publishing's wrong numbers - bookforum.com / current issue
The best-seller list functions, in essence, as a restraint of trade, a visible hand that crushes the life out of the literary marketplace. If one were to magically eliminate every form of the list, in print and online, as well as all those best-seller tables in Barnes & Noble, what would happen? People would spend more time browsing a bookstore’s stock, they would skim a page or two of various interesting-looking titles, and eventually they would plunk down their twenty dollars. In short, they would actively engage with a greater portion of our literary culture. Customers might even discuss their tastes with the shop’s owner or staff, who would actually recommend a few appropriate titles. Friends, neighbors, and colleagues might also suggest beloved novels, biographies, and poetry collections.
Without a best-seller list, authors would compete on something like a level playing field, while readers would buy the books that spoke most meaningfully to their particular interests and tastes rather than settling for the one-size-fits-all titles found in the back pages of the New York Times Book Review. After all, done right, publishing really ought to be a craps game: Win some, lose some. Serious editors hope to bring out books they can be proud of, which means taking a chance on works that seem original and fresh. Yet all too often, today’s publishing houses prefer to stick with sure things, investing heavily in a backlist of Safe Brand Names. Pay the half-million advance to Tom Clancy and his latest coauthor (who does the actual writing), and there’s virtually no chance of losing. But where’s the rush, the excitement, of taking a gamble on a new voice? Long ago, Clancy’s one great book, The Hunt for Red October, was brought out by the Naval Institute Press. Some editor at NIP actually believed in a thriller written by an unknown and middle-aged insurance salesman. Now, corporate handlers believe in the Clancy name.
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