The more I read and discover about how bookselling works, and how some folks want to change it while others want it to remain the same, the more mystified I am about certain elements of the sales and recognition system, most particularly the rubric of what constitutes success.
What constitutes great success in selling a book? Making a list. It’s not even making money, though that’s obviously an understood necessity. Everyone likes making money. But book sales success is making a list. Or, THE list (The New York Times, specifically).
From where I’m sitting, this has to be the most bizarre and short-sighted system in which to recognize an author and a book, topped only by closing one’s eyes and pointing at a bookshelf to pick Book of the Year.
Consider the ever-changing, completely nonsensical rubric represented by The List. An author releases a book, along with a few bazillion other people. Within a specific format or genre in the space of one week, this author sells more books than anyone else, and bam, this author makes The List. Could be 10 when everyone sold 6. Could be ten bazilliodrillion when everyone else sold 9. Whatever. This author sells more, and this author makes The List. Maybe her fans party like rockstars at the bookstore, storming the local chain store to find their copies of her new release, and stay up all night reading it, and then… the next week? If that author’s fans have all bought their copies and sales drop back off to a much lower level, that author won’t be on The List anymore. But that doesn’t matter! If that author made it once she gets to use the almighty banner of publishing power: New York Times Bestseller. Orders go up, the finest meats and cheese are brought in, along with the noise, and possibly the funk.
Now, I fully recognize that to make The List, we are talking some serious sales – but the number of sales that making The List represents could change by significant amounts week to week. It’s not as if there’s one threshold of success.
To make The List, in essence, a book shoots its wad in the space of a week, collapses in exhaustion, and that is what is held as the pinnacle of success.
There’s medication for that phenomenon for males, is what I’m saying.
But if a book starts off ok, and manages to make consistently good sales for years, never really hitting A List or The List, but hitting a threshold such that the author receives money in royalties for years and years… that’s awesome! No one sneezes as lifelong royalty checks. But there’s no measurement of success that accommodates or includes that longevity of sales. There is no cumulative indicator of success for books.
Conversely, and I do dislike comparing books to the music industry because nothing is ever that simple, but bear with me here: if a record album sells and sells and keeps on selling… it might reach gold status. Then platinum. Then multi-platinum. What’s more, everyone in the industry in the US knows what that means: Gold is (at this time) 500,000 units, platinum is 1,000,000, multi-platinum is 2,000,000 – cumulatively. The certification can vary by country and by region, especially because of population variances, but looking specifically at the US, there is a cumulative sales standard.
What’s more, songs are awarded gold and platinum status for downloads as ring tones. (You can see where I’m going with that, right?)
Yes, I realize that the RIAA certification has its own wtfery, and that platinum status for an album has been declared based on units shipped and not on actual sales, and yes there are flaws and blah blah blah yackety schmackety.
My point is: why is there no cumulative recognition for book sales? Why is there no measurement equivalent to gold/platinum status for books? Platinum record status means, to the consumer, a fuckton of copies of this CD exists in many, many cars and on many many iPods. LOTS of people are listening to or own this album. Why not a platinum book, which means a bodrillion people have or are reading it over the last few years?
Why is the highest pinnacle of book sales and recognition to shoot a wad once instead of long and continued turgid success? Why in the name of potpourri is success measured with so underperforming a stick? Why is there no measurement for cumulative sales for books so that authors and publishing houses can use that as an additional method on which to market current and future books? I would love to celebrate authors and books that maintain sales for years, whose books remain in print because they are discovered and rediscovered by readers. How is it not possible to acknowledge and celebrate those cumulative success stories? How do we make it so?