When Readers Hit The Wall

July 19th, 2004 · No Comments
by Booksquare

If you were to say to us “there are too many books in bookstores”, we would laugh. Probably politely, but we would laugh. We’d cover our mouth with our hand (that’s the polite part) and snigger away. We’d also think something along the lines of, “Is she crazy? Of course there aren’t too many books. It’s really more a matter that there’s not enough time.”

But we are not casual readers. We follow reviews. We spend hours in bookstores and online. We could probably build a new kind of eco-friendly house from the sheer number of volumes we have piled around us. With a little bit of creative engineering, we could heat, cool, and read while living, as they say, off the grid.

Casual readers, those popping into a bookstore looking for something to read, are probably a lot like us on those rare days when we enter Fry’s Electronics. Sensory overload. We don’t know if we should focus on the space aliens, the giant insects, or the humans massed in every aisle of the store (we should mention that not all Fry’s have aliens). Unless we know what we want and where to find it, we start to panic (at which point, the husband usually plants us by the laptop displays and tells us not to wander off. We mostly don’t follow instructions well.).

There are a lot of books published each year — far more than anyone can read. In Laura Miller’s New York Times article, she suggests this results in books of dubious quality hitting the shelves (interestingly, she points more toward lesser first novels rather than mediocre offerings from established authors; sure, they have their fan base, but a lousy book is a lousy book and readers drop out when they’re not satisfied). She points to economics — publishers don’t want to lose ground. These things we understand.

She also discusses a concept we’ve been thinking about quite a bit: Oprah books and bestsellers. Today, as we do every Sunday, we sat down with the Los Angeles Times book review section. As always, we were perplexed by the books being reviewed. Not that they don’t have merit; we often note titles of interest. It’s just that the LAT focuses on the obscure (though today they published their review of Bill Clinton’s My Life) — at least as far as what they review versus what appears on their bestseller lists. Though they do review some mystery, as a rule mainstream fiction is ignored. LAT readers aren’t given much information about the breadth of current titles out there.

There has been much talk about literary elitism and why people don’t read (we have yet another thought on this that we’ll be writing about soon). Devoted readers seek out sources of information about books they might be interested in reading; casual readers probably don’t. These are the readers who would benefit from having choices pushed onto them. That’s the Oprah effect. She finds books and tells people about them (then the message is reinforced ad infinitum). Casual readers can enter a bookstore with a plan. They are going to buy something specific. Maybe this gives them a sense of comfort and they browse more deeply; maybe not.

We think this is why television book clubs are doing so well for authors. Traditional print review sources don’t offer the same opportunities for variety, and, shocking as it is to us, not everybody is online and haunting review sites. We understand the NYT reviews will be branching out to genre and mainstream fiction, but we also wonder if casual readers have learned to skip the review sections of major newspapers because, while well written and interesting, the books don’t necessarily appeal to them. We’ve noticed that local papers tend to focus on more mainstream offerings, but they can only address so many titles.

We are not convinced that the problem is too many titles being published (though we might concede some trimming of lists isn’t a bad idea). Variety is important given the gamut of readers out there. But there’s a reason Harlequin romances sell to such a devoted base — familiarity. Readers know what they’re getting. But most publishers aren’t going to build brands in the Harlequin manner. Perhaps if casual readers were exposed to more reviews and discussions of books, they won’t be as overwhelmed when they encounter walls of books.

File Under: Square Pegs