Homeopaths talk about malaria-shaped holes that only homeopathy can fill. Evangelists talk about God-shaped holes that only religion can fill. Well, recently I tried to repair a hole myself: an evolution-shaped hole. Because, let me tell you, we have one hell of an evolution-shaped hole at my publishers.
I’ve always noticed the hole, gaping wide in the science section of the bookshelf, somewhere between the dinosaur encyclopedia and the guide to animal camouflage. So, a book on evolution was the first bullet point on my ideas post-it note come our team brainstorm to develop our next front list of titles. Man, was I excited. They’d been side stepping around this evolution-shaped hole for years. I was going to look like a genius!
Actually, I was beaten down as if I was some crazy person who’d just walked in off the street, sat down in the conference room, helped myself to the mini flapjacks and suggested we produce a 500-page compendium on “Office Chairs of the British Isles”.
I’m not stupid. I am fully aware that, despite being based in the UK, the USA constitutes an overwhelming majority of our sales. Hence, we do a lot to please our customers across the pond: the American market prefers stories with animal characters as opposed to children, so we have rabbits, bears and cats going to school, getting scared of the dark and dealing with the hardship of divorce. The American market doesn’t like the European illustration style of drawing eyes too far apart, and so we bin illustrators on that crime alone. So, it had crossed my mind that a book on evolution would not go down well across the bible belt, would only sell, at best, on the east and west coasts. To give you an idea of how very stubborn this market can be, we once produced a series of 4 books on the history of world religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism). The books were produced to be sold as a set on which we could build a picture of the diversity of world culture. Beautiful. But it backfired. The only book that sold was Christianity. Our customers would go nowhere near the others, and today they sit in dusty hopelessness in the warehouse, having never seen the sunlight. So, all this I knew. But I did not know the ferocious extent to which the sales team (let’s call them the Doom Rabbits) would go to keep that evolution-shaped hole wide and expanding. As it turned out: very far indeed.
I tend to keep my cool at work. I enjoy my role as the mild-mannered one who sits by the window, who you can come to if you want to ask why the morning newspapers may have been exaggerating the latest “Cumcumbers Cause Cancer” reports, what to do if your crazy boyfriend hadn’t called you that weekend, or whether it was a good investment to spend a month’s salary on membership to a Bikram Yoga centre. But this really got me quite annoyed. I can deal with the piles (and piles) of books with bunny rabbits brushing their teeth using their opposable thumbs. I can handle the bizarre space-between-the-eyes rule, but could I tolerate this?
I didn’t understand. How, I demanded to know, could we call ourselves an educational publisher if we pandered to a creationist market? Where was our commitment to education? How, I asked, could they sleep at night? As it turned out, they all sleep pretty well. As is one of the perks of being a fairly intelligent person who, nevertheless, rarely thinks. The Doom Rabbits glared down at me. “It will not sell in the US. We won’t do it,” they said. Simple as that.
I understand the basic equation that book + sale of book = money = more books to sell. But I suppose I was naively optimistic that we were ready to step out of the mould. I was ready stand up on that conference table, mini flapjack held high in defiance, and say “I don’t care if this book will sell. We will make it because it should be made, profit be damned.” I guess that’s why I’m not the director of the company.
Perhaps I need to clarify the problem for anyone not “in the biz”. There is self publishing and then there is co-edition publishing. In self publishing, you make a book and you try to sell it to a customer (a bookshop, a library, a school, a chain of gift stores). In co-edition publishing, the customer comes to you, asks you to make a book, and you make it. In short, in co-edition publishing, there is no risk of not selling a book. You already have a customer ready to buy it. All you have to do is make it.
We both self publish and co-edition publish. However, even though our co-edition profits are stunningly rising by the year, our self publishing sales haven’t been doing so hot. Basically, self publishing is hard, co-edition publishing is relatively easy. To slowly claw up the ladder of self-publishing success, our front list is enthusiastically shoved under all the customers’ noses in the baby stages. And, simply, if they don’t smell the hint of promise, then we won’t continue. All work on that book will cease, the budget will be redistributed and we’ll never speak of it again.
Well, whatever; my general motto is that anything worth doing is never going to be easy. I didn’t get into children’s educational publishing to make a quick buck, and I’m still waiting for that golden day when my defiant flapjack and I will start the revolution. But here’s my question: will that day ever come? Maybe I’m in the wrong business for revolution. Maybe I should cut my losses and concede that just because we don’t produce a book on evolution, it doesn’t mean that we’re supporting a creationist market, we’re just not doing anything to combat it. And that’s OK, right? No one ever said that it was up to publishing to change the world. And if we can’t sell the books we produce then where does the money come from to keep going? Sure, this evolution business has ticked me off, but I’m very proud of the the books we have managed to get on shelves and in schools; they are honest, vibrant and crafted with love.
But here’s the simple fact that keeps fizzling away at the back of my mind: we are not producing something that should be produced because religion says we shouldn’t. And here’s another point of contention: if the Doom Rabbits can’t sell something as simple as a book on evolution (I mean, other publishers do, don’t they?), does that mean it’s a bad book, or does it mean that they’re bad sales people?
Image: my own, digitally coloured