It’s a chicken-and-egg problem: if you’re not a famous writer, how can you become one?
A recent article in the New York Times online edition stated the truth: It’s hard. “Of the 10 best fiction bestsellers of 2020, nine were by established and bestselling authors.”
This reality is the bane of non-celebrities and new authors whose books can be as good – and probably even better – than those of many bestselling authors. But getting readers to pay attention to their books can be extremely difficult.
Large publishers who consistently pay big advances to their best-selling authors have every interest in spending the lion’s share (everything but leftovers, that is) of their advertising budgets on these books in order to make them a profit. Lesser-known authors get the crumbs, and the outcome is predictable. As the NYT noted, “about 98% of books published by publishers in 2020 sold less than 5,000 copies.” (And it’s the publishers, not the independent authors who publish their own works.)
Thus, publishers and lesser-known authors, whose books are unlikely to sell 5,000 copies, are struggling to overcome the marketing din of the Big 5 (Macmillan, Harper Collins, Penguin Random House, Hachette and Simon & Schuster). Plus, if a book isn’t published by them, or a few other greats like Norton, it’s unlikely to be reviewed in the New York Times.
Economist Robert Frank lamented in a Literary Hub article: âThe book market has become an extreme example ofâ¦ a winner-takes-all market. He added: âThe overwhelming majority of good books never generate significant royalties for their authors. “
“By far,” writes Frank, “the best indicator of whether a book of a given quality will become a bestseller is whether it was written by a previous bestselling author.”
COVID-19 boosted overall book sales in 2020, but most of the gains went to children’s books purchased by parents who were suddenly home-schooled and – you know – already top authors.
Additionally, COVID-19 has made it more difficult for new and relatively unknown authors to draw attention to their books. In-person book signings and author appearances have been replaced with Zoom, wiping out a lot of revenue for the bookstores that hosted these live events. The Times reported, âVirtual events can draw larger and more geographically diverse crowds, and they’re cheaper for publishers, but online audiences often don’t buy the book from the store that hosts them. Add to that the almost universal “zoom fatigue” that reduced attendance at virtual events after a few months.
It all reminds me of the saying, âEveryone complains about the weather, but nobody does anything. Unlike the weather, however, readers can do something about the imbalanced market that favors well-known bestsellers and writers.
Readers who wish to support wider success for authors may make it a point to research and read books from independent publishers. Sometimes it’s hard to know if the publisher of a book is a big house or a small publisher because the big guys have bought hundreds of once-independent prints. But a quick Google search can help readers figure this out. (Knopf, Doubleday, Pantheon, Rodale, and 271 other prints, for example, are published by Penguin Random House. Harlequin, Ecco, Avon, and William Morrow are now from HarperCollins.)
But how do you know if these independent books are good? While Amazon consumer reviews are a possible quality control, even there the big numbers tend to pile up in the Big 5 books, and some of the reviews are downright dumb. Instead, readers can search for book reviews by book bloggers, of which there are hundreds, many of whom specialize in particular genres. Most of them publish six or more reviews per month and can be found with a simple search on the Internet.
Another great source of ideas is your local book club (or clubs). Even if you’re not one of them, you probably know someone who is. Clubs are much more likely to choose word-of-mouth-based books, which means they’re not as likely to be swayed by the advertising budgets of the Big Five. Ask them what they are reading.
You can also make it a personal challenge to identify for yourself the names of small publishers who publish books you’ll like by less famous authors. Become a student of fingerprints and small labels. We all carry a Google search engine with us these days in our cell phones. So when you buy a book from a bookstore (Yay!), Check the source of that imprint. At home, you can check out Nonconformist magazine’s list of over 150 of these small publishers (https://tinyurl.com/ynj6r4vk). Take a look and see if any of them look interesting.
Some local and regional independent publishers are: Bamboo Dart, Pelekinesis, Curious Publishing, Jamii, Los Nietos Press, Sunacumen Press, Elyssar Press, and Garden Oak Press. You can find other independent California publishers at: https://writingtipsoasis.com/top-book-publishers-in-california/
Finally, Inlandia Books from the Riverside-based Inlandia Institute publishes and promotes local and independent authors and books. The nonprofit organization hosts many events each year featuring poets and writers who may never catch the attention of the NYT, but deserve your attention and patronage.
Marj Charlier is a Palm Springs-based writer. Her latest novel is “The Rebel Nun”, published by Blackstone Publishing, not a Big 5 publisher.