Thursday, May 19, 2011


Last week I sent a book up to a relative, with a note attached saying, "Please, if you love this, tell a lot of people--this book really needs great word-of-mouth!" A few days later, she sent me an email, thanking me, but asking "Do you think this book won't do well?"

"No," I wrote back. "I think it will do well, but I think it will be hard to find the right audience. So we're counting on really passionate readers passing it to their friends."

"But if it's good," she replied, "Doesn't that mean it will find an audience without the readers doing the work?"

Well, technically, no...and this is one of the great conundrums I face every day as a reader. Do I tell you about the books I love that have already found an audience? Or do I make sure to sing the praises of the letter-known titles that need to find their way?

Working in the publishing industry, it's always a conflict of interest when you're asked to recommend books. I want the imprint I work for to do well, because that means greater success for the company, and greater rewards for me in the long run. But as a critics for TK and elsewhere, I spend my time assessing and reporting on books from other presses--and when I find something worth raving about, I wonder if all that raving I'm doing is going to come back and hurt my company.

And additionally, do the books that have already found an audience really need my praise? Over the last few weeks I've watched more and more of my Goodreads pals pick up--and devour with great pleasure--the three books of The Hunger Games, and it's brought me no end of joy to see that my recommendations worked out well for them. But does a hit series really need me to give it a few extra readers? Or should I have directed them to Big Girl Small, a great novel with a smart, edgy protagonist, that has yet to make it to the best-seller list? Doesn't one of them need more good word-of-mouth than the other?

Next week, Book Expo America (BEA) lands in New York, and with it come a slew of presentations and pushes to booksellers. Publishers want them to feature and promote those titles and authors that they have high hopes for in the next year, and they draw buzz by putting major authors in prominent places, hosting breakfasts, shaking hands, schmoozing at parties. But little authors don't generate buzz without big authors backing them up--big blurbs, big introductions. It becomes not about how good your book is, but who's capable of putting you in a prominent place for the buyers and the media to notice you. It frustrates me to no end that, in an industry that's all about creation, who you know becomes much more important than who you are.

But could it really work any other way? Could little authors turn into big authors simply because of word-of-mouth? When people start to self-publish e-books through Amazon, and self-promote through Twitter and Facebook, do they need all the fireworks of the fancy promotional push? If authors are willing to promote themselves--to push themselves as products to readers and publishers alike--then their future audience should be as reachable as those who rely on book review sections and endcap displays...right?

I'm not much of a pusher, and I can't do much beyond recommending the books that spark enthusiasm in me. But it seems like there's got to be a middle-ground between conversational recommendations and gigantic Book Expos, where authors of sizes and readers of all predilections can find each other and see what they're really up to.

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