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I’m In With The In Crowd

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Sorry for the spottiness of the posts lately.  I’ve had my scheduled derailed by snow.

It’s mostly somebody else’s snow, mind you, but that doesn’t seem to matter much.

For the run up to the new year–ten years since 9/11?  really?–I thought I’d say a little something about something almost everybody thinks they know something about.

What I mean is:  best sellers. 

Back when I was blithering on a couple of days ago, I was talking not about the sales of any particular book or movie, but the preponderance of the popular culture–the way in which all aspects of popular entertainment tend to trend in one direction in any one era.

These days, we’ve got Twilight and Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, movie theaters full of vampires and elves, television shows full of werewolves and zombies.

That is, today, unlike the fifties, the majority of what is on offer is fantasy and science fiction, with the possible exception of Law and Order, which has become some kind of rapidly mutating cancer of the television set.

The fact that the era trends in one particular direction, however, tells you nothing at all about how one particular book or movie or television show will do with readers and viewers. 

With books, especially,  the calculus is more than a little complicated.

There are people who read and read everything–I’m one of them, and I’d guess that some of the people reading this are too.  We’re very rare, really, and even if every single one of us bought exactly the same books, we couldn’t make a single writer even a halfway decent income.

Then there are the people who read practically everything of one kind of thing–the serious fans, usually of genres. 

I do go to mystery conventions sometimes, and what I meet there are people who have literally rooms full of books by everybody from Conan Doyle to whoever just came out last week. 

Some of them read only one subset of the genre–only cozies, for instance, or police procedurals–or the ones with more general tastes, who read “only dark” or “only humorous” or “only historicals.”

If you can get a majority of the fan base, you can do anywhere from well enough to very well.  You can, at any rate, make a living. 

But if you want to have a best seller, and especially if you want to have a blockbuster best seller–then you have to sell books to people who don’t read. 

No, I am not making this up.

There are, out there in the vastness of an America with over three hundred million people in it, more people than you realize who read one book a year, or maybe two, or maybe three.

Most of these people are middle to upper middle class, and they buy their one book to take on vacation somewhere. 

In the upper reaches of this group are people who buy a book to have other people see they own it–it’s what turns something like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses into a bestseller. 

Most of these people expect to read what they buy, however, and that means that a book aimed at the blockbuster or better category has to have a few definite characteristics.

Contrary to widespread reports, it is not necessary for such a book to be badly written.  Writing style–even writing competence–has no effect at all on the sales of such a book.


Some blockbuster best sellers–the early and mid-career Stephen King, for instance–are very well written indeed.   Some are The Da Vinci Code.

But there are some things about the writing that do matter.

One of them is straightforwardness–blockbusters do not use experimental forms at all, and they tend to shy away from a lot of sarcasm and irony, which can be difficult to understand if you’re not a regular and wide reader.

They can be difficult to understand if you are a regular or wide reader, but have never gotten much beyond the technical level of what we now call “young adult” novels.

Robert is going to start calling me smug and superior here, but I’m only being realistic.

You’ll move more books the fewer readers you discourage.  Good readers don’t mind reading books that are simply and uncomplicatedly written.  Bad readers often do dislike and resent hitting things they can’t understand. 

We’ve gotten to a point where literary devices that used to be taught in junior high school–how to interpret multiple viewpoint, for instance–don’t seem to be any longer. 

The next thing you need to sell books to these people is to make sure you’re pushing nothing that can make them uncomfortable–stay off politics and religion except for cliches (it’s okay for your hero to be fighting an evil polluting American corporation or for your heroine to be visited by a miracle that cures her daughter’s cancer, but not for the characters to be involved in a fight over abortion or your hero to be opposed or in favor of gay rights).

And finally, it really helps if your book is already the flavor of the month.  The one book a year reader tends to read what “everybody” is talking about.

That last proposition is trickier than you’d think.

It is, on the one hand, the reason why publishing companies can “manufacture” a best seller.  They take out a lot of advertising, they push the reviewers, and, most especially, they buy space at the front of the bookstore.

If they can make enough noise, especially in the right areas of the country, they can sometimes push the book onto the bottom rungs of the NY Times best seller list, and for reasons that are too complicated to straighten out, the Times is the list to make.

And that’s odd, in a way, because the Times has always been a particular kind of list skewed toward a particular reading public.

There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way.  All best seller lists aimed at readers–rather than those aimed at the industry itself–are skewed toward the readership of the periodical that publishes them.   That is, after all, the information the readers want–what do people like us think is good to read this week?

But the Times has always been a newspaper aimed at the northeastern establishment and educated upper middle class.  It therefore tended to poll those bookstores its readers were likely to use–independent ones in upscale places like Westport and Scarsdale. 

There is, as I said, nothing wrong with that.  The readers of the Times–like the readers of USA Today–want to know what people like themselves are reading. 

But by its very nature, that particular skew meant that the books that made the Times bestseller list were not only weighted toward the literary, but unlikely to be what was selling best in the rest of the country.

I’m told that the Times these days is taking in data from a wider variety of outlets these days, so this may not be as true as it once was.  The list still looks to me, though, as if it were a little lopsided.

One way or the other, though, it is possible to “manufacture” a best seller. It’s even possible to manufacture a short career.  Since some people want to read what “everybody” is reading, you just have to give them the impression that this is it.

What’s far more interesting to me are the books that become blockbusters, or even just best sellers, without this help, because it’s very difficult.

Publisher print the number of books they think the public will buy.  If they don’t print enough for you to have more than a single title in all the Barnes and Noble franchises, it’s hard for you to build any kind of momentum to propel yourself into bestseller-land.

