As a reader, I can say absolutely not. (And I haven't met any high volume reader who doesn't agree.)
The thing is, the midlist used to be the bread and butter of the industry. Most writers sold at a steady pace over the long term - and to smaller audiences. But they were profitable. I don't really remember well enough to quote reliably but I do remember studies long long ago that showed that while everyone might buy a best seller, it was far from most people's favorite book. Favorite books tended to vary a lot.
Unfortunately about forty years ago the economics changed. First there was the Thor Powertools ruling which made it much more expensive for publishers to print large (and economical) print runs and sell them over a long period of time. Then two things happened at once in the world of business. One was the cool new business theory of Push Marketing - that is to manipulate the way retail items are distributed, priced, described and sold so that you force the customer to choose what you want them to choose. (Have you ever noticed, for instance, that if you want to buy a plain item - say a purse - you can't get a cheap one? The cheap ones are covered with ugly decorative junk? And very often they are completely impractical. The reason for that is to "push" you up the line to pay more to NOT have the junky decorations.)
This model fit right in with the rise of the big retailers. Their business model was to focus on best sellers and churn all the other books - to push the customer to buying what they had planned on stocking, not what the customer wanted. It's a very efficient and profitable model. And of course, once they had driven all the indies out of business (pioneering the kind of ham handed methods that Walmart later came to be famous for) the big publishers found their only customers were the big retailers, who did not want midlist books, just cannon fodder and best sellers.
The crazy thing about the publishing business that most people don't realize is that the end reader is NOT the publisher's customer. That's why publishers have never done any consumer studies or demographic studies that most manufacturers do. Their customers were Barnes and Noble and Borders and others - and the publishers know exactly what they want.
But Amazon has been changing that even before ebooks. And that's one of the reasons Amazon was such a success when so many other online ideas failed. Amazon was the "anti-push" marketing model. And just about the time Amazon started, was when customers were most starved for choice.
I definitely think readers want variety. That's the main complaint of most readers. They get tired of reading books from big publishers that are the same. That's why a lot of people who want variety like to read books by small niche houses or ebook pubs because they already know whatever they are interested in they will find easily.
I think what readers SAY they want and what readers ACTUALLY want are two different things.
We see this all the time in the newspaper industry. We run readership studies in which we ask folks what they want from their news product. The answers are always the same: Less negative news (police, emergency and court stories), more stories about kids, health, food, lifestyle, etc.
Back before we had Web sites and Web stat-tracking, we took such readership studies at face value. We'd change up the story formula, and invariably our circulation — and advertising volume — took a dive. We'd gradually go back to more cops-and-courts coverage within a year or two.
Now, with the ability to track how many people visit a certain page on a news Web site and how long they stay there — not to mention how often they comment on stories or forward them to others — we now know that people lie their asses off in readership studies. The most page hits and views, by far, go to stories of crime and conflict (and obituaries). That tracking stays consistent, week to week, month to month and year to year.
Conclusion: People LOVE bad news. They revel in the misfortunes of others. And they will never, ever admit to it.
Why? Because when we get asked about such things, I think we naturally want to believe in our better selves. If we were surveyed about our book-reading habits, our first instinct will be to try to impress the interviewer by saying John Steinbeck and Jean-Paul Sartre even if our living rooms are plainly scattered with James Patterson and Jonathan Kellerman paperbacks. Our prurient interests are private because we perceive them to be lowbrow and even shameful.
Remember my post about a "guaranteed bestseller"? There's a reason those stories, with their stultifying sameness, sell like hotcakes and thus get face-out supermarket-checkout-line exposure. Because the millions of people who buy them crave the LACK of variety they promise.
love this reply, jim. i think you are dead on about what people say they want and what they really want.
a bit off topic:
i have a friend i would consider the average reader. she absolutely will not read a book that's not getting big media attention. i can hand this friend a book and tell her she will love it, but if she hasn't heard of the author or title, she turns up her nose and won't even open it. these readers want to be a part of what's going on. they want to feel a part of the national and international buzz. their reading experience goes beyond the covers of the book, and it's not always (truthfully) about the story they are reading. they want to be a part of something bigger than the book and bigger than themselves.
vampires: i'm being told that editors and agents are sick to death of vampires, but readers still want them so the vamp glut continues.
