It’s an odd thing, but the term “risk-aversion” seems always to be used pejoratively. We all understand that standing balancing on the guard-railings of the George Washington Bridge is not the sort of behavior that leads to the continuation of the species, or any of the species’ institutions, so why does the commentariat constantly imply that hazarding your money on a wild and crazy bet is just the sort of thing publishers should do? New Republic, quoted by The Digital Reader, in an article predicting the demise of B&N, blethers: “In a world without Barnes & Noble, risk-averse publishers will double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits. Literary writers without proven sales records will have difficulty getting published, as will young, debut novelists. The most literary of novels will be shunted to smaller publishers. Some will probably never be published at all. And rigorous nonfiction books, which often require extensive research and travel, will have a tough time finding a publisher with the capital to fund such efforts.”
As The Digital Reader points out this doubling down has got nothing to do with the presence or absence of any bookstore chain. If you remove the first nine words, up to “risk-averse”, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’d really disagree with the sentiment: it’s not a bad description of trade publishing today, tomorrow and yesterday. When does the writer imagine was that golden age in which publishers invested vast sums in “literary writers without proven sales records” or “young, debut novelists”? Does Alex Shephard really think that refusing to publish surefire hits is a great business plan? Show me the publisher who isn’t to some extent risk-averse, and I’ll show you a publisher who’s gone out of business. Of course risks get taken, but they are risks which have been carefully costed out and hedged. Publishing any book is a risk. Even books by celebrity authors have been known to fail, and their failures tend to be relatively more harmful to their publishers because with a celebrity author you’ve probably been dazzled by your payment of a huge advance into an over-confidence that huge investments in inventory and marketing are absolutely surefire necessities. Heck, most books fail — in terms that most commentators would accept — though just where the borderline between success and failure lies is difficult to specify. Different books have different financial profiles, as every book is different from all the others: one of the charms of the business. When one gets right down to it success is really only measurable in the macro sense. Success for a publisher is ending the year with a profit: whether that comes from tiny profits on many titles, or losses on lots and vast profits on one or two, is ultimately irrelevant. We are an industry of both hitters who swing for the fences every time and hitters who prefer to bunt.