Risk/Reward Ratio Riddles

The problem with growth

I’ve been thinking about next April rather obsessively lately. Also March, and May, and June 2022. No amount of “stay in the present!” self-care meditative therapeutic advice would help a publisher. By June 25, we are supposed to have all the information about the books we will publish between March and June 2022 completed, including covers and the comp titles and the “key selling points” and keywords and BISACs and marketing materials. If we do not provide this information to our distributor by this date, then it might not be including in the “data feeds” and, we are led to believe, the books will die, forlorn, neglected.

We do not always abide by these rules. Sometimes we miss the deadline! Sometimes we “crash” a title, or decide in, say, September, to publish a book in December, sidestepping all the title group deadlines, the conference calls to sales reps, the mandatory 4-6 months lead time to be eligible for a Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus pre-publication review. It often works out just fine. It often works out better than if we had met all our marks. But sometimes it does not. It’s a risk.

So if we are to play the game the ‘correct’ way, we finalize our Spring ‘22 catalog in the next few weeks. And that’s why it’s April 2022 in my head.

How many titles per year should a press publish? There is no rule of thumb, no “if you have x staff, do y titles per year,” or “if you want to bring in x dollars, do y titles” or “if you want to be taken seriously and win awards…”. You can be considered prestigious and pump out 25,000 a season, or 2 per year. You just sort of…make it up. Or at least we do. I imagine those in corporate presses are often pressured to keep upping the title count.

We’ve been averaging 14-18 per year, a huge jump from closer to four per year just a scant few years ago. But for this coming fall, we are publishing just four (plus paperbacks, and two in the winter season, neither of which we haven’t done before). And right now, as we stare down that distributor deadline, we have four titles for next spring as well for which we could complete all the necessary information. If we decide to stick with just those four, and not crash additional titles, we will publish 30-50% fewer titles over the next 12 month period than we did the previous one. And not because of any grand strategy, or lack of funds, but for a variety of smaller reasons that add up to a big change: the random relationship between when manuscripts come in and our distributor deadlines, the amount of lead time we want to promote a book before it officially publishes, the match between “good for the holidays” books and what we are currently editing. That sort of thing.

There are pros and cons to doing fewer titles. Pro: it saves money! Our expenses will go down! Con: we would require fewer staff. Pro: we can go slower, and do better with each book! Con: we could lose momentum, and be seen to be retrenching for financial reasons.

Speaking of money, there is no necessary correlation between the number of titles we plan to publish and the amount of revenue we project. Which is very weird! But some books will sell more than others, in terms of projections, and in reality. One book that does well could easily mean more revenue than eight books that have more modest sales. Of course, if that one book does not sell well, then you will find yourself pining for those eight modest but trusty titles instead. The longer you are in this business, and the more you overthink it, you find yourself doing endless bet hedging, and that usually resolves into stuffing the list with as many titles as possible. It becomes, perversely, entirely rational to decide to publish as many books as possible in an attempt to not lost money, even though books costs money to publish, duh. If publishing is a numbers game, with 20% of the books (that sell well) underwriting the 80% (that don’t as much), then, illogically, you just want more and more and more of those “probably in the 80%” because one of them might jump over into the 20.

Which is why deciding to publish far fewer books for the next 12 months—and thus radically lowering our expenses line in the budget— strikes me as incredibly risky. And, at the same time, the least risky thing we could do.

And this is why I am obsessing about next April.

Today’s images are screenshots of all the books we will publish for the remainder of 2021. All our available for preorder! Preorder those that look enticing! That would cut down on my necessary future tripping. That would make this game less about projection, and more about fulfillment. It would make it fulfilling.

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