We've heard so often the complaint that publishers never take risks, that agents never take risks, and of course there are some who will say those are the reasons we're seeing the "downfall of publishing" today. I don't necessarily believe that. I think given how many new authors are published each year and how many of those succeed as well as how many fail shows that publishers take risks every day. Every book is a risk, whether it's a debut or not. No matter how much experience we all have we're never quite sure what's going to grab the attention of the reader.
That being said, recently when I heard that lament it made me think back to a publisher I once worked for, and by publisher I mean the individual, not the company. This particular publisher was a dreamer and a believer in all the good ways. The publisher loved the business and was enthusiastic about all the things about it, especially the books. One of the things this publisher charged was that each editor was allowed to buy one "book of the heart" each year. What that meant was that even if everyone in-house had doubts about whether the book would sell or could sell, the editor was given the ability to make a modest go of it, meaning the editor couldn't spend a million dollars for a book no one thought the house could do justice, but the editor could take a chance on something everyone else felt a little on the fence about.
For a young editor like me this was a really exciting opportunity, and while I never was able to buy my "book of the heart" before the publisher went another way, I held that feeling of excitement and carry it with me as an agent today.
I can't begin to tell you how often I've offered representation to an author for a book that I honestly thought would be a challenge to sell, but one I was excited about. And before all of my clients get worried, upon making the offer I've always been up front with the author about my belief that the book might be a long shot, but one that I thought was worth the risk. Some have sold, others have not, but either way I've never regretted taking the chance.
One caveat to all of this is that, as a writer, if you have an agent or publisher taking a chance on your book you still want to make sure it's a place that has some knowledge of where they're taking the chance to. In other words, you probably don't want me to take a chance on your illustrated children's book since that's so outside of my knowledge base that it just wouldn't be a smart move. I wouldn't even begin to know where to sell it to. You probably wouldn't want a business publisher taking a chance on your romance novel. Again, do they have the sales force available to even talk to the right buyers?