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Making Books Interesting Again

Sometimes the news I hear from the world of publishing is depressing. Whether it's fake memoirs or authors getting book deals just because of who they are -- even if their name recognition could be described as nothing more than infamy -- it's easy to surmise that quality, and maybe even truth and authenticity, aren't very important. That's why a recent story about (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) as a tastemaker in books caught my attention.

According to a Wall Street Journal article, chose David Wroblewski's debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, as one of its best books in June. Not only did Amazon place it on its home page for two weeks with a 40% discount, but it also lined up a positive review from mega-author Stephen King.

Maybe this isn't the first time that somebody had equated Amazon with "amazing," but it certainly is a good example. The book's publisher, Ecco, an imprint of News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS  ) HarperCollins, has experienced such amazing demand that the book's going into its seventh printing -- another 90,000 copies -- just a week after its publication.

Even more interesting, a halo effect seems to be emanating for Amazon's rivals, too. According to the article, the fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS  ) said the book is also doing well there, and the bookseller has reordered more copies to meet demand. Costco (Nasdaq: COST  ) upped its order to 18,000 copies from the 3,000 it had originally intended to carry.

This wouldn't be the first time that a boost in sales for a publication has come from an unexpected source. Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX  ) could arguably act as a tastemaker in media with its small selections of books and music as well, although this Amazon example seems to take the concept to a whole new level of "blockbuster."

True lies?
The book publishing business is a difficult one; it relies on a few best-sellers to float the whole shebang. And the fact that publishers need those best-sellers so desperately is easy to link to some appallingly low literary moments.

Just consider the surge in memoir fakery over recent years (the kind you'd think anybody with half a brain could figure out sounded a little fishy, but maybe that's just me). Just do a Google News search on Love and Consequences and Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, and you'll find a couple prime, rather outrageous examples of some memoirs that probably sounded like potential best-seller-list winners because they included such shocking details. Of course, we all later found out that they really were over the top, since they took more than a few liberties with the truth.

And don't even get me started on James Frey having managed to get a book deal for his novel despite -- perhaps because of -- the reputation he got from A Million Little Pieces. Or the fact that O.J. Simpson's book, If I Did It, even exists. At the time, I found it sad to think such examples really prove that maybe there really isn't any such thing as bad publicity.

Such examples have made it easy to argue that these are dark days for the publishing industry, especially when the desperate search for possible blockbusters might result in chasing after sensationalism or notoriety rather than quality, truth, or pure literary merit.

What a page-turner
I haven't read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, so I can't personally judge its merits. However, Amazon's role in promoting a debut novel by an unknown author with what sounds like pretty outrageous success thus far lends some hope for the future of the publishing industry.

Meanwhile, more and more aspiring authors have been avoiding the big publishing houses and going the self-publishing route; Amazon's platform and role as media tastemaker probably bodes well for their futures, too, especially if Amazon's truly interested in mining for talent from obscurity. And of course, Amazon's also got its robust customer reviews and ratings, too.  

A dose of disruption may be what the traditional publishing industry needs to snap it out of some of the poor decision-making that seems to go on, and that disruption seems to be on its way.

The traditional publishing industry probably does need to recognize that there's a fine line between figuring out what's going to sell and simply being a sellout.  

For reading-related rants, see these Foolish articles:

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  • Report this Comment On June 26, 2008, at 10:44 AM, ajourneywelltake wrote:

    Yes, publishing the traditional route is getting depressing, but we're lucky in that self-publishing and using the internet and social marketing techniques levels the playing field with the big guys.

    In my publishing venture I intend to give it a good go and see where it ends up. I'm free to create my own marketing/branding/selling campaign, without waiting months and years for traditional publishing to decide if they want to move forward with a project. I have in years past been traditionally published, but at this point I prefer being at the helm. It's the way of the future.

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