Publishing’s Wrong Numbers

TO START WITH, shouldn’t it be called the “better-seller list”? I suppose that doesn’t quite sing, but how can you have more than one best seller at a time?

However you refer to it, the list is a disaster for literary and general culture. This isn’t to say that good books don’t become best sellers. John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a superb combination of memoir, journalism, crime reporting, and cultural history, as well as one of the most popular nonfiction works of the past twenty years. Stephen King is an astonishing storyteller, as are, in their differing ways, J. K. Rowling and Elmore Leonard. Come bedtime on a workday, few of us are ready for an assault on the Mount Everests of literature, philosophy, and history. A Maisie Dobbs mystery by Jacqueline Winspear will do quite nicely, thank you.

No, my dislike of the list is directed entirely at the thing itself. I think it’s bad for readers, bad for publishing, and bad for culture. Above all, despite appearances, the best-seller list isn’t populist; it’s elitist. If there are a dozen slots, six are filled by the same old establishment names. For every James Patterson novel on the list, that’s one fewer novel by someone else. This is a tight little clubby world.

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. Customers might even discuss their tastes with the shop’s owner or staff, who would actually recommend a few appropriate titles. Friends, neighbors, and colleagues might also suggest beloved novels, biographies, and poetry collections.

Without a best-seller list, authors would compete on something like a level playing field, while readers would buy the books that spoke most meaningfully to their particular interests and tastes rather than settling for the one-size-fits-all titles found in the back pages of the New York Times Book Review. After all, done right, publishing really ought to be a craps game: Win some, lose some. Serious editors hope to bring out books they can be proud of, which means taking a chance on works that seem original and fresh. Yet all too often, today’s publishing houses prefer to stick with sure things, investing heavily in a backlist of Safe Brand Names. Pay the half-million advance to Tom Clancy and his latest coauthor (who does the actual writing), and there’s virtually no chance of losing. But where’s the rush, the excitement, of taking a gamble on a new voice? Long ago, Clancy’s one great book, The Hunt for Red October, was brought out by the Naval Institute Press. Some editor at NIP actually believed in a thriller written by an unknown and middle-aged insurance salesman. Now, corporate handlers believe in the Clancy name.

The best books of a genre seldom make the list. The finest all-around American crime writer of the past forty years—I speak of Donald E. Westlake—never matched the sales of Elmore Leonard, let alone Patterson. Reviewers praised his comic Dortmunder capers, readers ecstasized over his lean Richard Stark noirs. A novel like The Ax—as brilliant a black comedy as the film Kind Hearts and Coronets—should be famous. These days, people will line up for hours to get their Neil Gaiman books signed, but whom does Gaiman admire among living authors? Gene Wolfe. You’ve never heard of Wolfe, right? (Try the majestic multivolume Book of the New Sun.) Go to this year’s World Fantasy Convention, ask its attendees to name the greatest contemporary work in their genre, and the answer will likely be Little, Big by John Crowley. You could have read this instead of the latest installment of Twilight.

What troubles me most, though, is the unfairness. Some writers, no matter how accomplished, have virtually no chance of gaining the readership they deserve. When’s the last time you bought a book by a contemporary poet who wasn’t a personal friend? With the partial exceptions of Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins, and a few others, even the most wonderful poet is lucky to sell a thousand copies of a collection that might have taken a decade to produce. The heart sinks.

Only small presses—and some university presses—typically bring out unknown writers or take a chance on the unusual. My late friend the polymathic Tom Disch once recommended a book with the odd title Shamp of the City-Solo by Jaimy Gordon, published by Treacle Press. Before last year, I had met only three or four people who had heard of Gordon or her book. Now, of course, many readers are interested in the earlier work of the most recent winner of the National Book Award. But who published Lord of Misrule? Simon & Schuster? Random House? Nope. McPherson & Company.

Small publishers can’t do much to promote their books; they have no publicity budgets to speak of. By contrast, if a big New York trade house invests heavily enough in a title, it’s likely going to be a best seller, regardless of what the reviewers say. Merit hardly matters. Hustle, whether corporate or personal, determines which works grab the limelight and the places on the best-seller list.

In the past, a decent author photo, the solicitation of a few blurbs, and an occasional bookstore reading were all that a writer was expected to do to promote his or her work. No longer. You need an author website, Twitter account, Facebook page, YouTube video, and blog to which you contribute posts every day. And a complete personal makeover wouldn’t hurt. Best-sellerdom is no country for the modest and shy. A lot of flash and dazzle, a snarky mouth and outrageous opinions, ideally with good looks thrown in—that’s what’s wanted. Publishers will happily shell out millions for Charlie Sheen’s memoirs and Lady Gaga’s guide to living. There isn’t much left over for anyone else.

People often buy such junk for two reasons: Either they don’t know that better books exist or they are simply, lemminglike, keeping up with what the Joneses are reading. In an ideal world—ha!—we would be deeply embarrassed by half the nonfiction best-seller list. Far better to reprint the syllabi from various college courses. Do you really want to understand the Middle East or the greenhouse effect? These are the core books to read, the ones that matter. Academics may be figures of fun in modern fiction—I bow to no one in my admiration of David Lodge’s Small World and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel—but in real life they do tend to know the books in their fields. By contrast, even those sometimes useful Amazon recommendations—people who bought x also bought y and z—are generated by sales figures rather than informed professional judgment.

Is nothing to be done? As it happens, I do have a solution to the heartbreak of the best-seller list. It’s really quite simple and doesn’t involve changing how the list is reported or structured. All we need do to enrich our American culture and literature is adopt this rule: A writer can only be on the best-seller list once.

Consider the benefits. John Grisham hits the list with his second novel, The Firm, which stays at the top for God knows how many weeks. After that, any book he writes can have emblazoned on the cover “By best-selling author John Grisham” or “By the author of No. 1 best seller The Firm.” Subsequent Grisham books would obviously still sell well, but they could never again be included on the actual list. Instead, the space that would have been taken up by The Pelican Brief or The Runaway Jury would now be available to a new writer.

As a result, the list would stay fluid, avoiding the sclerosis caused by the wearisome reappearance, year after year, of the usual suspects. At the same time, readers would start to pay more attention to reviews, whether in print or online, if only to learn that a favorite author had brought out a new book. The best-seller list itself would be transformed into a showplace for the hot, the exciting, the deserving. Trade publishers would still pay reasonable advances to brand-name authors but would shy away from obscene amounts, given that a writer’s later books weren’t going to receive the boost of making the list. Instead, a house’s energies and funds would be directed to promoting work by worthy authors still eligible for best-sellerdom.

None of this is going to happen, of course. Even so, I do wish people would break away, as much as possible, from reading only the season’s most obvious writers and books. Be brave. Buy a collection of poems every so often, explore genre fiction and the midlist, go back to that classic you always meant to try again, study the important books on the subjects that interest you. Above all, just say no to the insidious dominion of the best seller. You might start right now by picking up one or two of the titles reviewed in this issue of Bookforum. Think outside the list. There are John Crowleys and Jaimy Gordons to discover.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize–winning book columnist for the Washington Post.