Over on Sarah Weinman's blog, there is a thread running about book reviewing - more specifically, how book review space is shrinking in newspapers around the country. It turns out that this is a subject I have a view on. Also, it's snowing heavily outside so I have the time.

It seems to me that the book industry was, for a long time, culturally relevant in ways it can no longer be. That is to say, that at one time it was the only cultural game in town. And the realease of the individual book was a cultural event that it isn't today. Akin to the release of a movie or of a CD. Newspapers covered their release because it would have been irresponsible not to. Some books are covered in this way now. Not many. Nowhere near to equalling the number of books published. (Though I have often wondered about the claim that "175,000 books are published each year." What does that include?) These reviews are the free advertising that the book industry was able to count on for more than a century.

When a book is a cultural event, it gets mentioned in all the papers - The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Smirnoff...a few others recently. But how many books come out and can be honestly viewed as a cultural event? Entertaining, yes. Thought provoking, perhaps. Cultural event? Must read or you'll have lost out on something pivotal in current culture?

Imagine this, when a book sells well (not Dan Brown or JK Rowling well, but well) it does nothing like the kinds of sales the box office will see for a bomb. GIGLI did better ticket sales than most authors dream of selling.

Now, how do books become cultural events? If I knew, I would be rich of course, but I have a couple of guesses.

1- advertising. Publishers say it doesn't work. It certainly doesn't for the common publisher's model which is to publish many titles and hope one of them does well enough to justify publishing more books next year. When a book begins to take off through word of mouth or because Tom Cruise was photographed carrying it on a beach, publishers will advertise the hell out of it. Hmmm. Seems like there might be something to advertising after all. But perhaps I should be a little less cynical so I bring you...

2- The conscious effort to add to the culture. The literary author (I mean the good ones not the schlock.) TRIES to be a different voice. Tries to say something that will stop readers in their tracks. These are the guys we remember (I didn't say we like them, but we remember them). The first guys to write hardboiled stuff were probably trying to do that. Homer was probably fed up listening to Ionian Sagas and came up with something fresh. Of course, many authors make this conscious effort (some don't; some actually want to imitate others), but few speak to the world about their work as though it were ground breaking, game changing stuff. As though it were a must read. That is to say, with conviction. On the other hand, people with the most trite books will be the glory hogs. Strange, but true. I think.

Now adding to culture sounds very grand. In its way, it is. (It could, however, happen accidentally, which is what I thin happened with Dan Brown's book...) But the first point - advertising - helps to make the second one - relevance. Because by failing to advertise, publishers are telling newspaper editors "We don't think this book is culturally relevant. Of course, if the book is held up by Lindsey Lohan to cover her face as she ducks past the papparazzi or if the author gets adopted by Brangelina, then it's relevance will have been proven (to our great surprise) and we will shower you with ad dollars."

Because, of course, cultural events can be manufactured - LIVE AID (or was it FARM AID) and American Idol show us this. SNAKES ON A PLANE was a manufactured event. Manufacturing events is a common thing. There are people who do this for a living - publicists, marketers, salespeople, etc.

What we need (besides advertising dollars) is for authors to whine less and promote more. I don't mean giving out bookmarks and doodads (though those things as well - in fact, my doodads will kick your doodads in the gonads...). I mean, figuring out the answer to the question few fans ask out loud: "Why should I read your book (instead of spending my money at the cineplex)?" Most authors, I think, would answer this by saying some variation of "I don't know, I hear THE 300 rocks..." (True, by the way.)

Oh, and merchandising. STAR WARS sippy cups MAKE the movie more relevant. That's a different post.

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Comment by Steven Torres on March 18, 2007 at 1:01pm
Sandra,
There are those who certainly push too hard, no doubt about that, but then they're usually pushing in the wrong direction, I think. I don't mean to have people pushing their books just to chisel money out of wallets. I mean pushing books as important in today's culture. I, myself, have often remarked to potential readers that my books are entertaining but not much more than that. If looked at honestly, though, I do believe my books are a bit more than that. I think there is usually a message. I should believe in that message as I promote. Not being preachy, but taking my own work seriously. Not sure the distinction will be clear...

Christa,
Imagine sippy cups that come filled with Puerto Rican rum as a merchandising opportunity for my Precinct Puerto Rico books. Of course, I only need one parent to serve it to their kids and then I'm pretty much screwed...
Comment by Sandra Ruttan on March 18, 2007 at 12:58am
Some great points here Steven. Advertising works, in terms of exposure. I repeatedly hear people say nobody (generalization, but the majority of the time nobody) goes into a bookstore and buys a book by someone they've never heard of. I do, but that's a harder thing to do now, because I've heard of so many people. I used to just pull books down, read the back (never been a big review reader) and decide.

An ad is one more form of exposure. See a name a few times you start to remember it. Plus we're conditioned to think that people invest advertising dollars in things they think are worthy products.

Now, about promoting more... It depends on how you promote. Some people squarely hit my "I will never read a book by you" list at conventions because they were so pushy. I left a list after the 'selling books from the trunks of cars at funerals' discussion.

I think we have to be careful and wise... but that's enough for now.
Comment by Christa Faust on March 17, 2007 at 1:25pm
I want MONEY SHOT sippy cups! Better yet, how about HARD MAN sippy cups? I'd be willing endure the horror of fast food to get my hands on one of those!

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