A Sales Team reason for rejection

Every time my Sales VP casts a vote in favor of a new book, she’s placing a big-money bet. And you can bet that VP is very aware of what’s at stake.

Look at it this way. Imagine you and I jet off to Las Vegas in time to place a bet on a horserace happening at Churchill Downs. We’re watching the pre-race coverage on TV, learning about the horses scheduled to run in the race. One is a horse named HotStuff. As we listen to the announcer, we discover that HotStuff placed third in a race six months ago, came in first three months ago, and was barely edged out of the top spot to finish second in a race just last month. 

Next we hear the announcer introduce a horse named CoolIt. CoolIt, we discover, has never raced before. He looks healthy, but no one knows exactly how this horse will respond once he’s on the track. Will CoolIt panic and freeze up? Will the horse brush off all distractions and race hard to the finish line? Will he simply stay in the middle of the pack, never making an impact on the race? Who knows?

Now it’s time for you and I to go to the betting window and put our money down on a horse. Realistically, are you going to bet $25,000, $50,000, or more on CoolIt? Or are you going to look at the track records of the two horses and go with the safer bet on HotStuff? 

This, in a symbolic sense, is what happens each time my Sales VP makes a bet on a new book. She’s placing a bet of tens of thousands of dollars (sometimes more) on the hope that your masterpiece will win, place, or show in the race at the public marketplace. 

When I come to the publishing board with a book by an author who has never sold any books before, I’m asking my Sales VP to do the equivalent of placing a bet on CoolIt—putting money behind an author who may look healthy but who has no history of success. That’s a pretty risky bet, and it’s one that makes it hard for brand new authors to even get in the game. Mick Silva, former editor at Random House, says, “Publishers, retailers and parent companies are taking losses, so they’re backing off making bets.”

The rule is this, then: Past sales success creates future opportunities; no past creates only uncertainty. And most times, that’s enough for rejection.

What You Can Do About It

1. Bolster your credibility as an expert to overcome your lack of credibility as an author. 

Stellar author credentials can often help first-timers overcome the absence of a track record in book sales, simply because a recognized “expert” is someone that readers inherently trust. If you lack a sales history, then beef up your author credentials on your book’s topic and use that to convince my Sales VP you’re worthy of her bet. 

For instance, Rick Riordan spent 15 years teaching history and mythology to middle school students before successfully launching his juvenile fiction series Percy Jackson and the Olympians. Audrey Niffenegger had never published anything when she pitched her fantasy novel, The Time-Traveler’s Wife, to MacAdam/Cage. But she was a well-regarded professor in the Interdisciplinary Book Arts MFA program at the prestigious Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts—and that’s significant. In horseracing parlance, that kind of credential was like saying she came from a family of racing champions. In fact, I’d guess that without that credential, Ms. Niffenegger might never have been published.

So identify key accomplishments that make you a credible expert on a topic, and highlight those in your proposal. That’ll help mitigate some of the risk for my sales team.

2. Try to publish in categories where the topic is more important than the author.

Some categories of publishing almost always require author brand recognition for success—literary fiction, mysteries/thrillers, memoir, etc. Sure, an unknown author can sometimes break through there, but it’s rare. Other categories depend more on built-in topic appeal—such as romantic fiction, crafts, home and garden, finance, and some children’s or teen books. 

When choosing where you want to start your publishing career, one option is to find a category that doesn’t require a previous sales history, or a category where your other credentials matter more. For instance, if your day job is as a financial planner, you may want to try to break into publishing with a money management book. Or, if you want to pursue a career as a novelist, you may want to start by writing romance to build up a history of sales.

3. Highlight your ability to reach a significant audience.

In the end, the most important thing to a Sales VP is going to be your ability to sell books, regardless of what your past history has been. So look for ways to tell that VP your book will definitely sell—maybe through your 10,000 member mailing list, at the 200 speaking engagements you’ve got scheduled next year, through your magazine column that reaches 150,000 readers every month, or whatever.

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