Okaysellers versus bestsellers
BoingBoing blogged (here and here) about editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s excellent argument that as much as people think publishing is bestseller-driven, the facts don’t bear it out. Publishing is and has always been “okayseller”-driven:
Bestsellers aren’t the whole of publishing. Every year, we publish a great many okaysellers. You guys buy them because they look interesting, or because a friend has recommended them, or because you liked another book by that author. Marketing push only goes so far.
A quick test: raise your hand if you only buy bestsellers. No? Okay, raise your hand if the majority of your book purchases are current bestsellers. Right. Now raise your hand if your bookbuying decisions are based on marketing buzz. If you still aren’t raising your hand, you’re a normal book-buying reader, and the Wall Street Journal is chin-deep in hogwash on this point.
Nielsen Hayden goes on to suggest that anyone who recycles the best-seller nugget “really needs to get out more.” Hear, hear.
What BoingBoing and all but a couple of Nielsen Hayden’s commenters don’t touch upon is how conventional wisdom has come to be that publishing is a bestseller, winner-take-all industry.
Put plainly, the laws of scarcity mean only a handful of books get mentioned. Five major publishers compete for shelf-space at two major bookstore chains while pushing for reviews in the ever-fewer literary pages of the newspapers owned by ever-fewer owners. And, as on the Internet, conversation is what drives interest, so reviewers review the same books in order to create a dialogue. This is the case, at least, for fiction. People come to believe blockbusters are what drive the publishing industry because blockbusters are all they hear mentioned.
For trade books in general, though, commenter Larry Brennan makes the salient point when he asks, “What’s the correlation between heavy retail book buyers (say 20+ titles per year) and buyers of best-sellers?” Intuition suggests that there is none, that people who buy many books are not the same as those who buy bestsellers; moreover, those who buy one bestseller don’t necessarily buy another bestseller: the pool of buyers is different. As contradictory as it sounds, bestsellers are statistical anomalies. Without an engineered system of scarcity to guarantee a minimum of success, setting out to publish bestsellers would be a disastrous business model.
Success is defined in different ways, of course. By traditional business standards, the publishing industry is probably healthier than it’s ever been. More product than ever, more money moving in and out, and more technological innovation since the invention of the offset press.
But if the ups and downs of the major players are all that get attention, then the industry looks dysfunctional indeed.