Which Book On The Shelf Shall I Buy?

The Grumpy Old Bookman had a post in his blog the other day regarding a test run by the Sunday Times in which they wanted to show that the publishing industry wouldn’t know quality writing if it bit them on their nether parts. They did the usual thing, typed up some highly acclaimed book from a few years back and subbed them to various publishers. Of course, all were rejected. You can read the whole post Here if you want. Or read the article Here.

Now I’m not one to defend the publishing industry. For some time now I’ve believed they had their collective heads up their collective asses. But then, I’m a writer trying to get published. I would think that. Most anyone foolish enough to follow the writer’s path to publication would tend, sooner or later, to have much the same opinion.

Now, it’s not that I have, over the last few months, changed completely my opinion of them. However, after a great deal of research, I’m coming to see several different sides to the issue. The article and subsequent post by the GOB mentioned above centered on the question of whether the publishing industry would know a great book if it bit them on their nether parts?

To which I answer: Would it matter?

True, the publishing industry does exist to publish books, however, and you have to know it pains me to say this, it does not exist solely to publish great books.

Their top priority is to make a profit. Ask any stockholder or employee dependent on their publishing industry paycheck which they care about more: quality writing or knowing that the paycheck/dividend check they receive won’t bounce.

Granted, I wouldn’t give them high marks on the books they are publishing. Let’s face it, for every one quality book that manages to make it to the bookstore, ten or twenty mediocre ones follow in its wake. But, is this the fault of the publishing industry alone? I don’t think so. I believe the escalating cost of doing business is at least partly to blame.

In order to make a profit, the publishing industry tries to determine what the reading market wants. At best that’s a crap shoot. It costs money to produce and distribute a book and those costs are escalating all the time. I can remember when mass-market paperbacks were .95 USD. Today they are closer to 10.00 USD with trade paperbacks going for nearly twice that. In a world where money is getting tighter, that’s a lot of cash to lay out for a bit of entertainment. Add to that the risk factor of what to spend the money on and you throw a loaded die into the mix.

Example in point. You have 30.00 USD to spend for a hardback book. Up on the shelf are two books, one by Mediocre-But-Big-Name, the other by Brilliant-But-Unknown. You’ve read Mediocre-But-Big-Name in the past. Okay, so you forgot everything about it ten seconds after closing the book. You do remember that it entertained you while reading it. Maybe you’ve heard of Brilliant-But-Unknown but you’ve never read him/her. Would you like the book? Would it entertain? You have no idea and, at 30.00 USD, you’re not likely to want to risk it. You buy Mediocre-But-Big-Name.

Over time, this scenario has become a circle that even death can’t stop (i.e. Robert Ludlum): readers buy Mediocre-But-Big-Name, publisher makes a profit, publishes more Mediocre-But-Big-Name, readers buy more Mediocre-But-Big-Name, Brilliant-But-Unknown falls off the mid-list because he/she can’t hit the sales figures set by the marketing department of the publisher, a new Brilliant-But-Unknown comes along and the whole circle starts again.

That many of the current Mediocre-But-Big-Names were once fairly decent writers who seem to have devolved into the search-and-replace or template form of writing is a rant for another time. Ditto the thought that this scenario is killing the mid-list, the very fallow ground from which the next big sellers grow. The former thought I may or may not pursue in future posts. You can, however, make bet that I’ll pursue the latter one.

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