My day job is at a Christmas ornament company, so obviously this our season. The day after Halloween (or several days before in some cases) our product hit the shelves, and almost immediately thereafter the emails started rolling in.
What does this have to do with publishing? Probably nothing, but it's my blog so I can write about what I want. But I do work in consumer sales and marketing, and what's true for one consumer product is often true for another.
So as our sales reports begin to come through, we make a note of the top sellers, and the 'dogs' as we call them, and then try to determine the ornament trends for the following year. Are angels going to be hot? Or will it be snowmen? (I bet you never thought this much work went into Christmas ornaments did you?)
Without fail though, every year there are one or two surprises. Perhaps an ornament we didn't feel very strongly about is blowing out of stores, or one that we loved is collecting dust on the shelves. But we designed that ornament a year ago. Right now we're working on 2010. How can you predict the future of consumer wants a year in advance?
Ah hah, and therein lies the problem, and the same one that publishers have. You can't predict it, you can only make an educated guess based on the current happenings and how the trends have evolved in the past. And I guarantee you that publishers get some surprises as well, perhaps spending a fortune on marketing for a book that bombs, or one of their mid-range books gets rave reviews. And their only thought is, "How can we recoup all those lost marketing dollars?" Making them cautious to invest in a project that might be questionable when they have a sure-thing sitting on their desk.
This posting is going on way too long, but I have one more thing to add. You notice how I said we're working on 2010 now? That's right. It takes a year for a design to move from concept to production, and these are ornaments we're talking about, not 300 page novels that need to be reviewed, edited, covers designed....blah blah blah. The fastest we can turn around a design is in several months and that means dropping everything and putting all our resources into that one item. Something we would only do by retailer request and it would have to be a BIG retailer. (Like publisher would only do that for J.K. Rowling) So just keep that in mind when you sign your publisher contract and they say your book will be out in a year, because in retail world, that is a pretty quick turn around.