I’ve been cloistered all week at an idyllic writers’ retreat where the only fly in the ointment, as it were, is the number of mosquitos ready to feast on your flesh whenever you go outside. And maybe it’s the juxtaposition of all those writers with all those stinging insects that’s made me finally decide to write a post about something that’s been on my mind for awhile: the whole idea of Book Buzz.
Book Buzz is the weird phenomenon by which a book becomes the “next big thing,” the book everyone’s reading, simply because everybody is reading it. Everytime you go anywhere on public transit or sit in a waiting room, somebody’s reading that book. A friend calls to tell you you have to read that book. When you walk into your local bookstore you are presented with a human-high shelf display of that book.
I do not want to be one of those authors who gets all sour-grapey and insists that only trashy books ever get Book Buzz while all the great literary masterpieces remain unread. That’s patently untrue. Lots of great books get Book Buzz. So do lots of terrible ones. What seems obvious to me is that there is no correlation to be drawn — none whatsoever, either positive or negative — between Book Buzz and the literary quality of a book.
We’d like to believe there is … we writers, at least. We’d like to believe that good books get noticed and talked about because their genuine quality shines through. And maybe some of us even cherished that belief a little … until 50 Shades of Grey.
I had the pleasure once of doing a book signing in a local store right at the midst of the 50 Shades frenzy. Throughout the two-hour signing window as I sat there with my modest little work of local historical fiction, I saw at least a dozen women walk up to the that towering display and say, “Oh, look, there’s that … that Fifty Shades thing, isn’t that the one Sandra was going on and on about?” Well, OK, they didn’t all say Sandra, but many of these women knew little or nothing about the books — only that they’d heard a lot about them.
It’s so simple and obvious: what sells books is not literary quality. Or lack thereof. What sells books is people hearing about those books. Hearing about them in the media, seeing multiple copies face-out at the front of the bookstore, hearing from others who have read them. So the real question becomes not “Why do some books sell better than others?” but “Why do some books acquire buzz and others don’t?”
I can think of three factors:
1) Author name recognition. Let’s face it, if an author is already known and already a best-seller, his or her new books will get more attention. The most obvious example of this is J.K. Rowling, and I don’t say this to discount her talent, because I am a fan of all the Harry Potter books AND of The Casual Vacancy. I think she’s a very good writer, but there are lots of other good writers, some better than Rowling, whose books don’t get the sales and the level of attention hers get because J.K. Rowling’s name is not on the cover. She’s just proven this herself with the very intriguing episode of The Cuckoo’s Calling, the mystery novel which sold fewer than 1500 copies when it was released under the name Robert Galbraith, and jumped to the top of bestseller lists the day after J.K. Rowling revealed that Galbraith was her pseudonym. Did the book become better overnight? Of course not. What changed? People knew about it. They had heard of it, and they knew it was from a writer they liked and trusted. And millions bought it.
2) Publisher clout. It is a truth universally acknowledged — and if it’s not, it should be — that the bigger the publisher, the bigger the buzz. Small presses don’t have the money and influence to get their authors on Oprah, to get reviews in the biggest and best literary reviews, to get hundreds of copies on a big display in the major chain bookstores. And if small indie presses can’t do it, what do you think are the odds of self-publishers doing it? Incredibly slim. Not nonexistant — occasionally a book arises from the depths of nowhere to become the Buzz Book of the month — but you can bet the farm that the vast majority of the books that you hear everyone talking about and see everyone reading came from one of a handful of big publishing houses with a lot of money and a lot of clout behind them. (By the way, this doesn’t happen for every book that comes from a major publisher … each publisher has a few books each season that they push really hard, and many, many others get lost in the bookstore just like books from indie presses do).
3) An indefinable … something. There is definitely a factor to Book Buzz that lies outside either of the two factors listed above and is uncontrollable — just the unpredictable luck that links a book to a major event or news story, or brings an otherwise-obscure book to the attention of a famous person, or sometimes just causes a book to catch on with readers in a huge way. And you can’t always define why. 50 Shades of Grey was initially self-published online; the weird phenomenon of Twilight fanfic reimagined as a kinky romp becoming so popular online that its author was offered a traditional publishing contract became, in itself, the news story that propelled the book’s buzz. J.K. Rowling has name recognition now, but when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came out the book was not a major release or attended by any spectacular amount of buzz — Book Buzz grew as people read and enjoyed the book. But why that book and not any one of the many other excellent young-adult fantasies out there, just as compelling and well-written? Well, who knows. That’s where the crazy and unpredictable part comes in.
Of course every writer hopes that her book will be the one to stimulate Book Buzz and make it big, but in the absence of factors #1 and #2, you’re pinning all your hopes on #3 — and it’s a very, very, very long shot.
The good news is that a lot of books that never get Book Buzz are bought, read, loved and cherished by their few thousand readers, and that can be very rewarding for an author — certainly it has been for me. The bad news is that there are millions of other people who might also have loved those books, who will never know that they exist.