Life support for a book

  • November 29, 2009
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More than 100,000 books come out each year. That means the competition for new authors is crushing. Most books die within three months of release, tossed onto the remainder table, ending their brief shelf life as tax write-offs for the publishing house.

Several trends make the odds even longer for new authors. First, publishing houses play it safe by devoting their marketing dollars to authors like Sarah Palin, who are so well known, they really don’t need the publicity. Meanwhile, the unknown author is left to his or her own marketing devices.

Second, getting reviewed poses a huge challenge for the unknown writer. Newspaper book sections are shrinking and many have disappeared altogether. Those that remain review only a few books each week, maybe 350 each year. Taking a cue from publishers, reviewers tend to focus on titles that will be “big books” by famous authors.

This callous and dysfunctional system is painful for authors who put years into books that go unread. Only a handful of those 100,000 continue to sell even a few months after the release date, let alone the years that Motherland (which was released in 2000) has stayed alive.

What distinguishes a book that keeps selling, even without promotion, without ads or reviews or the Oprah miracle?

Readers. They discover new titles, introduce them to book clubs, tell everyone they know about their latest find. In turn, college and citywide book clubs that encourage thousands of readers to pick up the same book simultaneously are extremely powerful for sales. That kind of buzz has lifted titles like Mitch Albom’s Tuesday With Morrie onto the bestseller list four years after its release.

Schools are another source of ongoing sales. American schools are highly individualistic in their selections of books; teachers typically decide which book is suitable for their classes. But increasingly, teachers are looking for books that use a personal story to illuminate a chapter in history.

So it is possible for a “small” book to succeed, but typically, they go unnoticed for years as schools and book clubs quietly administer life support.

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