In this, Amazon has been something of a Godsend.  Amazon takes orders, and when it gets hundreds or thousands more than it has on hand, it goes straight to the publisher and says:  well?  And it usually gets what it wants, too.

The question is–how do the readers who order the book on Amazon know that the book is there?

If you expect me to provide you with an answer here, I can’t.  Nobody knows how things like that happen–how books whose publishers do not expect them to do well suddenly do very well indeed. 

The phenomenon is even more surprising when it happens to a book by an author whose previous career has been lackluster–P.D. James before Innocent Blood, Peter Benchley before Jaws, Mario Puzo before The Godfather.

But I’ll guarantee you one thing–whatever it is will almost certainly be either within a trend already existing, or the start of a new one.

But if it is the start of something new–it will only be new within the confines of the national mainstream, not in the population of all readers all the time.

And I’m making no sense any more.

It’s getting about time to be New Year’s.

Written by janeh

December 29th, 2010 at 7:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'I’m In With The In Crowd'

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  1. I don’t understand people who don’t read (in which category I include people who read one book a year), or who don’t read fiction, even though I had relatives in those categories. I keep thinking that they just haven’t found the right kind of fiction to appeal to them, because no one REALLY doesn’t enjoy reading do they? But I was wrong. There are lots and lots of people like that.

    I don’t read best-sellers or blockbusters often at all, although I have read very popular genre books. I often don’t find mainstream blockbusters all that interesting. So I don’t know why some books get picked up in numbers high enough to make them blockbusters and some don’t. It makes sense, if they have a lot of readers who don’t read much, that they wouldn’t be terribly difficult to read.

    As much as I enjoy Amazon and other online bookstores, I find the decline in regular bookstores (and, perhaps, in the time I have to spend browsing there and in libraries) makes it harder for me to locate new authors. I still get recommendations (often an iffy source of new authors because people’s tastes vary so much, and many people can’t judge other peoples’ taste) or come across references on the radio or (now) online that pique my interest, but I used to find most new authors by simply poking around on bookstore and library shelves until something looked interesting.

    Furthermore, I used to be able to use certain themes or types to identify possible good read. For example, I used to like a nice novel with elements of the supernatural. I still do, really, but now there are so very many books featuring, say, vampires, that I can’t sort the good ones from the vampire-shagger (I love that description I borrowed from someone) ones, particularly those laced with teen angst or extremely graphic sex and no plot. So I can’t use certain descriptors to find new books as the market changes.

    And if I, an avid reader, am finding it more difficult to sort out the interesting from the boring, how do non-readers find the next best-seller in time to make it a best seller? It could hardly be word of mouth that early in the game, although once momentum begins to build, I suspect word of mouth becomes important. Oprah??


    29 Dec 10 at 9:33 am

  2. Just for the record, I fully agree about the decline in reading skills. If anyone doubts, compare Princess of Mars (1912) with the latest Jennifer Crusie or JD Robb. I’ve read and enjoyed all three, and think Crusie is seriously underestimated in some respects. If we ignore plot and characterization and just look at reading difficulty, Burroughs has markedly longer and more complex sentences and a greater vocabulary–but ERB was “young adult” fare in 1912. Pick pretty well any century-old book and contemporary hit, and you’ll find the same thing.

    On popular culture as a whole, I remember the Fifties too, and from here it looks like new genres for old as fantasy–with a little SF–has filled in the gap where westerns and war used to be. It seems to be a generational thing. The kids who had to watch STAR TREK on the old black and white TV in the bedroom own our own homes now, and I could watch BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER in the living room. But if I go home on vacation, it’s the spare TV or M.A.S.H. reruns. Cop shows are allowed, but still no F&SF. That’s no more than half-way to an explanation, though. Why did my generation make the switch, and more so in my son’s time?

    I can tell you part of how the readers find the book on Amazon. That marvelous Amazon sales computer. It remembers every book I ever bought, and every book I told it I own, and it does that for everyone. It makes connections and recommendations. If I buy both Robert E. Howard and Raphael Sabatini, then when someone else buys Sabatini, it recommends Howard, and if someone else buys Howard, it recommends Sabatini. I don’t always buy, but I pay serious attention to Amazon recommendations of that sort.

    Also, there are reviews. Every time I buy a book from Amazon, I’m asked to review it, and almost always do so. If I say “Scalzi is OK, but no David Drake” a fair number of the people looking at the Scalzi book will take a look at this Drake person.

    Neither of these will get you started from nothing. Someone has to buy and read the first book. But either will let you build over time from a very small base. (There’s a description of the process in Chris Anderson, THE LONG TAIL, and some related material in Malcolm Gladwell, THE TIPPING POINT)

    One the problem was scarcity. Now it’s sorting the abundance. I LIKE this problem.


    29 Dec 10 at 5:29 pm

  3. I get new book and new-to-me author recommendations from various places. The library (where I can indulge my browsing needs for free), rec.arts.mystery newsgroup, various reviewers I respect such as Sarah Weinman and Dick Lochte. I take an occasional look at the NY Times bestsellers, and they have regional lists, for what’s selling in LA.

    Amazon reviews will guide me to purchase a book or not, but I rarely search on Amazon for authors I haven’t yet read. Or click on those recommendations. I haven’t found them that useful, perhaps because I didn’t do the work to tell them every book I own or have read. I’d still be typing!

    Mostly finding new authors happens in the library. I still frequent real bookstores on occasion, though I buy much less frequently. Finding new books by my favored authors happens usually on Amazon.

    Like Robert, I remember days when I’d read everything that interested me in my local library and I’d wait impatiently for new books. I didn’t have either mobility or money in those days. Now, I have nowhere near enough time for everything out there in mystery, sf and fantasy. “Regular” fiction can pretty much go hang.


    29 Dec 10 at 9:15 pm

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