiting. Editors who follow trends may overlook original ideas and voices that don't fit into the current market, and they may stifle the growth of the industry by failing to take risks.
The fact is, taste making is a critical part of this process, as it helps editors find and nurture the most innovative and exciting voices in the industry. By taking risks, staying open to new ideas, and constantly pushing the boundaries of what readers expect, editors can make a lasting impact on the literary world and help ensure that the industry continues to evolve and grow for years to come. So let's hope taste-making doesn't disappear completely, hey?