They have no idea, all the literary agents and editors in New York City. It's all a crapshoot to them, their own industry. Will a book be a big seller or a flop, they ask, and they have no answers.
A recent article in the New York Times attempted to analyze this difficult situation. Why do the New York based publishing concerns have no idea what is going to work? For example, the recently released Prep had a very rough birth. Agent Shana Kelly of powerhouse agency William Morris thought it was brilliant. The editors she contacted didn't fall in love. A book about coming of age in prep school? However would that sell beyond the toney East Coast, where people actually go to prep school? Surely the folks in fly-over country could not relate to a story about prep schools. Would they even know what a prep school is?
The bean counters at the publishing houses poured over the numbers. How many books has the author sold? None? What's the likely audience? Very small? Sorry, but that just does not add up. We can only buy manuscripts from famous people with platforms and a long backlist of highly successful titles who write things that appeal to the masses. You know, all those people who don't live on the island of Manhattan and so are as foreign and unknown as the Yeti in the Himalayas. And we don't even know what they like.
They liked Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, didn't they? Well then, they'll like his next book, so let's throw $8 million his way and we'll be rolling in money. Snake-eyes! Crapped out! Thirteen Moons only earned back $1 million, and it's fading away. Don't know why, those financial analysts at the big publishing houses. Hard on the success of Prep comes a second novel from author Curtis Sittenfeld, another coming of age novel. Not anywhere near as successful, but it's the same story again. Why oh why isn't it flying off the shelves like the first one? Repetitio est mater laurus, isn't it?
Big marketing campaigns certainly help, to get the word on the streets beyond the fringe of the known universe that is the island of Manhattan. But the suits in the offices that look out over the distant shore have no idea what all the rest of us are looking for in a book. What entertains those people out there in the parts of the country they know nothing about?
They see nothing beyond the ends of their own noses, and have no system in place to peer into the minds of those they would like to snag as buyers. Perhaps the time has come for the likes of Random House and HarperCollins to hire on some interns to surf the Internet. Want to know what people in the rest of the country are interested in, what they think of your books and what they would like to read? There's plenty of blogs out there that might give a hint.