Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Burdens & Benefits Of Book Choice

Before, say, 1950, how many books were written about successful gay people and their homosexuality was discussed?  How many books were written before say, 1970, that included Hispanic characters in the lead?  How many books, prior to say 1965, were written about African Americans?

This is relatively recent history. Not that long ago you couldn’t find many of the above books.  Why?  Some may say any and all of the following played a role:

·         Prejudice.
·         Ignorance.
·         Country’s demographics.
·         Commercial prospects.
·         Lack of subjects -- people to write about.

Perhaps the biggest reason is the self-publishing era had not yet taken hold.  Even though the vast majority of self-published books don’t sell a lot of copies or even turn a profit, they do provide one important service – they give the unknown, the unliked, and the underdog a stage.  There’s no filter or gatekeeper in self-publishing. The limits, fears or knowledge of the writer seeking to publish a book set the price..

Say what you want about self-publishing, it is the great equalizer.  It allows for anyone to voice a view or write on topics once thought taboo, non-commercial or unimportant.

Self-publishing can act as the test case publishers need to see before pulling the trigger to publish a book.  Once the Big 5 sees smaller books do well on their own they are more willing to take that book, genre, or subject on.  Self-publishing becomes a proving ground for many.

To the public, it makes little difference who publishes or even who writes a book.  The No. 1 factor for them is awareness.  They need to know a book exists in order to buy it.

It used to be a 1-2 punch. The handful of New York publishers dictated what got into print.  No e-books. No self-publishing and no competition but a few small or obscure university presses.  Then these books would be sold through independent bookstores, then chains, and later big box stores.  No internet sales. It was a closed community.  Now it is wide open to the point it needs a little more centralization, but still, the good news is that there’s true freedom in the book world.

As I mentioned earlier, it didn’t used to be that way.  If books shape society they didn’t reflect it.  Mostly white men dictated what got published.  Even today, studies show publishing is disproportionately white.  But times have changed.  Publishers are willing to lead and not just follow. They will tackle any subject from any writer.  They search for what will be the next big seller.

The minority viewpoint isn’t always heard from not just because publishers think it won’t sell, but because it goes against their politics.  Why don’t we see books about being pro-ISIS or why we should tell Bruce “Caitlin” Jenner that he/she is not a role model?  Because publishers don’t support those values or fear their consumers don’t either.

That same approach kept major publishers from featuring African Americans in books.  A New York Daily News article recently showed some publishers simply ignored Black America.

Simon & Schuster, founded in 1924, published its first African American biography 46 years later in 1968.  Another, Random House, had published just five African American narratives since its founding in 1927 until it published a book by Maya Angelou in 1969.  They weren’t the exceptions, but the rule.  The massive Civil Rights movement and browning of the American population finally led to a change in what was being published and purchased.

The industry may no longer suffer from issues over what gets published.  Now it centers over what gets purchased by the American public.  The nation of 321 million has a lot of choice available, so much so that it is drowning in it.  So while self-publishing and the liberalizing of America now permits a fair playing field for what gets published, the marketplace is so crowded by a variety of books that consumers struggle to discover these books and increasingly lacks a method or means to make intelligent decisions on what to buy or read.

It almost seems hard to imagine that authors would have had difficulty publishing a book about things we take for granted now.  Still, though I applaud self-publishing and its democratic revolution for books, the bulk of book sales comes from the major traditional publishers.  They still determine, to a large degree, what we read or buy.  The bookstores go along with this, to a degree, as many don’t sell POD or self-published books in any great quantity.  The media also adds to this, as most reviews in most publications focus on books from traditional publishers.  Other media, such as radio or online, give a greater opportunity for self-published authors to promote their books.

The book world is as fair and balanced as it’s ever been, but it still needs to go further both in how it selects books for publication and in how it promotes all of its titles. It is up to the public to welcome of diverse viewpoints and demand which type of books it wants. 

2016 Book Marketing & Book Publicity Toolkit

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2016

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