On Kash’s Book Corner there’s an eye-opening post about how book buyers and publishing reps interrelate – and it’s such a nightmarish scenario that it makes me almost proud of the fact that it’s harder for self-publishers to get into bookstores (even if that is where most books are sold). The fact is that book buyers – even in small independent stores – have as narrow a criteria as editors and agents.
What’s especially troubling about the post is that it has a number of positive comments, saying things like “This is fascinating.” It is an interesting window into the contemporary book business, but it’s also enormously vexing. Here’s a sample:
Ron, as usual, rushed in to fill the silence. He started his well-rehearsed spiel about how this book was a look at the demographic revolution in Europe and how the Muslim populations were growing and asserting themselves in the different countries. I yawned. I’m sure Caldwell’s book is well researched, but I was ready for some bling, for crying out loud.
The book is reduced to its catch-phrase, no differently than in a query letter. Does the writing matter whatsoever? No, he admittedly discards something based on very limited evidence – and he does this after the book has already been accepted by a publisher. It’s prime evidence that getting traditionally published is not the holy grail, and finding new methods to reach readers that bypass this type of knee-jerk gatekeeping is enormously important: for all writers.
Later he says,
Confronted with Othmer’s book on the catalog page, I tried to see it in the best light possible. It’s basically a book about advertising (sounds like a contemporary Mad Men) that is gunning for a general audience. Ron showed me two possible covers. One bizarrely featured a fried chicken leg, while the other showed the earth. I ordered five copies and prayed the chicken leg would go away. My guess is that without the personal interaction with Othmer on Twitter, I would have gagged on that chicken leg and moved on without bringing the book into the store.
Literally, he’s judging a book by its cover. Finally:
Knopf was next. There aren’t really enough good things that can be said about this publisher. Last year, eight of the top ten New York Times Books of the Year were Knopf titles. This list included novels by Kazuo Ishiguro (24 copies), Lorrie Moore (12), James Ellroy (12), A.S. Byatt’s most promising since Possession (16), and Richard Russo (21). In a year without Dan Brown and a recession all of those numbers would have been about 50% higher. Still, that’s a lot of books.
So the books he chooses are based purely on sales numbers. There is no difference with this mode of thinking and how agents and editors often select books – especially on the mainstream level.
Certainly, the bookseller is running a business and there is a lot of competition from the web, so he has to think about the bottom line, but the thrust of the post is that traditional publishers are offering weak lists – but ironically it’s the obsession with sales and brand names that is driving all facets of the traditional publishing industry, so it’s hard to be totally sympathetic.
What it boils down to is that fewer people are reading – or at least fewer people are buying books full price at bookstores. I confess that I never buy books new at bookstores – why bother when you can potentially get the same book for a $1 at Amazon. So one can understand the bookseller trying to stay afloat. But it would seem like bookstores seriously need to change their business model (like the Vermont store that offers POD via the Espresso Book Machine) to not keep so many writers out of their inventory. Bookstores are great, love them (used bookstores mainly), but if this is how bookstores run the business – looking at sales over the quality of the writing – then I’m not too broken up about their potential demise.