The elephant in the room

Renee James Contributor
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Let’s play a little game. Imagine you sell fruit for a living. All kinds of fruit for all kinds of fruit lovers. The good news is: you can stock a variety of fruit to bring in lots and lots of customers.

The bad news is you have lots and lots of choices to make about what kinds of fruit to sell and how much to keep on hand to meet the demands of your customers. If only you could get some help! Some resource you could rely on to give you a sense of what kinds of fruit people want to buy. That would inform many of your decisions and help you become a very, very smart merchant.

Wait just a minute. Turns out, there are a number of lists, widely published and available every single week, that report on sales of fruit. Over time, they illustrate buying trends, what the public seems to want, and could quite reasonably give you a very good sense of what kinds of fruit to stock in order to serve your customers well.

You, being smart and sensible, pay close attention to these lists and buy your fruit accordingly. Sure, you make sure you have a variety of fruit on hand, but you always have plenty of what people want over and over again. Kind of basic, right?

Now substitute the word “books” for the word “fruit” in the scenario described above and you’ll understand exactly why the story I read a few days ago in Publisher’s Weekly makes little sense to me. But then again, it didn’t surprise me either. Reporting on the popularity of the memoir category in independent bookstores over the Thanksgiving weekend, PW stated that the two most sought-after books were “the difficult-to-get The Autobiography of Mark Twain and the still surprisingly hot Decision Points…”

Really? I would have anticipated PW was at least moderately familiar with bestseller lists and what kinds of books claim the top spots fairly often. To satisfy my own curiosity, I tracked the top five spots on the Times bestsellers lists for the past 26 weeks — a total of 130 books. Here’s the tally of “conservative” vs. “liberal” tinged books: Nine authors (some with mass media exposure) filled 30 slots on the list that could be labeled conservative. Two authors (one with mass media exposure) filled eight liberal spots on the list. Another 43 spots were filled with books written by or about people on television or in films. The remaining 49 spots were made up of books about sports, science, sociology, history and commentary.

So there you go. If you publish or sell books, you read the lists and say to yourself: the largest, single best-selling category appears to be made up of books related to conservative thinking. And then you read the industry’s leading magazine and a story about how “Some booksellers, like a few political pundits, misjudged the enduring appeal of the former President…”

I guess they did, but the question is: why? Too bad they don’t have some kind of guide or tool or trend-tracker to help them place their orders for books more accurately.

It’s kind of a picture of the publishing milieu to some degree, though. As purveyors of information, the process shouldn’t be about ideology or affiliations of any kind. Based on nothing but revenue, sales figures and who appears to occupy the bestseller lists regularly, bookstores had every reason in the world to believe they would sell Decision Points at a brisk pace. Yet PW called the book “still surprisingly [after just one month of sales] hot.”

Let’s think of this in terms of fruit sellers again. It’s almost like they’re saying, “Sure, people seem to buy oranges, almost four to one, over the apples I sell. But I don‘t really like oranges and I don’t want to stock up on them.” That’s quite a business plan.

Renee James writes social commentary and keeps track of the things that mystify her on her blog: It’s not me, it’s you, found at reneeaj.blogspot.com. Her email address is raaj3@msn.com.