Monday, January 11, 2010

Definitions for the Perplexed: "Issue" Books

If you write a book to help parents and kids deal with something everyone experiences (like bedtime), not everyone who experiences that thing will buy your book. This is obvious, right? Some of them will buy your book. Not all of them.

Good. So the next thing to realize is that if you write a book to help parents and kids deal with something only a few people experience (like the death of a loved one, or synesthesia, or satanic ritual abuse), not everyone who experiences that thing will buy your book. Some of them will buy your book. Not all of them.

This is what publishers call an "issue" book: a book for a particular situation/problem in readers' lives-- one which does not affect all people.

Because the audience for such books is narrowed by the number of people who are affected, and further narrowed by the fact that not all of those people will buy the book, "issue" books have very limited sales potential, and thus very limited appeal for publishers.

You may feel you are doing a public service in writing a picture book about little Samantha's ageusia. You may be frustrated by the unjust lack of books your child's kindergarten teacher can use to explain to the other children that when Timmy beats up on them, it's really a just another of the ways God makes us all special and different.

But publishers have warehousing costs, in addition to many kinds of overhead. They are in the business of providing only those public services that serve more than a tiny fraction of the public, and only those services the public will pay for.

Thanks to Mary O'Dea for the link!


Wendy said...

Another sales-potential myth about "issue books": that every doctor and/or therapist who specializes in that "issue" will want copies of the books in his office to show or (even give) to patients.

Nope. Doctors don't buy books, and the only issues-related stuff they'll give kids to read are the booklets and things that they get free from pharmaceutical companies.

The company I work for publishes issues books. A lot of parents write them for their kids, and when we turn down submissions I always hope they know that just because we can't take on a project IT DOESN'T MEAN THAT WE THINK THE ISSUE ISN'T VALID. It's rough going sometimes...

Sarah Ahiers said...

Hah! I used to work in a used book store and we got in that satanic ritual abuse book! I forgot all about it - if i remember right, it was part of a series of books, not all on satanic ritual abuse, but other weird things

Kurtis said...

That all makes sense, but I think there's a good school/library market for well-done issue books; they want to make sure they serve all their customers. You can also move books by going to conferences and meetings around the issue, I know a guy who's sold lots of his own book that way (which was a Schneider award winner.)

Anonymous said...

Will editors/publishers look more kindly on modest sales figures for a writer's first book that happens to be an "issue book"?

Anonymous said...

But that said, I think newer writers look at the success of Ellen Hopkins (teen prostitutes, drug addiction, cutting, meth use, pedophilia, and on and on and on, and logically assume the market is quite robust for them. I can't stomach them myself, but if those AREN'T issue books, I don't know what would else would qualify.
Also, in that best seller clique you've got ubiquitous books like Wintergirls or 13 Reasons Why.

Writers that don't write fairies! vampires! witches! naturally are looking for a big hook -- something drastic, because they've been told without it their book won't sell because it'll be (gasp) a quiet novel. It's completely understandable they'd go the "issue" route in search of that hook.

Mark Herr said...

I blame the old ABC Afterschool Specials for making people think that issue books are the way to go.

Literaticat said...

Many "issue books" have interest far beyond the people who are affected. WINTERGIRLS, RULES, and MANGO-SHAPED SPACE very definitely tackle Big Issues, but they do not just appeal to the anorexic, the autistic or the synaesthesiac.

There is a huge difference between normal trade books that happen to feature an Issue and a self-published or otherwise ugly and weird niche books meant to be bibliotherapy.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Whoa, that Satanic ritual abuse book was something else! I hope I can sleep tonight. Blagh!

Editorial Anonymous said...

That's a good point, Literaticat. I was thinking of the books (picture books, mostly) meant to help parents explain / discuss an issue with kids.
Books that children or teens might choose for themselves and that have "issues" in them are a separate kind of issue book-- and can be much more acceptable, both to audiences and publishers. Maybe I should do a follow-up post.

Eilonwy said...

So, what's the market for a YA book about a teen whose parent just cannot get that first novel published? Surely any editor eyeing the gigantic pile of slush spilling off the desk and rolling toward the hallway would recognize that there are lots and lots of people with this "issue." It would also leave room for many sequels as the parent has a drawer full of similarly unpublished novels and a decaying box of picture book manuscripts.

mallard said...

Maybe issue books are a good fit for some kind of POD model. Smaller audiences looking for some way to explain a genuine issue (done well...and also not crazy issues like satanic rituals) to their kids might be willing to pay the higher cost of POD books.

A publisher might well create a specific "issue" brand, but they wouldn't need to be concerned with the high costs of warehousing and such. I would imagine that in such a scenario, they might carry a very wide range of special issues in order to boost overall numbers (as in sell a small number of books, but a large number of issues).

I'm sure there are authors and illustrators out there who have the creativity and ability to make a whole series of books that might bring comfort to children and parents. And of course the editors to make those books better.

Then again, being a loyal EA reader, I know that a lot of the cost is in getting to the printing stage. And in marketing. Though marketing a brand rather than a single book might defray those costs.

And I could be (probably am) completely wrong. So, yeah. I need to work on my endings.

mallard said...

Oh and just to clarify my POD idea (and to utter a potential sacrilege) - In my mind these books would be good, but wouldn't necessarily aspire to be great art. More a technology and a product filling a previously untapped niche. As such they might fall short in artistry (literary and visual) but would make up for it in attention to a thoughtful presentation of whatever issue that book is about.

If I were a parent with a child who was struggling with something difficult and I were searching for an explanatory aide, my primary concern likely wouldn't be the artistic merits of the book. So they would be a product, but a socially beneficial one. The evil publishing child pornographers would be happy as would the poor non mormon parents and children being taken advantage of.

(I got the child pornography, mormon, and bad grammar myth, but couldn't figure out how to fit in the magic word - and I bet I'm still going to get this comment published which is the goal of every author.)

Anonymous said...

Oh boy, were you nice about this. I frequently come across people who think that, just because they have gone through XYZ, they owe the world a book. No, but I'm really happy you're ok now, really . . .

Anonymous said...


The link in this posting seems to be broken. Can you fix it or just post the actual address that we can copy and paste into the search box?


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