This past Saturday night while channel surfing I came upon the movie Sideways. Even though I saw this great flick a couple years ago, it was well worth another go round, especially since writing and wine do tend to go hand in hand for me. The following Sunday morning, I opened up The New York Times Book Review and saw that they selected the ten best books of 2006, never mind that the year isn't quite yet over. Assessing the list, I couldn't help but think of frustrated writer Miles, the Paul Giamatti character, from the movie. What he would have given to be on that list, not to mention simply being published. He's not alone, though. There are many authors able to relate to his frustration and wonder what the secret formula may be for such possibility. Curious about that formula, I scoured The Times list to see what merited such a coveted designation. In part, the editors offer this explanation: "Given the diversity of the 10 books--in range and tone and sensibility--the points of convergence are all the more striking."
Striking, indeed. What is striking to me, however, is the lack of publisher diversity on this arbitrary list. Four of the titles are under Random House imprints, three under Penguin, and then one each for Scribner, which is a Simon & Schuster imprint, Harcourt and, finally, Henry Holt, which has a co-publishing agreement with The New York Times. Quite likely, your average Joe or Joanne will not pay attention to the publisher, but when one is somehow involved in the industry, it takes on a different significance.
This is not to say that none of these books deserves to be on this list. Actually, I have respect for the authors selected and appreciate any support that one can get when it encourages reading. I wonder, though, just what the criterion was for selecting these books. I decided to check back to 2005's top ten pick and discovered that Random House, which is a division of Bertelsmann AG, had a whopping seven on the list while Penguin had two and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, one. Gladly, 2004 was somewhat more diverse, with one university press (Oxford) being represented.
One may recall the reason Miles was given as to why his agent couldn't snag him a publisher: They just didn't know how to market his novel. The first time I saw the movie there were knowing chuckles throughout the theatre and I knew I wasn't the only writer able to connect to what Miles was being told. We were laughing then, but most of us have cried at the shortsightedness of publishers and agents.
It's a conundrum, for sure, because whenever I walk into my local bookstore, I immediately feel overwhelmed and frustrated. I am overwhelmed by the rows upon rows of books and frustrated that even if I were to live beyond my life's expectancy, I would never be able to discover the offerings from every one. True, there are many books published, so many so that their shelf life lasts barely a blinks time. Still, it is daunting to consider the number of books that do not even make it to those shelves due to lack of distribution by an independent press or an author's inability in finding a publisher. Competition is fierce, but so is the passion to write and need to be validated in the process.
I dare say if The Times made their standards a bit more interesting, perhaps by allowing a publisher one title only on the list, it would shake up the industry. It's not as though there aren't independent publishers with titles that are worthy of the honor; they just do not have the ability to reach a wider audience due to lack of, well, marketing dollars. They are the Davids going up against Goliath. A little help from The Times and other major outlets like them would encourage the spirit of independence and diversity, as well as possibly give all those frustrated writers, like Miles, a chance, however briefly, to see their book given an opportunity to be discovered.
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