A couple of different interesting threads of discussion opened up in the comments section of yesterday’s post, and there’s one in particular that I’ve been seeing around the Internet lately in different forms, namely the sentiment (or resentment) that agents and publishers determine what’s popular and what becomes a bestseller.
To a certain extent, yes, definitely, agents and publishers control the funnel and decide what gets published and what arrives in your friendly neighborhood bookstore. Agents decide which projects to pitch to publishers, editors determine what to publish, and the publishers decide how to spend marketing money. So yes, obviously there is some amount of influence.
But honestly it’s kind of like throwing a stick into a river. You can try and throw it in the right spot, but once it hits the current who really knows what’s going to happen? And let’s face it, how it floats downstream depends a lot more on the stick and the current than the toss.
To be sure, publishers can position a book well, and they can see it take off. There’s nothing like a committed publisher to work wonders for a book’s success. Or they can do everything in their power and it still might not take off. I think it’s tempting for people outside of the biz to think of the publishing industry in monolithic terms, as if there are two people, agent and editor, using the Midas touch to determine what turns to gold. If only.
Just to give an example, sometimes people think that publishers determine what is stocked in big chains and in WalMart. Nuh uh. They can pitch them in there and try to use their influence and reputation to get books stocked, but except for the occasional blind sell-in, stores decide what they’re going to stock. Yes, publishers will offer to pay for placement for some books, but stores decide whether to take them up on that and which books get the good spots.
So even before a book arrives in a bookstore or superstore a massive array of people have made a bet on a book. An agent thinks it will sell. An editor thinks it will sell. The sales team pitches it, the publicist promotes it, the buyers decide to stock it, the newspapers decide what to review, etc. etc. etc. The books you see in the bookstore are the books that a whole lot of people have guessed are the books that will sell the most copies. And even with so many people weighing in, there are still tons of surprises!
And the surprises happen because ultimately book buyers determine the market. Everyone else is just chasing.
To a large extent, readers get the books they deserve. This isn’t the TV business where there are only so many TV shows on, or the movie business where there are only a couple hundred movies in mainstream theaters. Every B&N and Borders has tens of thousands of individual titles. Tens of thousands! There is a ton of choice out there, and nearly every conceivable niche is filled. And out of those tens of thousands a few books catch on with the public and become bestsellers. Publishers may have helped that happen, but at the end of the day, to paraphrase Monty Python, “No one expects THE SHACK.”
Now, obviously with so many people chasing books that will sell, there’s not always a pure incentive for a book to be really good. Some books will sell regardless of quality and some big authors may mail-in the occasional dud. Buyer beware (although I would argue that most of the time people call something “crap” just because books are subjective). And honestly, agents and editors are actually really good at determining what will sell. Sure, no one’s batting 1.000, but you can’t last long in this business if the books you champion don’t sell.
As long as we’re operating in a capitalistic society, this is how the game is played. The publishing industry has been a for-profit industry for a couple hundred years now, and the “they only publish crap” complaint has been around just as long. Trust me, we’re just trying to follow the market.