The paragraphs ahead are about to get a little ranty, and when I rant, I’m not always right. Consider yourself warned.
The paperback sections of Walmart and the grocery store aside, my nearest bookstore is a big chain store, and it’s a twenty minute highway drive. For a thirty-five minute stretch plus the cost of parking, I can hit a fantastic independent place full of overstocks, clean second-hands, and an organic tea and smoothie bar.
I’ll admit, I do enjoy the big store. It’s hard not to; it’s got a lot of stuff. But every time I walk in, both my inner writer and reader cry a little. We internally cringe, do a little shudder, and then move on. If you’re with me on this excursion, I commentate the opening entrance sequence. I’m sorry, I can’t help it. I’m going to pick up and put down half a dozen books while simultaneously saying, “what is this? Why are they shoving this down my throat?”
It’s not even necessarily about the books themselves as much as the imminent feeling of being funneled toward what I should be reading.
Big box bookstores, much like the publishing industry itself, are driven by a mass agenda. And rightfully so - their bottom line is staying in business. It makes sense to sell what sells. But, I still can’t quite put my finger on why I walked into a big box bookstore recently and got a little cringey when I saw my first Book-Tok table: an actual table that advertised as “Book-Tok Finds!”
On one hand, it’s how the industry perpetuates more of its own for the sameness of hook, line, and sinker. You liked books A, B, and C? Well, then, you’re going to love C, D, and E!
On the other hand, if you liked books A, B, and C, well, then, awesome, you’re probably going to love C, D, and E.
But, here’s where it gets a little more complicated.
Let’s say you’re a writer, having finished a polished draft of your new book. It’s got a fresh voice, unique story, and it’s pretty damn original. You’re agent shopping. Rejection after rejection, you’re hearing the same thing: “I really love it. But, I just don’t know how to sell it in this market.”
It’s because the market has us by the neck. Fifteen years ago, circuses were in, but now? Circuses are out. Vampires were in, then vampires were out. Let’s say you’ve recently picked up Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus AND only just became aware of The Twilight Series; both highly popular books/series in their own rights. You start writing furiously and one NaNoMeePo later, you’ve got a gorgeous mashup of your book baby, The Vampire Circus.
Ain’t gonna sell. Book-Tok and the big-wigs say otherwise.
It used to be that we could walk into a bookstore and go to a particular section. Libraries had this same system: fiction, non-fiction, mystery, horror, young adult, etc.
Now, there’s a table and a table tent for each subsection that the big publishing houses dictate. I’m seeing more, but buying less. Books have to fit into divided niches like never before.
“Hello, does your voice sound like A, B, or C? Those are our available tables for 2022.”
I cringe to think that the market is dictating what’s being picked up by traditional publishing houses. I also don’t truly believe it, and I’m seeing the proof of that in our very own writing community. There are writers every day whose unique voices defy the odds. But, for those who don’t get a seat at the tables, where do the books go?
The answer is not, should not, be indie publishing. Indie publishing is, in my opinion, another different, yet equally valid, viable, alternate avenue to traditional publishing.
Is it the smaller publishers? The ones whose voice isn’t as loud? Collectively can we sway the big voices and squeeze in a table?
Should we have to?
I was talking to editor Fred recently, and he made a comment about what he heard at a giant standard bookstore. Employee one was talking to employee two. The conversation went something like this:
One: “You know what the number one seller is at this store?”
Which basically negates this entire blog post, because manga sits at the back of the big stores, undisplayed, with no tok-tables, and, according this Employee One, blows away the competition.
Maybe there’s hope for the other voices, yet.
This heart's up to you. What do you think? Rant away below, on our Instagram page, or our Twitter account! P.S. Our next LCP Issue publishes on Friday, January 28th! Look for it on the website or in your inbox (subscribers only!).