A version of this blog was published in the Riverside Press Enterprise and other Southern California News Group newspapers Sunday, May 9.
It’s a chicken-and-egg problem: If you’re not a famous writer, how do you become one?
A recent article in the New York Times online edition spelled out the truth: It’s hard. “Of the top 10 fiction best sellers in 2020, nine were by established, best-selling authors.”
This reality is the bane of non-celebrity and new authors whose books may be as good –and likely even better—than those of many best-selling authors. But getting readers to pay attention to their books can be exceedingly difficult.
Big publishers who pay their consistently best-selling authors big advances have every incentive to spend the lion’s share (all but the scraps, that is) of their advertising budgets on those books in order to turn a profit on them. The less-known authors get the scraps, and the result is predictable. As the NYT noted, “about 98 percent of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies.” (And that’s publishers, not indie authors who publish their own works.)
Therefore, publishers and lesser-known authors, whose books are unlikely to sell 5,000 copies, struggle to rise above the marketing din of the Big 5 (Macmillan, Harper Collins, Penguin Random House, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster). Further, if a book isn’t published by them, or by a couple of other biggies like Norton, it is unlikely to get reviewed in the New York Times. Of the 51 books listed on Buzz Book 2021 for the coming fall and winter, only five were published by imprints of non-big 4/5 publishers, and two of those were published by Disney.
Economist Robert Frank lamented in a recent Literary Hub article, “The market for books has become an extreme example of … a winner-take-all market.” He added, “The overwhelming majority of good books never generate significant royalties for their authors.”
“By far,” Frank writes, “the strongest predictor of whether a book of given quality will become a bestseller is whether it was written by an author of earlier bestsellers.”
COVID-19 boosted overall sales of books in 2020, but most of the gains went to children’s books bought by parents who were suddenly home-schooling, and—you know it—already big-name authors.
Further, COVID made it harder for new and relatively unknown authors to call attention to their books. In-person book signings and author appearances were replaced by Zoom, wiping out much revenue for bookstores that hosted those live events. The Times reported: “Virtual events can draw bigger and more geographically diverse crowds, and they are cheaper for publishers, but online audiences often don’t buy the book from the store that’s hosting.” Add to that the near-universal “Zoom fatigue” that reduced attendance at virtual events after a few months.
All this brings to mind the saying, “Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” Unlike the weather, however, readers can do something about the lopsided market that skews for best-sellers and well-known writers.
Readers who want to support wider success for authors can make a point of looking for and reading books from independent publishers. It’s hard to know at times whether a book’s publisher is a Big 5 house or a small publisher because the big guys have bought up hundreds of once independent imprints. But a quick Google search can help readers figure that out. (Knopf, Doubleday, Pantheon, Rodale and 271 other imprints, for example, are published by Penguin Random House. Harlequin, Ecco, Avon and William Morrow are now from HarperCollins.)
But how to know if those indie books are any good? While Amazon consumer reviews are one possible check on quality, even there, the big numbers tend to accrue to Big 5 books, and some of the reviews are downright silly. Instead, readers can look for book reviews by book bloggers and bookstagrammers, of which there are hundreds, many of them specializing in particular genres. Most of them publish six or more reviews a month and can be found in a simple internet search.
Another great source for ideas is your local book club (or clubs). Even if you don’t belong to one, you probably know someone who does. Clubs are much more likely to choose books based on word-of-mouth, which means they aren’t as likely swayed by the Big 5 ad budgets. Ask them what they’re reading.
You can also make it a personal challenge to identify on your own the names of small publishers who put out books you’ll like by less-than-celebrity authors. Become a student of imprints and small labels. We all carry a Google search engine with us these days in our cell phones. So, as you pick up a book at a bookstore (YAY!), check the source of that imprint. At home, you can check out the Nonconformist Magazine’s list of more than 150 such small publishers (https://tinyurl.com/ynj6r4vk). Take a look and see if some of them sound interesting.
Finally, Inlandia Institute, based here in Riverside, promotes local, indie published authors and books. The nonprofit hosts many events each year featuring poets and writers who may never get the attention of the NYT but are worthy of your attention and patronage (inlandiainstitute.org).
Some local and regional indie publishers are: Bamboo Dart, Pelekinesis, Curious Publishing, Jamii, Los Nietos Press, Sunacumen Press, Inlandia Books, Elyssar Press, and Garden Oak Press. More California independent publishers can be found at: https://writingtipsoasis.com/top-book-publishers-in-california/
Marj Charlier is a writer based in Palm Springs. Her latest novel is The Rebel Nun, published by Blackstone Publishing, not a Big 5 publisher.