It’s nearly Christmas, and time to look back over the year that is now almost over.
Looking back in publishing has for some time been a problem as the thrust is increasingly to look forward to the new. At one time publishers considered their backlist to be very important, which meant that authors and books were able to maintain a presence over a long period of time, but that has to a great extent disappeared.
These books are often distinct, and to me that really is important. However, distinct books may not make the bestseller list – or at least become instant bestsellers – which often seems to be the holy grail of the marketing team.
Recently, there was an article in Publisher’s Weekly with the heading ‘Algorithms Could Save Book Publishing – But Destroy the Novel’. Apparently it is possible to identify the key ingredients of a bestseller, which publishers could then apply to manuscripts; writers would just have to comply. This recipe for success is an interesting idea and could be a useful tool. However, as the author of the article pointed out, books should not be chosen in quite the same way as, say, refrigerators, which all look broadly similar and aim to do the same thing. However, sometimes walking through the larger bookstores – or even libraries – the books on show do look very similar: the covers have similar designs, the strap-lines shout the same adjectives and they all claim to be like another bestseller as they each strive for that status. It all gets a bit boring.
The notion of certain ingredients being key in attracting a large readership is not new. It is the basis for much genre fiction, which attracts a loyal and committed readership. It is almost as if ‘the bestseller’ is now a genre of its own. But where does this leave the author whose manuscript does not fit into this category? Many of the books that have stood the test of time have contained an element of risk on the part of creators, suppliers and consumers. Would the algorithm have identified a book like Watership Down, for instance? One of the joys of reading is its potential to take reader of all ages out of their comfort zone.
Recently there has been a growth in the appearance of new publishers, often very small, and several with very specific lists specialising, for instance, in translated books or illustration. They are providing an interesting counter-balance to the sameness of books produced by some of the more commercial publishing houses.
Committed individuals – librarians, booksellers, reviewers – are crucial in helping readers find more distinctive books, as are prize shortlists such as those for the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway, and the UKLA awards. While the bestseller may well be of interest, readers also need to be encouraged beyond the piles of lookalike books.
As the move away from the local branch library with a local branch librarian continues, and the small bookshop with its roots in the community and a passionate, possibly eccentric owner is increasingly threatened, discovering the different, distinctive author may become more difficult. But it will be worth it! So look at Books for Keeps, go into your local bookshop, pester your local librarian for ideas, and really browse through different books. You could find something truly distinctive – it just might not be what you expected and it might not be a bestseller.