Recently I listened to my first episode of “Agent Provocateur”, a publishing industry podcast.
The subject? Celebrity book clubs. The consensus: They are the antichrist, feeding the intellectually lazy readers, aka “entertainment consumers,” who read popular books for fear of missing out.
Famous Japanese writer Haruki Murakami said once: “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else thinks.”
I don’t disagree. My work as the director of Diaspora Dialogues is devoted to mentoring emerging writers from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, genres and writing styles. Mentorships are free and specially designed to be accessible to young, emerging, newcomer and low-income writers. Participants often write thought-provoking and compelling stories involving race, gender and migration.
The podcast used Murakami’s quote in a different context: to denigrate book clubs (as well as book bloggers, social media influencers, and book list makers) as not being good for literature.
I think literature can take itself. What concerns me are the opportunities for writers, especially newbie and unfamiliar writers, who are at a disadvantage every step of the way in the publishing process. And this entrenched Canadian attitude against anything populist or commercial doesn’t help.
Publishing faces a myriad of great challenges, all of which have a ripple effect on authors. The ongoing consolidation of multinational publishers is reducing potential markets. Canadian-owned presses, curiously referred to as “indies”, face issues of scale, access to capital, and inadequate government support on the world stage.
Of course, there are challenges related to COVID as well – and more recently, supply chain issues that will affect the availability of books until 2022.
As the podcast noted, book influencers and clubbers now have real power, as part of the disintermediation of traditional gatekeepers and lipo-sucked book review sections. Whether you see it as a positive or the end of civilization depends on how much you have benefited from the way things were before. And it depends on your notoriety, the extent of your network and the wealth of your publisher.
Blogs, newsletters, and social media posting are essential to raising awareness of books during increasingly busy publishing seasons. Many writers don’t want to invest their time this way. But the benefit is building community and readership, versus a chance for the lottery to be reviewed in a major publication or featured in Indigo’s storefront.
Let’s face it: many facets of this apple pie industry are monetized. Placement prominently on bookstore display tables. Inclusion in Christmas gift buying guides. Some criticisms. All the buzz is created, and publishers with large ad staff and higher ad budgets have an advantage.
Books are a popularity contest, and not just by celebrity book clubs. The sales teams of publishers, booksellers and the media are powerful gatekeepers, who can make or break a book by a new or unknown author. They are influenced by the books presented in the trades of industry (often American) and the book fairs which take place months before publication. Too often, these goalies make conservative choices, tending towards the proven bet.
It’s easy to see why. As readers, we all look forward to the books by authors that we love. We are drawn to sequels and series. But what this human instinct translates into on the industry side is a disproportionate attention given to books published by multinational publishers and established authors.
Imagine a world where bookstores (and the media) actively promote lesser-known authors. Where festivals have always matched top writers at events with newbies. Where Heather Reisman has used her tremendous power in choosing titles from novice or small-press authors for the “Heather’s Pick” program.
In Indigo’s quest to differentiate itself from Canada’s largest bookseller (Amazon) and leverage its local brand identity, it could make being a daring scout of new voices a priority and feature of its marketing strategy.
And while we’re at it, let’s revamp our bestseller lists to include eBooks, audiobooks, and books sold globally (where foreign rights are held by a Canadian publisher), none of which are currently captured. . These lists influence book buying and book reviews, and should be more specific.
I read hundreds of submissions a year from emerging writers. They don’t feel limited by old arguments about literature versus advertising, or the value of a newspaper versus an Instagram review. Let’s meet this bold energy with a more level playing field and a broader vision of what is possible.
Authors who offer new worlds, new perspectives, and new styles of writing are the ones we should hear more from, not less from. If you only read the books that everyone else reads …