I'm talking about the insidious end of the year "Best-of" book lists. It started innocuously enough back in early December, when I worried incessantly about all of the books that were to be published throughout this last month of 2014. Were they automatically considered B-list books by virtue of their publishing date? What if next year's Pulitzer winner was released on this last Tuesday of the month?
My worries were soon buried in an ensuing avalanche of hundreds of Best Books of 2014 lists. Much like my wrapping paper-tinsel-pine needle-covered living room floor, my feed reader was so inundated with these lists by mid-month that I was forced to just turn it all off. Because let's be honest: how many times can one see essentially the same damn list over and over and over without slipping into a coma? Don't get me wrong: I completely agree that Anthony Doerr wrote an awesome novel. All the Light We Cannot See makes for some good reading. But I had to ponder...is it really all that much better than some of the other great books I read this year? And if the answer is um not really, why is Doerr's novel (and the others that routinely showed up on the lists over and over) getting all the attention?
The answer, of course, is publicity. Which isn't as merit based as we'd all like to think. I mean, in a perfect world the best book would also be the best-selling book, right? Because that makes sense. The reality is much different. Books, after all, are simply goods being sold. Book consumers, like consumers of any other goods, buy books in large part based on advertisement (book publicity). Once a book gets some good publicity rolling, word of mouth between friends, book bloggers, book clubs, and the like keeps that momentum going and if the book was any good to start with *BAM*, you've got yourself a best-seller and the profits start rolling in.
But with thousands of books published each year, it should be pretty obvious to you by now that not all of these books get the big publicity push or advertising campaign from their publishing houses. Countless books are released each year by the Big Five houses with no more than a purchased Kirkus review and some advance copies set loose on NetGalley. So why do some books get the big publicity and others not?
It probably shouldn't shock any of us that it comes down to the accounting department. When it comes to previously published authors, publishers will run what they call a profit and loss analysis to see what they can reasonably expect to sell and whether it would be worth their while to advertise the hell out of their latest novel. But that kind of advertising is different from the kind of advertising blitz that goes with a debut author. Remember Erin Morgenstern? Back in 2010 she wrote a novel called The Night Circus and Doubleday made headlines when they bought her novel for somewhere in the high six figures. Yep, a debut novel. So Doubleday was taking a big, big chance here. If you remember the book it's probably because Doubleday also rolled out the carpet on one of the biggest ad campaigns for that damned book. They were going to make sure it sold and recoup some of that high six figures they sank into the book or heads were going to roll.
And it worked. The book sold when it was published the next year. It was just-better-than-average story, not bad but not stunningly amazing either. Not the hype. The ad campaign that Doubleday paid for got The Night Circus in front of every fiction reader in America. And then we haven't heard from Morgenstern since. And even if we did, I know that I wouldn't be purchasing it because the book was more hype than substance. Lesson learned (well, not really, because I fall for this kind of crap all the time).
What about the books that don't get any publisher ad campaigns? What are those authors supposed to do? Mostly nothing. If they're lucky they can go to a few book signings, hopefully not at their own expense. But mostly they hope that their book is so good that word of mouth (or hell, maybe Oprah herself) will trump ad campaigns and give them a better bargaining chip when they negotiate their next book.
So what is my point? (Do I even have a point?) It's not that the "Best of" lists are wrong, per se. More like they are incomplete. As you take a look at them this year, or any year for that matter, try to remember the ad campaigns - if any - for each book on the list. Was it a big blitz? If so, why? Did they pay a lot of money for the book? What was at stake for the publisher? If nothing else, it will keep your eyes from blurring over as you read the same lists over and over and over........
Check back on Wednesday and let's look at a few 2014 books that didn't make too many lists because not too many people read them. Why? Because they didn't have huge publisher ad campaigns. So come check it out.