As Valentine’s Day approaches and retailers redecorate in shades of crimson and Pepto Bismol, I thought it fitting to look at book publishing and the language of love. As an author I know pointed out, romance–not the genre, but as metaphor–seems to govern the acquisition process. When editors pass on a project they say they “just didn’t fall in love,” or admit they were “not sufficiently passionate,” or (and this is something that I myself have been known to say) “admired but did not adore” the work in question. What’s this all about? In what ways is landing a book contract like falling in love?
I’d say two things; first, that to some degree, the metaphor is not wholly disingenuous. Publishing is driven, to a surprising degree, by gut feeling and genuine enthusiasm, and in order to pitch a project to colleagues, collect second reads (so that others will also fall in love), parry the inevitable skepticism of the sales and marketing team, and otherwise assert that this book should occupy one of the finite slots that each imprint is allocated, editors do need to be engaged. Publishing love, does not, however, exist in a vacuum, nor is it blind.
In order to summon–and sustain–the abovementioned passion, an editor must believe that a project fits in with the mandate of the house. A commercial house best known for its big name thrillers is probably not going to open its heart to a literary stream-of-consciousness narrative, no matter how brilliant. Past performance also plays a role. An editors’ capacity to love is distinctly dampened by the whiff of failure. So if your book falls into a category that has proved disappointing for the imprint (their last two travel memoirs tanked) or across the industry (for example general parenting titles), or is perceived as difficult to sell, romance may be elusive. And of course, if you are a published author, your own track record, unceremoniously retrieved from Bookscan, is taken into consideration. Downward trending numbers can cool the most ardent infatuation. Finally, published or not, who you are plays no small role in the courting ritual. Famous, well-connected, possessed of a national media platform? You grow more loveable by the minute. I don’t wish to sound cynical, because, in truth, I’m not. I don’t regard the contemporary publishing landscape as an intellectual wasteland dominated by celebrities–on the contrary, I’m haunted by all the excellent books I may never read. I also meet with editors and publishers of formidable taste and professional conviction. But for some odd reason, book publishing (again like love) is something we tend to romanticize, wish to see as “pure,” impervious from calculation, profit-motive, self-interest. Which, of course, it’s not. But however you prefer to think about love, the book industry is not best perceived through rose-colored glasses.