Thursday, November 11, 2010

Evaluating talent is difficult…

Especially in a team context. Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

And guess what? It’s not any easier in the book industry.

In sports, general managers look for players who have superior skills in their own rights, but also skills that complement the existing players on the roster. And that means that there will always be GMs who pick Sam Bowie ahead of Michael Jordan—widely considered the worst draft-day mistake in sports history. If you asked today, most of GMs would say they’d make the same decision given the same information. It’s that “given the same information” part that really matters. Stu Inman, the GM for the Trail Blazers in 1984, wasn’t an idiot. He just wasn’t psychic.

In books, editors are in a similar situation. We look for books that are phenomenal in their own rights, of course, books that will meet the great unarticulated desires of the reading public—the Michael Jordans of the book world. But we also seek manuscripts that complement the other books in our lists and that play to the strengths of our houses.

It’s this last part that I think is hard for people—writers—to relate to. Book publishing can seem so solitary, but it’s really not. In reality, books get sold into stores as parts of lists—you might as well say teams. To understand why a publisher doesn’t take a book even though it’s good (and they know it as well as anyone), you don’t need to look much farther than that 1984 Trail Blazers team. On draft day, the Blazers already had an all-star shooting guard (Jordan’s position) in Jim Paxson, and they’d drafted another shooting guard in ‘83, future hall-of-famer Clyde Drexler. They needed another shooting guard like [name any publisher] needed another vampire novel. So looking at his team and then looking at the available talent, picking Bowie, a 7’1” center, was the obvious move. Jordan probably wasn’t even his second choice.

Of course, in hindsight, none of that matters. In hindsight, Inman would have picked Jordan even if he’d had six all-star shooting guards on the roster. But that’s hindsight.

Take a look at this post from Sarah Davies of Greenhouse Literary, and you’ll begin to see what I mean.

"I’m seeing an increased wish for contemporary, real-world stories (ie, without supernatural elements). I’ve heard a couple of editors putting out feelers for a ‘weepie’ story. And it’s incredibly hard to find a really great love story.

"I was talking to an editor just on Friday who, like me, would love to find a story set in another part of the world, set against a real political situation. And my own wish to find a bleak novel (definitely with literary quality, this one) set in Scandinavia (or I’d settle for Iceland quite happily) was echoed by another senior editor last time I was in New York.

"Magical realism is also of interest. Worlds that are real but where strange things happen."

“Weepies?” A bleak Icelandic novel? Can’t they decide? Are these editors idiots? No, but you can bet they’re making the best guesses they can with the information they have, both about the market and about their teams.

(CC) photo courtesy: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vedia/