Have you ever bought a book because the display was beautifully crafted, there was a neat gift that came with your purchase or because it greeted you at the entrance of the bookstore? Have you ever purchased a book online because a search engine recommended it, perhaps a powerful description drew you in or a respected newspaper positively reviewed it? Now, have you ever picked up a lesser-known book by chance, and after reading it wondered why you haven’t heard more about it? If so, than like many readers, you’ve probably succumbed to the lure of business marketing at its finest.
Advertising, marketing, media promotions- believe it or not, every moment of our lives is affected by it. Commercials, online banners and product placement are all around us, covertly influencing your purchasing decisions. The writing world is no different. The best publishers are those who have the most influence over these favoring elements. Many people give into the beautiful cover or trending genre only to find that the pages between the bindings leave something to be desired. It’s how the world has been working for decades and you shouldn’t feel victimized if you were ever drawn into it. However, for book people, there is one service that we can do for readers and writers everywhere, and it is to not forget that there is epic plot, masterfully architected characters and brilliantly designed worlds waiting behind unheralded books as well.
I can still recall as a boy driving with my father in his rusty blue truck, a truck that I’m starting to believe that all eccentric fathers once owned, navigating through the streets of Chicago in order to pick up a new ironworking tool from some unknown manufacturer or the latest in entertainment technology (remember laser disks?). He wasn’t very vocal about it, but I strongly suspected that my dad always supported the under dog (side note: this made getting Nike shoes or the newest bike model a difficult chore). Eventually, as I grew older, I began to understand why he did what he did. You see, somewhere along the way, my father had learned…The Great Secret- the one that makes advertising firms and promotional companies shutter. He’d learned that just because something was popular, didn’t mean it was always the best.
Now before you start to build an image of me as a jaded small time author who is writing this article in hemp clothing with a computer made only from foraged scrap metal, let it be known that I’m neither speaking about myself nor am I a “down with the system” rebel. Personally, I write to write, and understand that I am to the book world what a monkey with symbols is to professional comedians. More importantly than that though, I understand why we go with popular books. It’s the same reason we rely on prevalent companies or products. Often, they’re tried and tested with dependable consumer satisfaction. Readers don’t want to spend twenty dollars and hours of their time reading a book that collapses at the end. They want something worthwhile that they can discuss with friends and family. All that I’m asking is for us to try to remain aware that when we are making book purchases, we aren’t letting publishers and sales teams blur the line between well-written and well-marketed works.
Consider this. In 1965, American writer John Williams wrote a modest novel called Stoner. The book received little praise during William’s life, and was out of print only shortly after its publication. Williams would die never knowing that he had created one of the most prolific and expertly composed novels of all time. That is until July 5th, 2013 when renowned British novelist Ian McEwan appealed to the public on the Today program hosted by Sarah Montague. After McEwan’s petition to readers, Stoner captured the imaginations of people everywhere, going on to become the 2013 novel of the year. Several other quieted authors and books have had similar late recognitions of greatness, from the revival of all of Irène Némirovsky’s works to William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, Nightmare Alley. These books and authors, some of the most excellent literary specimens of the century, were drowned out or forgotten during initial production.
Now consider this. Within the last decade several major publishers including Bantam and Random House have heavily marketed several of their books, using advanced copies and advertisement to push success. The titans of the publishing world forecasted that these novels would be the latest to break book-selling records across the world. Books like The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist, Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier, and Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra not only failed to live up to their expectations, but also were unable to recoup millions of dollars that were invested in promotional advertisement and initial prints.
So, as you can see, not all big name books are brilliant, nor are all unknown authors deserving of their fortune. Most books, be they magnificent or not, are partially a product of circumstances. While it’s true that many top selling books deserve to be celebrated, we must also remember that sometimes it’s not always about great writing as much as it is about great marketing. Once in a while, we need to take a chance with the little guys, who can every so often be just as good as top sellers. Finally, in the spirit of supporting the smaller, but possibly just as well written books, I leave you with the wise words of contemporary Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami. “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
GREAT BOOKS YOU MAY NOT KNOW ABOUT
By William Lindsay Gresham
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By Edward Erdelac
By Ivan Goncharov
As some of you might know, I am also a volunteer grant writer and program assistant for a wonderful organization called GiGi’s Playhouse, a group that assists communities with Down syndrome. If you can, please donate by using the link below.