Publishers can’t predict which books will sell and which won’t, but they have always had the power to tilt the field in favor of certain titles.
A large advance alone can create buzz around a book. And the publisher is going to work hard to recoup it with a large print run, intense wooing of the buyers for the chain stores, ARCs to all the influential reviewers, a media onslaught both online and offline, and by purchasing those crucial spots on tables at the front of bookstores.
But this kind of push is always reserved for a few select titles. Most books are fortunate just to get nationwide distribution. It’s not really a fair fight and it’s part of the reason why the same names keep cropping up on the newspaper bestseller lists – which, by the way, are calculated by sales to bookstores, not by what the customer actually ends up purchasing.
Readers can champion an unlikely book from an unknown writer and word-of-mouth can catapult it onto the fringes of the bestseller lists, but, without the kind of backing that superstar authors receive, most writers face an uphill battle.
Or at least, they did. Amazon is on the way to controlling 50% of the overall U.S. book market – not just e-books. This shift to buying books online offers more equality of opportunity.
Writers tend to focus on the power this has handed them – indies can upload their book to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple, sell it to readers around the world, and they don’t need anyone’s permission. But think of the power this has bestowed on readers.
In the past, if you discovered a great book – which had been published without fanfare – and recommended it to all your friends, they may well have had trouble finding it in stores. Sure, they could have ordered it and waited a few days, but most probably picked up something else instead.
But now you can send them the link on Amazon or Barnes & Noble where they can purchase right away. And if it’s an e-book, they can be reading it moments later.
A book’s success is always ultimately down to whether people buy it or not. However, now readers aren’t just choosing from titles that have been anointed by publishers. They don’t have to navigate past tables piled high with Dan Brown, Stephen King, and Nora Roberts, searching for other writers who may or may not be in stock. They can buy whatever they want, whenever they want, from the comfort of their home.
The overall effect of this is to further increase the importance of word-of-mouth, which can now spread more efficiently thanks to email, forums, and social networks. And the message can be acted on with just a couple of clicks.
While this won’t necessarily knock the perennials off the bestseller lists, it will give other writers a fighting chance. For indie authors especially, the playing field is leveling.
In the indie world, you hear a lot of writers talking about gatekeepers – a catch-all term for the role of agents and editors in deciding which books get to be published. Defenders of the system argue that readers need gatekeepers to pre-select which books are worthy of their time and money.
Someone really needs to tell that to readers. A quick look at the Amazon rankings will show you that indie writers currently occupy 100 of the top 363 spots in the Kindle Store. Once you filter out non-book items, such as games, magazines, and newspapers, roughly a third of the top-selling e-books on Amazon are written by indies.
That’s an astonishing number, especially when you consider that none of these indie books will have benefited from the increased exposure of being in bookstores across the country. They don’t have a publisher to push their books. All they have are passionate readers spreading the word.
The only gatekeepers readers need are each other.
David Gaughran is the author of If You Go Into The Woods, Transfection, and Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should. You can catch him at http://davidgaughran.wordpress.com