Libraries should concentrate on collecting books that people might want to read, might even enjoy and benefit from, but don’t know about, and then promote them like crazy.The bestsellers are already promoted like crazy. Most of them are pretty bad by whatever standard you want to apply, but they’re like cotton candy. They go down smoothly because the readers know exactly what to expect and never get any surprises. People who exclusively read bestsellers and mass popular fiction are hardly worthy of being called readers at all.
There's a lot in this piece (and in Annoyed Librarian's posts generally) about how libraries are scared of losing funding if they stop carrying the obvious bestsellers and genre fiction that, for better or worse, make up a big part of their circulation stats.
A lot of that attitude, I suspect, comes more out of the politics of public financing than anything else: I remember all too well the Congressional sessions where various scientists were called upon to defend the millions of dollars being poured into their research, and (rather stupidly, if I dare say so) admitted that there might not be any practical application for such work, but the fact that America would be promoting that much more scientific research was in itself good. End result: they had their funding slashed. In the same way, any public library that says "We're not going to emphasize books that everyone already knows about and can find" is begging on bended knee to have its funding gutted at the next referendum. Them's the breaks.
But all of the above brought to mind another question: Are bestsellers bestsellers because they're promoted like crazy, or is there another mechanism at work?
I went back and forth about this particular chicken-and-egg issue a number of times, and settled on this. Bestsellers get a heavier promotional push than anything else out there because the publishing companies know they'll be getting that much more of a return on their investment by doing so. They push the latest Stephen King and John Grisham material because they know it's far easier to get people to actually spend money on such things. They're known quantities. People know what a Stephen King book is like, and so it's that much less work to get them to drop a bundle on a new hardback with his name on it. (I'm reminded of the old anecdote about Isaac Asimov penning a book on some fairly anodyne science topic with no obvious marketing pitch, and being reminded by the publisher that the word "Asimov" on the cover was the marketing pitch.)
People respond to what's familiar — a familiar name, a familiar subject matter, a familiar approach to same (read: genre) — than they do what's unfamiliar. Even people of relatively adventurous tastes fall into this trap; I know I'm far more willing to spend, say, $40 on a box set by Merzbow than someone who has allegedly been influenced by him. You see how the power of a name even applies there?
If it seems paradoxical to fiercely promote things that are already sure shots, keep in mind that's because the whole system is trapped in the blockbuster model. Unless you're part of that tiny less-than-one-percent of authors who can reliably carpet-bomb the commanding heights of the New York Times bestseller list with their work, you get little to no support. You're on your own, and god help you if you are thinking about making a living trying to write books unless you're in at least the high midlist (which is itself being torn to shreds).
And a big part of why that is the case is because no publisher wants to throw the same advertising budget at Anonymous McUnknown and possibly never see a dime of that money again, when they can consistently bet on the same winning horses and get back something. Their profit margins are too thin to allow any other kind of behavior. They know better.
So when it comes to libraries, the behavior of the publishers themselves need to be ignored as much as humanly possible. know that when I go to the library, I'm not looking for bestsellers. Should I care to read them, they are there, but the vast majority of the time they can be found in the discount racks a year later for a dollar a copy. They're this year's model.
But I also know libraries cannot afford to pretend publishers exist in a vacuum. They (the publishers) fight tooth-and-nail against the lending of ebooks — which from the publishers' POV is perfectly justified, for the same reason the movie studios are getting leery of offering rentals for a title before it's had a chance to exhaust its retail sell-through.
It sounds to me more and more like everyone on all sides are missing opportunities. I don't want to live in a world where everything is simply All Hits, All The Time, because that's boring. But I also don't want to live in a world where all creativity has been reduced to a bunch of unprofitable (or at least unmotivatingly unprofitable) micro-transactions because nobody can make any money doing what they love. I think — no, I know — I would continue to write even if there was no money in it; heck, I've been doing that for years. But it's naïve to expect everyone to feel the same way, and banking on that feeling alone will not change anything. And I really don't like the idea that the libraries are assuming they're Too Big To Fail in this particular equation.
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