Notebook: January 25, 2019

From Ann Kjellberg, editor

Who decides and how what books get published? It’s always been a bit of a mystery. It’s plain, as with movies, that no one has a magic formula: books that publishers bet big on flop, books that publishers did not anticipate would do well take off, careers that seemed to languish turn around. In the lively and eclectic world of self-publishing, writers often argue that editors at the major houses are out of touch with their readers and miss waiting audiences, especially in the so-called genres, like mystery and science fiction and romance. Writers of published genre fiction have been overwhelmingly white, but self-published writers of other ethnicities have proved that non-white readers have been waiting to see their experiences in such books.  As Sarah Smarsh, author of a recent best-selling book on growing up in a working-class community in Kansas, said in a recent interview: “If you never see your place and your story validated in narrative, you’re less likely to be a book person.” Just this week Wattpad, an app that allows writers to upload their stories and develop a circle of readers, which has been particularly friendly to so-called “fan fiction” (fiction written around existing characters in other books or films or shows), announced that it is developing a book arm, which will use “machine learning” rather than human editorial selection to chose its authors. The pros’ understanding of who the audience is sometimes seems circular at best.

A scholar named Laura McGrath cast new light on this question this week in an article for The Los Angeles Review of Books pulling back the curtain on one revealing publishing industry practice: grouping books with “comps.” “Comps” (“comparables”) are other books that have done well that resemble in one way or another the book under consideration.  When authors submit a book to a major publisher they are asked to provide comps that will demonstrate that a book like theirs will sell; editors develop the list to persuade their bosses and colleagues in marketing and sales that the book has an audience; and then when the book is presented to the sales reps who sell it to bookstores the comps help them describe who the book’s readers can be expected to be.

McGrath is a researcher at the Stanford University Literary Lab, which uses computational data to study literature. She analyzed seasonal catalogs, which the publishers use to present, their books to the press and to booksellers, from the “Big 5” publishing conglomerates, to see what comps, which are listed in the catalogs alongside descriptions of new books, have to say about publishers’ priorities. She also spoke with editors at the Big 5, who reported that, internally, strong comps, and the retrospective sales figures they invoke, are very important in editorial decision-making. Her premise: “Comps are evidence of what the publishing industry values.”

Unsurprisingly, she learned that the major publishers are very conservative, go with work that resembles work that has sold well recently, and lack mechanisms for promoting internally a book that defies categorization.  She also learned that publishers return to the same comps repetitively and these are overwhelmingly written by white authors and treat themes related to the experience of white people: nine books out of the 225 most frequently sited comps are by non-white authors. She considered an annual Publishers Weekly survey that has found only very gradual improvement in the diversity of editorial staffs in the publishing industry. The lesson of the comps, McGrath argues, is that even if you diversify editorial staffs, the practice of appealing to sales history through comps, the narrow dependence on past book performance and the superficial analogizing, dooms editorial decisions to very narrow range of yeses.

How smart of McGrath to zero in on this under-reported aspect of how we get to read what we read. The broad lines of the argument can be expanded to other forms, now that journalists and editors in the press, for instance, have more and more detailed information on their readership: the more data we have on what has done well in the past, the greater the temptation to go with that, the less incentive to try something new or challenging, especially when times are lean (news outlets saw huge layoffs this week, prompting another round of agonized reflection on how the work of writing, especially when it does not deliver an immediate commercial payoff, will be renumerated in a digital economy). That one has lots of cavils shows how rich the argument is.

A strong immediate reaction to McGrath’s case came on Twitter from Patrice Caldwell, an African-American editor and founder of People of Color in Publishing, who has worked in a commercial house.  She argued in a fascinating thread that comps often have given her the opportunity to make a strong case for books her colleagues might otherwise regard with skepticism.  Indeed in McGrath’s own example of Celeste Ng, the publisher did not ghettoize her book Everything I Never Told You as one for Chinese-American readers but, through the comps, compared it to family sagas in other communities, hence potentially expanding its audience but also, as Caldwell points out, sidelining its Chinese-American readership. (Ng perhaps forced her publishers’ hand by writing an essay entitled “Why I Don’t Want to Be the Next Amy Tan” before her first book was even written.) In reading we both see ourselves and learn about others: a truth that, in a divided country, arguably pulls the book industry in two directions.

McGrath does observe other trends showing diversification in the reading world, such as the strong representation of all sorts of communities—African-American, Latinx, Asian-American, international—in recent years’ National Book Awards.  She dismisses these as “exemplary” rather than “representative,” but is that distinction really tenable?  Statistically books published by the Big 5 are weighted toward those big sellers like James Patterson or Nora Roberts that are reliable earners for publishers and dominate sales. But those books are arguably pretty limited in their impact on the culture. Angie Thomas and Jenny Han may not match the blockbusters in total numbers but they expand the reading experiences of large audiences and move the conversation in ways that seem in a different category. Who is doing the reading is not an irrelevant question.

