What sells books?

What role does the critic play? Why do we need someone to stand between us and the art, analyzing, recommending, and denouncing? Why can’t we just have our own experience, unmediated by someone elses taste?

In my last post, I managed to grab the attention of some folks in the sci-fi publishing world who are actually interested in the problem with popular nomination and voting. Score one for political philosophy: we can be relevant even when we’re not commenting on public policy.

Apparently, though, I was wrong: reviews don’t even sell literary books anymore:

“It’s a new world,” said Mr. Silverberg. “We are trying to figure out how to develop audiences for fiction very quickly, because so many of the things that traditionally worked we are being told do not work anymore. The author tour has been abandoned. Reviews don’t seem to be selling books.”

And nobody knows quite what does sell books.

One problem perpetuating this uncertainty is that reviewers and critics are an extremely unpopular class.  Like bankers and brokers, like real estate agents and used car salesmen, they seem to stand between us and what we want, intercepting our enjoyment and channeling a tidy stream of profits, praise, and honor that would otherwise go directly to the producers: the companies and workers, artists and writers who are actually responsible for the beautiful things that make our world habitable and navigable, meaningful or fun.

Cheryl Morgan suggested that social networks are playing a bigger, and less predictable, role in selling books:

Most readers would much prefer a recommendation from a friend whose tastes they know and trust. Through the magic of social networking they also consider many celebrities to be their “friends”.

I guess that means that aesthetic authority is out, and we’re going through a period of democratized consumption patterns.  Social networks are upsetting traditional hierarchies of taste and authority, and that’s exciting. It may be presaging a great and permanent leveling, but I suspect that this leveling is only preparing for new and more representative brands of taste and authority.

The law of large numbers still holds. We’ll all mostly be reading something this Fall. Like publishers and critics everywhere, I’m quite interested in how we’ll go about deciding on what, because we’re certainly not likely to make those decisions truly independently. The factors that determine our choices will be less obvious than they used to be, and we may make them without the guidance of well-informed experts in the field. I guess it makes me an elitist, but I don’t feel particularly optimistic about that.






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