Saturday, November 21, 2009

Between the Stacks

Summer’s over. Next week marks the first day of school all over town. In the world of publishing, that means “perfect beach read” is no longer a winning tag. Publishers take the fall competition for your attention quite seriously – September is blockbuster release month and this year it’s especially spectacular: Anita Diamant, Sara Paretsky, Audrey Niffenegger, E.L. Doctorow, Nicholas Sparks, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Sue Monk Kidd, Margaret Atwood, Diana Gabaldon, and Dan Brown, among others, all have new books scheduled to hit the streets.

Obviously, if libraries and bookstores want to put these titles into the hands of readers on Release Day, they need to know about them ahead of time. Most book suppliers offer an advance-notice service for upcoming “hot” titles based on the size of initial print runs. A substantial first printing indicates not just a publisher’s belief in the potential demand for a book but also, their willingness to put money behind it. Large print runs come with marketing plans to generate “buzz.” Buzz creates reader demand that libraries and bookstores aim to satisfy. They order these titles and display them prominently. Voila! A bestseller is born.

Cynics might view this as a self-fulfilling system. Certainly it is true that without an Oprah nudge, a surprise best-seller is extremely rare. This is strictly a numbers game. Librarians and booksellers may pick and choose from these lists based on their past experience and knowledge of local preferences. But the quality of a particular title is not a consideration. This works both ways, of course – those who automatically regard best-sellers as “trash” are as misguided as those who assume they represent the best in American writing.

So what about all those books published with small print runs and no marketing budget? What about all those “promising debuts” and no-name writers-to-watch? This is where libraries play an increasingly important role because they do buy this type of book, although limited budgets and diverse populations make selection challenging. Every book you see not on the bestseller shelf is an intentional choice made with the assistance of reviews from myriad sources, professional expertise, and strong local awareness. In the world of fiction, a bit of hand-wringing and agonizing are usually thrown in as well.

At a library conference, I once heard Sara Paretsky say that she owed her writing career to librarians. Very few people bought her first V.I. Warshawski mystery. But because it garnered good reviews in professional journals, lots of libraries did--enough so that her publisher was willing to go for a second book. John Grisham and Dan Brown are similarly indebted: A Time to Kill and Angels & Demons both sat on library shelves until their authors’ later efforts hit the big time and transformed them into late-blooming best-sellers.

In How I Became a Famous Novelist, Steve Hely’s debut novel, Pete Tarslaw, a cynical young wordsmith, decides to write a best-seller. He wants to be rich and famous, have lots of sex, and humiliate his ex-girlfriend at her wedding. What else can he do? With the New York Times Best Seller list as his guide, he pens The Tornado Ashes Club and sits back to watch his Sales Rank climb.

This is a fast and funny skewering of everything to do with literary America. Writers, publishers, booksellers, reviewers, readers –no one is spared. Merciless, but oddly endearing, laugh-out-loud funny, but thought-provoking, this one might really become a best-seller. Hely is an Emmy-Award-winning television writer, his publisher has sent him on an author tour, and has declared it Best of the Month for July, 2009.

Still, most books won’t. Many well-known, beloved, and prolific authors never do. Many others are quietly awaiting discovery. Librarians and independent booksellers choose their stock carefully to give you an actual choice. You are part of the publishing cycle. Limited choices beget limited choices. Step to the left or right of the best-seller shelf, look below eye-level. Dare to read an unknown author – we chose it for you.

Published in the News-Gazette, August 23, 2009

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