Judging a book by its cover

Sleights of hand surrounding marketing in the book publishing industry are crumbling during COVID-19. Opening the pages of that book reveals an industry for how it’s long been. Now, more than ever, we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, not, if we want to reveal a more diverse, equitable world for everyone.

During the Great Depression, publishers encouraged book sellers to buy more books and take chances on unknown authors by offering them the right to return unsold books for credit. It seemed like a win/win for everyone, until publishers began to overprint and over exaggerate book demand, and book stores over ordered with impunity.

Fast forward almost eighty years. Book publishers with deep pockets now capitalise on this situation by routinely paying bookstores to display heaving piles of eye-catching books to imply huge reader demand. But it is strategic store placement, not the number of readers, that is driving sales.

Turning another page of the publishing industry’s book reveals the downside of this practice—huge quantities of unsold hardcover, softcover, and the torn off covers of mass-market paperbacks being shipped back to warehouses at the publisher’s expense. While undoubtedly some are reshipped to new bookstores, many get pulped and destroyed.

Reading further we discover that some, but not all publishers, distribute the largest volumes of print books to book sellers known to report their sales to the major bestseller lists (many who take their metrics from the number of books ordered, not from the number of books purchased) in a simple secret to rank highly as a top seller.

Global online retailers also play a mischief game with the book buying public by cataloguing books into obscure genre categories so their sales performance ranks higher. Much of this ranking depends on whether the platform has published the book themselves (yes, Amazon is also a publisher) or whether the author or publisher has paid for advertising.

Overwhelmingly, it’s marketing tactics are driving reader appetites, not the quality and diversity of the written word.

Hardworking authors—especially those addressing matters of enduring importance—should not have their voices obscured by marketing tricks and trends. They should be able to trust that their books will be judged on their merits, not on the weight of marketing campaigns. And, every print book should find its way into the hands of a reader, not into the teeth of a pulping machine.

Now COVID-19 appears to be changing the publishing landscape in unexpected ways. More publishers are gravitating towards small print runs or print on demand services. For many, like Stormbird Press, this is to prevent waste and to boycott the outdated returns system. Some big bookseller chains are decentralising their buying, leaving it to individual stores to decide what to stock, rather than cashed-up publishers dictating what books grace the displays at the front of stores.

As lock-down encourages a surge in reading time, and piles of ‘must-reads’ on bedside tables lessen—independent publishers are seeing healthy numbers of book orders gradually return, and small presses, like Stormbird Press, are relishing the experience of having their books judged by their merits, and not their marketing tactics.

Let’s hope this is an emerging trend continues, because a world filled with diverse and different words is a richer world for everyone.

Inspired reading!


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