James Stephens - Book Building
1988, oil on canvas, 72" x 36"
On Labor Day, The New York Times proclaimed that “With the beach reads finished, it is time for the Big Books.” And what are the Big Books? Near the end of Monday’s article, The Times told us:
“Book buyers, analyzing the lineup of fall titles, said they saw a tendency to play it safe with well-known authors with very big, sure-thing books. 'It’s the tried and true,' said Patricia Bostelman, the vice president for marketing at Barnes & Noble.”
“Well-known authors with … sure-thing books.” Well that’s reassuring! I’d hate to see book buyers venture into stocking anything that wasn’t “safe.”
You might think that with the rise of the Internet and the word-of-mouth leveraging enabled by social networking and the ease with which books can now be produced and sold on demand, that there would be a rise in the number and diversity of books that publishers publish and bookstores stock and people talk about. But that isn't the case.
Publishers publish fewer unknown authors than ever. Bookstores have cleared the less certain titles from their shelves to make room for more copies of the top sellers. And in the social networks, virtually everyone is talking about—ta dum--Jonathan Franzen and Freedom. It is the thing. I imagine this is because we all like to be on the same page—one big community of American readers. Even Salon has chosen to read Freedom in its reading club.
To me it looks like publishers and bookstores are going to paint themselves into a corner. They will create a model in which they publish the safe titles by the big authors who write the “Big Books.” And the bookstores—if they survive at all—will be a place where you can go to buy one of the big books. It won’t matter which store you go into, you will be able to order either a Big Mac –or— a Whopper. You won’t have to worry about seeing items that you can’t be “safe” ordering. Bookstore franchises will sell book franchises to go with your eating franchises and your movie franchises so that you can have no doubts about what you are supposed to eat, read or watch.
But if I were opening a bricks-and-mortar bookstore today, I’d choose a business model that provides the one thing that is missing in this new economic model. I’d take over the job that literary agents, publishers, and bookstores have been forced to abdicate. I’d look for and sell the overlooked books.
Instead of just stocking the “Big Books," the store would commission local readers to go into the slush pile and dig out the hidden gems. The store would specialize in stocking these overlooked books, because I think some people might pay to have access to wonderful books not measured mainly for their blockbuster possibilities. The store could engage local readers to review the books that were written by nobodies who have no agent and which were either published by a small press or were self-published.
My theoretical bookstore would be filled with “we recommend” books instead of the “New York Times” recommends books that are already sold by everyone else. That would be the sole reason for people to come to this store instead of going to Barnes and Noble or Amazon.
The store would be selling books loved by reviewers in the community. But they might include unsafe books by nobodies. The 2010 publishing industry is not what it once was. It seems that it no longer can find a way to support the books that aren’t “safe.” But I’d bet that there are a bookstore’s worth of such books that are worthy of sale.