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Jul 5, 2011

Plan to stop popular authors hogging bestseller list.

Coveted Balph Eubank award goes to Michael Dirda.

Let's face it, most of us are not half as smart as we may sometimes think we are-- and for intellectuals, not one-tenth as smart. – Thomas Sowell

H/t The Agitator.

Balph Eubank, "the literary leader of the age," is a character in Atlas Shrugged, who has never sold more than three thousand copies. He complains that it is disgraceful that artists are treated as peddlers, and that there should be a law limiting the sales of books to ten thousand copies.

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post book critic is complaining that authors who sell a lot of books, dominate the bestseller lists thus leaving no room for the sort of authors he likes. He’s calling for a policy in which authors would only be allowed to appear on bestseller lists once. He could be ‘taking the piss’ on this one but he seems serious, so perhaps he’s an intellectual:
No, my dislike of the list is directed entirely at the thing itself. I think it’s bad for readers, bad for publishing, and bad for culture. Above all, despite appearances, the best-seller list isn’t populist; it’s elitist. If there are a dozen slots, six are filled by the same old establishment names. …
The best-seller list functions, in essence, as a restraint of trade, a visible hand that crushes the life out of the literary marketplace. If one were to magically eliminate every form of the list, in print and online, as well as all those best-seller tables in Barnes & Noble, what would happen? People would spend more time browsing a bookstore’s stock, they would skim a page or two of various interesting-looking titles, and eventually they would plunk down their twenty dollars. In short, they would actively engage with a greater portion of our literary culture. …
What troubles me most, though, is the unfairness. Some writers, no matter how accomplished, have virtually no chance of gaining the readership they deserve. When’s the last time you bought a book by a contemporary poet who wasn’t a personal friend? With the partial exceptions of Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins, and a few others, even the most wonderful poet is lucky to sell a thousand copies of a collection that might have taken a decade to produce. The heart sinks. …
People often buy such junk for two reasons: Either they don’t know that better books exist or they are simply, lemminglike, keeping up with what the Joneses are reading. In an ideal world—ha!—we would be deeply embarrassed by half the nonfiction best-seller list. Far better to reprint the syllabi from various college courses. Do you really want to understand the Middle East or the greenhouse effect? …

It seems that the author has an inflated opinion on the effect that opinion and lists have on the book buying public. Probably the greatest factors in the decision to buy are, the authors previous books, and the précis of the contents on the cover. Some may take note of positive reviews if they read them at all.

Perhaps the most telling aspect to this article is the sneering comment, “Either they don’t know that better books exist or they are simply, lemminglike, keeping up with what the Joneses are reading.” Bestseller lists are nothing more than reports on which titles have done the best over a given time and are not in any way a guide to how good or bad they are. Going to a bookstore and checking what is in the ‘bestseller’ section gives the same information.

For a book critic, he gives the impression that he doesn’t spend much time in bookstores with the common herd, but prefers to pontificate from an ivory tower far removed from the lemminglike masses. Customers tend to look for something that will interest them, not for something that interests others, but a look through the bestseller shelves may be a good start for those who don’t have a preconceived idea of what they want.

Publishers will always go for the sort of books that they believe will sell, that’s just commercial judgment. Obviously a proven track record is an advantage for authors. Authors who are starting out have to turn out something that is good enough to convince a publisher that it is worth the risk of printing it. That is probably a better guide to the buying public than all of the reviews and expert opinions.


  1. Sounds like sour grapes to be. If the figures for the sales of Dirda's books were available I think you'd find him right up there with Balph Eubank.

    And it would appear the Pulitzer is going the way of the Nobel.

  2. I think you have hit the nail on the head there Bawb.

    I had the feeling that maybe he wasn't being totally objective there.