Until now, I have never paid any attention to the author’s name or who the publisher is. I look at the cover and read the back blurb and decide. I would love to browse bookstores and randomly pick up books and read a little bit of the story and pick it up. I prided myself in not looking at reviews or popular lists and recommendations and instead judge a book on its own merit. Until now, I, a well-educated, well-read person-of-color, believed that the story itself sells the book.
I was wrong; incredibly, utterly, and patently wrong.
My entire strategy and pride in being open-minded to any kind of story were based on the underlying assumption that all stories are being published. As a reader, I genuinely thought why wouldn’t the publishers want new stories and new ideas? No, they only choose stories that sell. Like any other business, they look at historical sales and genres and continue to produce similar stories. What’s wrong with that? Well, if you only look at historical sales, then you will only create the same drivel written by authors whose names sound similar.
Think that’s incorrect? This is one of the many reasons that authors use male-sounding nom de plumes or Caucasian - sounding initial-heavy names to have a brand that sells. Although I might not pay attention to the authors’ names, people do. Thus, those names and brands have their books present in bookstores more often than not because that’s what traditionally sells.
The problem with this approach is that new stories, new styles of writing, and non-Caucasian, female sounding names, do not get published or stocked in bookstores.
Maybe you think self-publishing and Amazon have solved this problem.
I thought so too. Indie or self-publishing has helped expand which stories sell. But this is still not good enough for traditional publishers, the numbers indies produce is negligible for them and they venture out with one or two authors of color but then they have to create books within a pre-approved framework. Veer from that, and you’ll be chided or dropped as a writer.
Amazon, Rakuten, and other online retailers allow anyone and thus any kind of story to be published, It may feel like an even-playing field, but advertising and search algorithms distort our individual internet realities.
The advertising budgets of publishing houses when compared to indie publishers are starkly different. It doesn’t take much to figure out who wins that game. Search algorithms are designed to show you books that you might like. This is partly influenced by your general searches, your personal information (demographic information based on your purchases), your previous book purchases, as well as what others with your demographics end up obtaining. To maximize the site’s revenues, the company presents products and books that you will most likely pick up. That means, new stories and new authors end up getting pushed down in searches and thus wind up gaining fewer eyeballs.
So, my initial assumption of searching randomly and picking up books, fails miserably.
My purchases are thus automatically influenced by publishers and site designers, whether I like it or not. The chances of me choosing an unknown author, an LGBTQIA, an author of color, new books, radical thoughts, are all low. The chances of me picking up “randomly” a popular book are much higher; even if I don’t look at names and reviews. Let me be perfectly clear, book sales have nothing to do with how beautifully the story is written, or how gripping the new story is, or the talent of the writer, but everything to do with advertising based on what sold previously. The market place is not equitable to everyone who adds a product.
Yes, it is slowly changing. But not fast enough.
To overcome such disparities, I am going to go out of my way to browse authors I don’t know, and pick up more books from authors of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA, and in general new concepts, ideas, and thoughts. I hope 2020 will be a year of new stories and fresh perspectives.
Disclosure: I became a writer two years ago and an author in 2019. No, I am not an overnight success. I’m finding out painfully that the story doesn’t matter, your talent doesn’t matter, advertising is the most important factor in selling both indie and traditionally published books.