The Veneer of Media

How hungry authors are manipulating the publishing industry

by Chris Ferebee, literary agent and partner with Yates & Yates, in Q.

Editor’s Note: This seven-part series explores the “veneer” of each channel of culture. It is inspired by the latest Q book by Jason Locy and TIm Willard: Veneer: Living Deeply in a Surface Society. If these ideas resonate with you, consider picking up a copy and diving deeper into this conversation.

The world I work in is a double-edged sword. One edge of the publishing industry is the romanticized notion of what the life of an author is like. The second is nowhere near as romantic as one hoped it would be.

There are introverted folks who never fit in, but publishing gives them a voice. Once successful, however, they’re no longer allowed to be the introvert because the world loves its celebrities. There are behind the scenes kind of folks who have great ideas, but mourn that those ideas aren’t voiced in public, so they publish in hopes of starting an important conversation. Of course, once that idea takes hold they can no longer be behind the scenes because every idea needs a public figure to champion it.

Then there’s another group that’s driven to get their message to the masses and have no problem being a public figure. This group wants notoriety and often has the resources to achieve it. Their starting place is, “How do I reach the New York Times Bestseller’s List?” An entire industry has emerged to help this group. Unfortunately, this group often finds that after they’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars to reach the bestseller list, it didn’t really deliver. They thought it would bring them a certain level of success or validation in their field. They thought it would mean every book thereafter would be a bestseller. It didn’t. The second edge of any double-edged sword delivers painful cuts.

Success Does Not Equal Bestseller

I was speaking recently with an editor at a major New York publishing house. I had a client make several bestsellers lists. Not just the New York Times, but USA TodayPublisher’s WeeklyWall Street Journal, Washington Post, ABA, Indiebound, even some regional ones like the Denver Post and the Los Angeles Times. By all accounts, this client’s book was a serious success, and not because of money spent making it so. The ideas presented actually gained traction. Conversation was stirred; “word of mouth” (that “musthave” and impossible to fake phenomenon) had actually taken root. If you wanted to be part of the conversation, you had to read this book.

Its success ultimately could be measured by its impact and influence on the audience it reached, not by its rank on various, and more subjective than you really want to know, lists. I wanted to know what the publisher was doing to tell this incredible success story so that the “word of mouth” would spread.

His answer? “We don’t really pay attention to bestsellers lists anymore. They don’t really mean much.”

Ouch. If “bestseller” doesn’t mean anything then how are we to define success in publishing?

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