Many observers have noted also that the books appearing at the NBA disproportionately represented smaller and independent presses, and that this was reflective of the fact that the commercial forces bearing down on the large houses make them risk-averse and draw opportunities for invention toward the independents. (Among the finalists for the PEN awards, announced yesterday, eighteen of the forty books were published outside of the Big 5.) These books may not have stratospheric sales but they are the books considered seriously by critics, the books that will appear in curricula and be read by the writers of the future. Their authors may not be making vast fortunes, but it may be worth isolating them as a different economy and asking, Who is able to make a living? Who is able to reach a new audience? And the small and independent presses by all accounts make their decisions the old-fashioned way.  I asked editors at several smaller independent houses and they scoffed at the notion that their editorial choices were driven by comps: Barbara Epler of New Directions, for instance, said succinctly, “They are beyond reductive and beneath contempt” and quoted Oscar Wilde, “Comparisons are odious.” Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus and Giroux (which is owned by Macmillan) said, “We are looking for books that aren't like others!” These editors cook up comps, at the insistence of distributors and sales reps, with greatest reluctance.

(A moment of sympathy for the sales rep: As a person who has worked both in a bookstore and as a book review editor, I feel one must acknowledge that, given the vast output of the publishing industry—the utility of which one could question on, though doing so might limit even further the viability of the unexpected work—people looking at new books, readers and professionals, have to make fast choices. What to consider for a reviewer, what to face out on a shelf, these decisions are constantly being made on limited information. I never paid much attention to comps, but I have paid attention to blurbs, another widely reviled custom; they help me to understand what sort of person is gunning for a book. So—understood: if we want to find more readers we have  sometimes to make things digestible for them, this is part of our job. But we need to do this in ways that are in sympathy with the growth of new writing, not hostile to it.)

To return to the independents: One reader cited on Twitter statistics that editors of small publishing houses are also overwhelmingly white and publish books by white authors. But one could point to the resurgence of interest in poetry, which is driven substantially by authors of color and by readers discovering poetry as a vehicle for hitherto unrecorded cultural experience, as a sign that commercially humble corners of the publishing industry are having a significant impact. There is, to me, an interesting question embedded here about how narrative forms (in poetry and fiction) are more amenable to conveying a community or historical experience. Avant-garde writing may not deliver such a direct payload when it comes to lived experiences, and houses that draw on that tradition, partially as a result, may not be diversifying as quickly. Digital community-building has in many ways been kind to those who are committed to the strenuous and obscure in literature (present company included), but the attention of such work is more on internal transformation than social change—not mutually exclusive, but not identical either. The two do come together though from time to time. Witness the great James Baldwin, and Barry Jenkins’s formally inventive film of If Beale Street Could Talk—ambitious work that stretches formal conventions and serves world-bettering ends.

McGrath’s argument raised for me a host of other questions. What share are white readers of the book-buying population? Of the submitting writing population? In a culture in which access to education, to leisure, to disposable income, to professional development, is so inequitably distributed, is it surprising that consumers from the dominant culture have a disproportionate influence on what gets published? As an editor I often tried to recruit new employees from more diverse populations, but the abysmal pay, limited job security, and punishing work hours were not much of an inducement in communities where a person with the relevant education has in all likelihood bound their future to overwhelming student loan debt. This set of practical realities, which has analogues in the business conditions for small publishers and independent booksellers and journalism, is inevitably limiting not only the range of ideas that publishers commit themselves to but also the vitality and diversity of their audience. In our Notebook of January 3, we noted that other countries have policies that support the book business in part by nourishing the reading public.

One editor in McGrath’s study said, “There’s a limited number of readers for a book like that, and you kind of know who they are”—but do you? Just look at Fifty Shades of Grey, or other books that found rejection, wildfire success when self-published or published modestly, and made fortunes when published commercially. The ecology of how writing finds its way to us is—fortunately—more complex than the more reflexive practices of the Big 5 disclose. Hundreds of thousands of people have read Elena Ferrante and tens of thousands Karl Ove Knausgaard. Authors recognized by the National Book Foundation travel to schools and libraries and festivals across the country. Authors nurtured by small publishers find their way to commercial success. Cultural impact is not always measured in units sold.

After brooding on this for a while I came to rest hope in the end with the strategies of Caldwell, who is using the methods of the commercial houses to lever new work into national attention. But to me the real solution rests in developing policies that give all Americans real opportunity to read and to learn—to go to school, to study curricula that develop students as independent minds and engaged citizens rather than low-wage employees, to have jobs that do not consume their waking hours and leave them exhausted, to have supportive childcare, to have a neighborhood bookstore that is not threatened by commercial rents, to have job opportunities in publishing and bookselling where health insurance is supported and nearby homes are affordable, to have policies that protect independence in publishing and distribution from predatory monopoly (see our Notebook of November 23). It’s changes like these that will bring us back from our current precipice where reading and learning, its pleasures, its consolations, and its benefits, seem confined to a walled island. Data analysis of publishing can only take us so far in that direction, but it does open a window on some of the processes that are holding up the walls.

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