The Bookish Gamble; Or, Keep Publishing Weird

Profits from 20 percent, maybe even 10 percent, of books support the 80 percent or 90 percent that don’t sell. So some publishers think relying solely on instinct is just not enough. (Lynn Neary)

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while, because I didn’t know how to write it without frothing over into incoherent bookish ranting. I read Neary’s piece from NPR weeks ago (linked above). In it, she writes about publishers using data collected from ebook readers to decide which books are more likely to be successful in the future. Neary does her best to be even-handed about using data this way, quoting the founder of a reading analytics company about editors using the data to take a chance on a book that their bosses might not like.


Alicia Martin

Of course, anyone who has been paying attention to major publishing over the last couple of years knows that this isn’t happening. How many young adult dystopias did we see coming from publishing houses after the success of The Hunger Games? How many The Da Vinci Code look-a-likes? Publishing is already savvy to trying to recreate success.

No wonder independent and smaller publishing houses have been getting more attention lately. As Nathan Scott McNamara argues in The Atlanticindependent presses have become the place to find more experimental, weirder, and diverse books. The indies are more willing to take a chance on books than the big publishers.

I worry that the use of reading data will homogenize publishing even more. Already, I purchase most of my books from Amazon and rely on interlibrary loan at my library to get my reading material, simply because my local bookstores don’t stock what I want. I read book reviews from a variety of professional and amateur sources because so few of the most-hyped books interest me. (On a related note, Tim Parks wrote a piece in The New York Times about the effect of literary festivals championing a select few titles makes it harder for literature-in-translation to get more than a toehold in the English-reading world.)

Relying on literary agents and editors isn’t a perfect system, but it’s better than letting data drive what gets published. In the end, I think what I’m really worried about is something Haruki Murakami warned us about:

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.



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