Well, here's a thing - take a look at www.MediaPredict.com - it's a new 'virtual market' where you can take a punt on whether book proposals posted on the site will find a book deal. Traders can buy shares based on guessing whether a book deal will materialise - but remember, the valued of shares can go up as well as down. When trading closes in September, five proposals will be chosen and one or more will be offered a book deal by Simon and Schuster (currently embroiled in a furore with the Authors Guild in America because it's claimed they want to have contracts with writers which will retain rights over works even when said works are, to all intents and purposes out of print - a juncture where an author might well want to retrieve their rights and move on.)
Not only can you bet on these proposals, you can submit your own work (agents can do this too, and are) - there's a page of guidelines for doing so. Presenting your work as a proposal, within a tight wordcount, is a useful discipline anyway, and worth practising. Remember, the time will come when you will have to be able to summarise your work pithily, with a clear focus on what the 'heart' or'point' of the story is. You can't just drivel on for page after page, blow by agonising blow through the plot.
Of course Touchstone/Simon and Schuster aren't just in it as an act of charity - it's an experiment to see how well the public can predict what will and what will not work - the philisophers' stone of marketing. Mark Gompertz, publisher of Touchstone Books is quoted in the New York Times: 'Since Gutenberg first printed the Bible, critics have always said publishers don't know what they're doing. Just throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks is a crazy way to do business."
Imagine a focus group gathering to discuss the potential of Gutenberg's bible, or, indeed, Malory's Morte d'Arthur ... 'Yeah, Tom, it's like exciting, what with knights and ladies and all, but although you've produced an interesting synthesis of those fancy French legends (and the ladies will like the lurve aspect) and macho trad Anglo-Saxon schtick, I think there's a real danger, you know, that it isn't like, focussed enough? I mean, who's the hero? Is it Arthur, or Tristram, or Gawain or Arthur?And what's with all the religion? What's with Guinevere going into that nunnery at Amesbury? Won't the readers find that a downer? She's a feisty broad - coudn't she and Lance just set the kingdom up again? Round Table 2: Return to Joyous Gard? Round Table 3: Search for the Lost King? Round Table 4: Farewell to Avalon? The only thing investors like more than a sequel is lots of sequels ...'
Finally, remember my fellow wannabees and literafiends, the wise words of William Goldman, when talking about the unpredictability of Hollywood success: 'NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING - Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. '
The same goes for books. Time and again, when I'm writing, I think 'Will this sell?' But I can't tell - all I can do is write the story I have to write, the story that nags in my head all the time, the story that's a terrier, that won't let go. And so should you. Then throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.