inTouch: Limit the Bestseller List?
Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda wrote an essay in Book Forum suggesting that writers only get one shot at the bestseller list. He reasoned that once you make the list, the claim of being a best-selling author can be attached to all an author’s works, so they will still sell. But by only allowing someone to be on the list once, you make room for others.
Certainly most–if not all–writers would like a crack at bestseller-dom. And once you’ve had one, you are very likely to have more.
I understand Dirda’s frustration, especially when some writers are now putting their names on books that they author with lesser-known co-writers, but I can’t knock their hustle. For example, James Patterson, who the Christian Science Monitor says “last year sold more books that Stephen King, Dan Brown, Stieg Larsson and John Grisham combined,” released his latest adult book and a YA novel (co-authored with Chris Tebbetts) on the same day. It is possible that you might one day see Patterson’s name in every bestseller list category–fiction, nonfiction, children’s, paperback, hardcover, e-book…
Not everyone who gets to the bestseller list has staying power, however. Many names appear perennially but there are some that never show up again. And for some authors, making it to the bestseller list came after years of hard work.
Dirda uses the idea of limiting an author’s chances at the bestseller list to discuss other issues within the publishing industry—the fact that publishing houses want a “sure thing” and are not as willing to take risks on unknown writers. This prevents the discovery of great writers who do not get the acclaim and attention they deserve.
Unlike the Oscars, which have changed their rules more than once in recent years, bestseller lists are likely to stay the same. Even if the criteria for how they are tabulated is examined, a real change will only come if the publishing industry decides to take more risks. And who can influence the industry to do that? The reading and book-buying public.
Dirda himself admitted that his notion was unrealistic:
“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.”
Just as with music, movies, and other forms of creativity, you will have the people Dirda describes as “lemminglike” who will buy something simply because it has been crowned a bestseller. But you will also have those who seek out something that speaks to them. The world certainly is not fair, but with the way markets are being fragmented, certain writers, musicians, and other artists may not be bestsellers in a mega-popular, mega-rich sense, but they will be able to find the people to whom their work sells best.
Remember Booksense, an indie bookstore answer to bestseller lists? It is now IndieBound.
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