Over at BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow blogged Teresa’s post about how the news media exaggerates the role of the bestseller in modern book publishing. Here at Making Light we love us some Cory Doctorow, and we always enjoy the spike of traffic that comes from a BoingBoing link, but in this case, by headlining his post “Publishing isn’t bestseller-driven” and going on to summarize Teresa as saying that “publishing isn’t driven by bestsellers, but by ‘okaysellers,’” I think Cory accidentally misrepresents what Teresa was trying to say.
The fact is that book publishing is indeed “driven by” bestsellers. Okay, “driven by” is a figurative and slightly imprecise term, but it’s entirely reasonable to observe that book publishers’ tactical and strategic decisions are to a non-trivial extent affected by whether they have bestsellers and what kind of bestsellers those are. Having bestsellers on a regular basis makes an profound difference to what a publisher can do in connection with all their books, bestsellers and “okaysellers” alike. Teresa and I have worked at publishers where nothing was bestselling, and we’ve worked at publishers where books were landing on the New York Times list every month, and we can assure you that the latter is better in the same way that winning the lottery is better than having bone cancer.
What Teresa was trying to get at, and she’s absolutely right, is that while book publishing may be greatly driven by our need for bestsellers, in the same way that many American policies are “driven by” our national need for easy access to petroleum, we don’t in fact spend every second of every day wandering around in a frenzy obsessing about bestsellers, any more than everyone in America spends all their time invading Middle Eastern countries or grovelling at the gas pump. When the Wall Street Journal writes that “publishing is becoming a winner-takes-all contest” and says that “when a book doesn’t sell right away, the large chains sweep it into the back room, making space for the next aspirant,” they’re grossly misrepresenting how most of book publishing works. We may be driven by a need to have some books that “bestsell,” but our daily life is far from dominated by work on bestsellers to the exclusion of all else. To the contrary, smart publishers know that publishing is more like gardening than it’s like factory-farming; if you want giant successes, you’d better have a whole lot of little experiments going all at the same time. We need bestsellers. But we don’t spend all of our time on them, and we don’t sweep non-bestselling books (or their authors) off to the glue factory. We need all the other books as well. Because you never know.