In the midst (still!) of what looks to be the longest-running story in the book business in some time (Clifford Irving, anyone?), many issues seldom raised outside of publishing circles are suddenly under solemn review. Publishers are not only revisiting their editorial strategies and marketing campaigns, they are examining their fundamental assumptions about truth, fiction and the role of "story." Booksellers and libraries have embarked on explorations equally profound and central to their role—how to shelve books—and both trade and consumer publications are pondering how and where to rank a certain memoir-turned-novel. (For the record, and for the moment, PW is not making any changes with respect to that book.)
If nothing else, you-know-who has prompted an industrywide identity crisis.
But while industry folk and the people who love to talk about them—at least once in a while—ponder the bigger questions, a cooler head might see them all as one spectacular manifestation of a very old and really rather simple publishing problem: How do you define and market books, and what are the up- and downsides of doing so?
Fiction or nonfiction? Novel or memoir? That should be the easy part, and we can only hope all the recent hand-wringing will clarify the distinctions that have gotten blurry of late. But a far more common—almost everyday—problem for publishers and booksellers is determining which books should be aimed at which niches, and which niches are most likely to buy.
The debate over labeling has to do with self-perception, but it usually comes down to something far more concrete: bestseller lists and how to get on them. For example, most major houses have now started African-American and/or Latino and/or politically conservative imprints, with distinct editorial missions, but none wants to be ghetto-ized on, say, a separate bestseller list. As for religion (aka "faith-based" publishers), on a recent trip to Nashville I heard executives at Warner Faith, Integrity and Thomas Nelson argue both sides. Shouldn't their books—some of which have sold 200,000, 300,000 and 400,000 copies—be classified as "general" fiction and nonfiction, so they can sit at the big kids' table where, say Joel Osteen's Your Best Life Now and Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Lifehave seemingly permanent seats? Or is it better for them to have their own bestseller lists to raise general brand or genre awareness?
The answer probably depends on why you're publishing what you're publishing, and which lists you think your titles might get onto—Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous, for example, is notoriously tough to crack—but at least it's a question people are asking. There are other niche questions as well: Does the YA designation turn away potential readers? Is so-and-so a black author? Is such-and-such for Latinas only? When does targeting equal narrowing?
These controversies will probably never galvanize the likes of Oprah. But at least they're on the minds of publishers and booksellers—and have been, since long before the publishing world was broken into a million little pieces.
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