When you walk into a Barnes & Noble, what are the first books you see? Okay, it’s the deep-discount books in the foyer. Then what books do you see? Okay, it’s the books that publishers have paid to have promoted. But then what books do you see? Probably the books on the bestseller shelf, enticingly arranged in order of sales rank.
Aren’t those, though, by definition precisely the books that need the least promotion? That’s what Michael Dirda argues in a Bookforum article. In essence, Dirda says, bestseller lists like the ones found in the New York Times only serve to make the rich richer and to make it harder for the vast majority of writers to promote their work.
“The best-seller list functions, in essence, as a restraint of trade, a visible hand that crushes the life out of the literary marketplace. If one were to magically eliminate every form of the list, in print and online, as well as all those best-seller tables in Barnes & Noble, what would happen? People would spend more time browsing a bookstore’s stock, they would skim a page or two of various interesting-looking titles, and eventually they would plunk down their twenty dollars. In short, they would actively engage with a greater portion of our literary culture.”
This is a nice fantasy, but it seems highly dubious as a model of consumer behavior: it assumes that a book-buyer sets out to buy an unspecified book, to which he or she then allows the bookstore or website to lead him or her. In fact, people often—perhaps even usually—walk into a store or go to Amazon.com with a clear idea of exactly what book they want, and it’s probably not a title plucked off the top of the best-seller list.
Really, Dirda’s problem is not just with the list but with blockbuster culture, which pervades other fields as well as books. Movies come most immediately to mind: major studios are increasingly investing in big-budget franchise films that they hope will open huge, earning tons of free publicity for themselves as they do so. Even for someone who enjoys a good blockbuster now and again—whether by Michael Bay or John Grisham—it is dispiriting to think that it’s hard for smaller, riskier titles to earn a foothold.
The publishing industry is facing plenty of problems right now, but I think the blockbuster obsession is a problem that will get better rather than worse. Why? Because books are going the way of music, not movies. Everyone wants a bestseller no matter what they’re making, but the reason movies are so heavily driven by blockbusters is that their distribution channels are so limited. When a movie’s in theatrical release, you have to see it at a theater. Even in the multiplex era, theaters have a limited number of screens, and the entire industry benefits from those screens being occupied with safe-bet moneymakers.
(That’s why movies are the only major media that are still released at different times in different areas of the country: you can buy Justin Bieber’s new album on the same day whether you live in L.A. or Peoria, but the big coastal cities still get many new movies weeks ahead of smaller cities. The major reason for this is that theater chains are waiting to see how those films will fare in limited release, so they know how many screens to open the films on in Minneapolis and Chicago and Houston.)
Speaking of Justin Bieber, look at what’s happened to music in the digital era: blockbusters have become far less important than they once were. Bestsellers are still given more visibility online, but publicity isn’t zero-sum—widely-used sites and services ranging from iTunes to Spotify to Last.fm and even Facebook recommend music based on your own listening history and your friends’ interests, which is much more likely to keep you listening (and buying) than trying to push the same blockbuster indiscriminately on everybody.
It’s the same at Amazon, for both music and books: stocking the new J.K. Rowling doesn’t mean bumping Jo Ann Beard off the shelf, and though factors including advertising and bestseller lists still drive sales, that’s less and less true as time goes on because the blockbuster-book system made much more sense in the hard-copy era than it does in the digital era. In fact, in today’s media world a best-seller list might ironically serve the function of getting readers out of their aesthetic ghettos and getting them to download titles they might not have ever considered otherwise.
Say what you will about Fifty Shades of Grey as a piece of writing, you have to admit that it’s off the beaten path for most of its readers and that it’s certainly not a product of any big-publishing conspiracy. I haven’t read it, but I’m certainly more strongly considering doing so than if it didn’t seem like everybody else in the world is reading it right now. In a world where best-sellers don’t push less-sellers off the shelf, maybe getting everybody on the same page every once in a while isn’t such a terrible thing.