It may be time for the media that covers the book business to stop publishing best seller lists. They are, in today’s book choosing environment, disorienting, unhelpful and confusing, a valiant but failed attempt to make sense out of disorder.
For some time now the New York Times Book Review has devoted the best part of six pages of its shrinking section to various best-seller lists. They cover numerous categories; children’s books, how to, fiction, non-fiction, e-books, hardcover, paperback and trade fiction. They are a cracked mirror of the fractionalized, overstuffed and disorganized image of contemporary book publishing.
Once upon a time, they might have served their purpose for devoted general readers who based their choices on the premise that a book which sells best might be worth the investment of time and money. It was assumed, too, that what sold best might provide the reader with a better reading experience than what was not on the list. In other words, follow the crowd. They may know where they’re going. Or may not.
As everyone knows, popularity rarely equates with quality. On the other hand, quality is too subjective to be quantified and it would be the essence of snobbery to condemn all of the books on best-seller lists as potboilers. Many are. But some have stood the test of time and have introduced authors who have shown remarkable durability, and given pleasure and insight to generations of readers.
The goal of publishers has been always to get one or another of their authors on the top rankings of the various lists. They are, after all, in business. Getting them on those lists is essential to their bets on how they believe their books will do in the marketplace and they gear their print runs and promotional investments to these bets. The goal is to dominate the shelf space in bookstores and the Net.
If these books make it on the various lists, published week to week, not only in the Times but in other sources of lesser prestige and importance, readers will assume that their choices have been vetted by the public.
Like practically every business on the planet, technology has been a profound game changer and nowhere has it been more so than in the publishing business. We all know the scenario, the astounding rise of e-books, the precipitous decline of printed books, the ever-shrinking number of bookstores, the loss of the usual quality filters that appeared in newspapers and magazines, the rise of thousands of book bloggers world-wide, the proliferation of self-appointed book reviewers offering a myriad of opinions on the merits of books, and the rise of author factories that keep the output of so-called “branded” authors in production e.g. Patterson, Cussler and numerous others who slap their names on books produced by well paid “ghosts,” some of whom are modestly credited.
With approximately thousands of books published every week the pool of books available is rising exponentially. Today, anybody who can put a sentence together can publish a book on the cheap and get it on the technology shelf available for downloading inside of a few weeks or less.
For those of us in the fiction reader pool, the implications of the best-seller list in today’s world imply that there are “them” (those on the list) and “the rest” (those piled up in the cyber bins outside of the lists).
There has, of course, always been an intrepid band of talented writers buried in the so-called “rest” who, for one reason or another, have been crowded out of the contemporary sales arena by the over powering ubiquity of the best seller lists.
It can be argued that, best-seller lists aside, the true worth and power of, for example, a novel is passed from reader to reader by what is characterized as “word of mouth,” and the overwhelming majority of the most enduring works of fiction have never been best-sellers in their time.
As any author today knows, the business of attracting readers in today’s Wild West world of publishing is not only difficult, but often futile and heartbreaking. When one thinks of some great fiction writing by talented writers going unread and unheralded, crowded out in the marketplace by the harsh realities of commerce, one can only chant a sad melody of regret.
Yes, I am well aware that traditional publishers still in business depend, like the movie studios and distributors, on the one or two big hits that will make them financially whole in today’s commercial environment. And perhaps, like Don Quixote, I am fighting the windmills, but there are many of us around who passionately love books, great stories, wonderful writing, and whose lives have been enriched by being stimulated, inspired and informed by such stellar works of the imagination.
For readers like us, the best-seller lists are increasingly irrelevant, and they may actually be a deterrent in our never-ending search for great new books to enhance our lives.
Eliminating them entirely might not sit well for authors who have been branded into popularity and those who publish them, but the elitism of market manipulation through such lists does not, in the opinion of this dedicated reader, serve us as well as they did in bygone days.
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