During a recent trip to the supermarket, I stopped to glance at the book aisle. I do, sometimes; what better or more enjoyable way to improve my Italian than with some relatively undemanding fiction? The selection, however, was not exactly inspiring. Dan Brown’s latest opus was much in evidence, as were books by Grisham, King, and Rowling. All well and good for my purposes, of course, but if I’d been an Italian reader, my options would have been limited to the glossy realm of bestsellerdom.
Admittedly, a supermarket is hardly the best place to look for the small-scale, the odd, or the obscure. The whole point of a supermarket is to buy brand products in bulk and sell them on in huge quantities and at discount prices. Still, something about the sight seemed representative of a worrying shift in the world of publishing and book buying. For all the shiny dust jackets and famous names, there was a dearth of real choice on those shelves. Interestingly, there was a dearth even of Italian authors, in Italy, a country where local and national produce, be it wine or pasta or fiction, is generally highly prized, and where small publishers and booksellers still thrive. The situation, I suspect, is far worse in Britain and America.
Of course, there are good reasons for booksellers and publishers to focus on the biggest sellers. They are businesses; if they acted without any consideration for financial implications, they’d pretty soon be out of business. Besides, profits (ideally) trickle not just up, but also down. A handful of runaway bestsellers can, and should, help to finance the publishing of other books – books that, whatever their merits, will not necessarily make millions. But is this happening?
By many accounts, it isn’t; indeed, the treatment of many authors suggests that making money – by which I mean as much money as possible, regardless of the consequences – has become the overriding concern of their publishers. Making a steady profit is, of course, necessary for a business; making the maximum profit possible is no doubt good for shareholders and SEOs, but is not necessarily compatible with other concerns – concerns such as nurturing talent, taking chances on interesting new writers, and giving established writers time and space to grow.
One group upon whom the emphasis on profit-above-all has had a notably deleterious effect is the mid-list, peopled by those authors who don’t top the bestseller charts, and never get within sniffing distance of a movie deal or merchandising tie-ins. Just as the superstar authors consolidate their position at the top, so new authors and mid-listers are finding it harder to get, or keep, a foot through the door. Bad news for authors; and bad news, surely, for readers too.
Mid-list authors once constituted the backbone of the publishing industry. They wrote saleable books that, even if they never hit the bestseller lists, nevertheless helped the publishers to earn a steady income. They were often kept and encouraged by publishers through a string of books that were not highly profitable in the hope that one day their talents would attract the audience they deserved.
Take Hilary Mantel, a deserved success story if ever there was. She published her first novel in 1985. For years, she was one of the mid-listers, selling respectably but not spectacularly well. It would be nearly a quarter of a century before she teamed up with Thomas Cromwell and took the book charts by storm. It’s not unreasonable to think that her eventual triumph had much to do with those years in which she quietly wrote, and experimented, and honed her talent.
So what happened?
Cultural and economic changes are hard to pinpoint, of course. However, just as small independent booksellers folded, so too small publishing houses were gobbled up by big conglomerates, a process which is still ongoing. The financial stakes have become ever higher, and publishers’ patience with small profits ever more frayed. Books are shifted by the crateload, or not shifted at all. Ever-increasing homogenisation is stifling the quirky, the quietly accomplished, the experimental, and basically anything that doesn’t have “Bestseller” stamped all over it. The book world, like much of our cultural landscape, is suddenly all about safe bets. Safe bets and good books are not mutually exclusive, of course, but nor are they one and the same.
Bestsellers are bestsellers for a reason. Readers buy what readers want to buy, and publishers are arguably just giving them what they want. Consider, for example, the rash of 50 Shades imitations that have hit the shelves in the past couple of years, in a rather obvious attempt to cash in on one of the more surprising bestsellers of our times. Publishers are responding to market demand, no doubt. However, and speaking as an avid reader, I don’t want another pale imitation of E.L. James or Dan Brown, or any of the other bestsellers that spring to mind. I want books that excite, entertain, move, provoke and interest me. Perhaps I’m an oddity; but I think there are enough like me to constitute at least a sizeable minority.
There are, after all, probably as many literary preferences as there are readers in the world. If 75% of people like something, 25% do not. That 25% may nevertheless buy books regularly, read enthusiastically, and keep the whole industry ticking over, given the chance.
Choice, like free will, is one of those nebulous things that are difficult to quantify. It certainly exists, but it’s also certainly limited; people can only choose from the options that are actually available to them. The limits of readers’ choices are set by publishers.
Or so they were, at least, until relatively recently. Then, with the advent of eBooks and PoD, self-publishing became a viable possibility for all. But is self-publishing necessarily the answer? More on this in a future post…