What Henry Ford Knew About Writing Books

ham and cheese sandwich publishing

Henry Ford is one of the most well-known American innovators. He’s the guy who brought mass production to the “horseless carriages”–that is, cars–we zoom around in today.

So what does Ford have to do with writing?

What readers don’t know they want

There’s a famous quote that, while having an unclear origin, many people attribute to Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.'” The basic idea behind the quote is that, although customer input might be important, innovation often means ignoring them, realizing a concept, and then seeing what the reaction of the public is.

Let’s think about this quote in relation to the traditional publishing industry. Generally speaking, publishers accept new books based on what they predict will sell well. But those predictions largely are based on past sales. So if, for instance, a publisher sees that they sold 5 percent more romances this year than last year. Then they’ll assume readers want romance books and buy more romance manuscripts.

But what if readers would go gaga for mysteries–or any other type of book–and they just don’t know it? What if they just need a chance, after eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for a year, to take a bite of ham and cheese?

The readers might think the ham and cheese is pretty da-n delicious, that’s what.

A poor assumption = too many PB&Js

This, to me, is one of the main flaws within the traditional publishing industry. The assumption is that readers want only more of what they’ve been exposed to, and that’s not necessarily true. In fact, most readers I know are huge advocates of all kinds of stories. They are willing to give just about anything a shot, so long as it is engaging.

As writers, it’s important to recognize this publishing flaw because, if you write the ham and cheese of the book world, you’re gonna have a bunch of people point to all the jars of peanut butter and jelly and tell you you’re nuts. And then it’s very easy to lose heart. You might stop querying your story in the mistaken belief that nobody would read it, let alone adore or recommend it to someone else.

The world doesn’t need more peanut butter and jelly books to gag on. The world needs something to bring some zing, get us out of the rut, and help us discover who we are.

When in doubt, choose original

Will writers who follow a script about what’s selling make money? Maybe. Publishers don’t make up the numbers they throw out, after all. But unless they innovate like Ford and deliver books the people didn’t even know they wanted, people aren’t going to remember them as being very original. If I have to choose between being rich and being understood as having my own voice, I’ll take the latter every time.

The original version of this post appeared on Medium December 28, 2021.