I should also point out that there is a big difference between a lack of variety and a lack of choice.
For instance, the vampire craze: yes, the publishing and book selling industry would rather have a few titles that sell really well. It's much more cost effective to do it that way. The readers on the other hand, want more. They want the pulp fiction version, and they go for it so bad, that one young woman I know who wrote a vampire book and couldn't sell it, so she put it up on Kindle. Just a few months later she's making so much money, she took a leave from her day job to write and manage the book business.
She was unknown. She didn't particularly market it (though I think she was already active on twitter and places like that). But she created a buzz by offering something the publishers didn't - even if it was similar to what the publishers were offering. She offered MORE. And as a fan herself, she understood well just what the audience was looking for, rather than what the industry chooses as controllable and predictable marketing factors.
Yes, I think that's absolutely true. Let's face it, the people who buy books are different from people who read a lot. If you read a lot, naturally you want quality and variety. You don't run out and buy the latest bestseller. You go to the library and sample. Or you buy a book used. Voracious readers cannot afford to buy new books every time.
So that leaves book sales to those who respond to publicity and hype, or whose reading experience is fairly narrow so that they aim for what they are familiar with. For that matter, I've found myself looking at shelves in the library to see how many books by this person were there. The rationale is, if they've published many books, they must be good. Take note: that isn't always the case.
So we can blame the rotten state of available reading material on the consumer, that is the person who buys new. Both publishers and book sellers feed into that by stocking those authors and any others that come with heavy marketing dollars behind them. They are in the business of showing a profit, not of judging quality.
"So that leaves book sales to those who respond to publicity and hype, or whose reading experience is fairly narrow so that they aim for what they are familiar with."
Yep. It was interesting the wake up call the DVD industry got when they studied just who turned out to be the major buyers of DVDs a few years ago. They had been so busy marketing to 18-25 year old males - because the individual titles for them sold best - that they ever noticed that the bulk of DVDs were purchased by women of a certain age - but that they bought a much wider variety of titles, so it didn't show up on best seller lists. But they did figure out that that's where the real money was coming from, and suddenly DVD releases widened out.
And you notice what has happened to newspapers since they started paying attention to that tracking?
Listen, the thing to remember about newspapers is that you can get somebody's attention with fear. Always. They don't actually like that bad news, but they can't turn away from it because they're hardwired that way. For instance - I used to read the CNN webpage every morning. Around the time of the Natalie Holloway killing, I suddenly noticed that all the stories on the front page started to be missing girls and murdered babies. Which is when I stopped reading the CNN website.... and so did a lot of other people.
The problem was that people were riveted to the sensational murder... AS AN EXCEPTION. After reading that story, most people scatter off into reading different stories. That's where they get the pleasure out of reading the paper. It's the OTHER stories that make them click to the news website in the first place. They may all read the one sensational story first, but that story isn't necessarily why they're there. (For some, yes, and maybe that audience is easier to cater to, but if you want to keep the WHOLE audience, you have to have the variety to keep the rest too.)
The other thing to remember is that even though those other stories are essential to the reading experience, none of them will have the numbers of the sensational story, because unlike sensationalism, these are genuine interest stories, and everybody is interested in something different.
Of course book publishing is not the same at all, because our lives and safety don't depend on fiction, so you can't command attention with a threat story the way you can with a newspaper. However, the pattern of everyone buying one bestseller, but scattering on the rest of the books they read held true for a hundred years or more in publishing, until booksellers started using the push marketing techniques.
It's a long tail world now. Sure there will always be best sellers, but now it's feasible to market to all the little niches and turn a profit.
And yes, among those niches are the tabloid readers and pulp fans. (Thank goodness.)
I want the changes we are seeing now to happen more quickly. Very soon eBooks will dominate the market. It's inevitable. I want it to happen sooner, for authors' books to be made available for download more quickly, for ownership of electronic readers to grow exponentially. The sooner the better.
I can't agree more. Viva la e-book revolution! But then I would say that as a newly launched e-publisher. I think the rate of technological change is accelerating and as the technology improves, the reading experience will get better and better. I also think e-publishing provides a much fairer pay structure for authors, more appropriately reflecting the work authors put in.