Cyndy Aleo

Four Little Bees Writing & Editing

author, freelance writing, editing, and a little bit of web development, helping clients with content development, book editing, and blog set-up and customization

Do you buy books that are different or more of the same?

So I got a little annoyed with the two-day Twitter lovefest on the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks. That may seem a little bit out of character for me, but, to be honest, I've grown weary of what is rapidly being accepted as "clicktivism."

In clicktivism, people don't have to do much more than bang out 140 characters (minus the hashtag, and that's a nice chunk with that one) and they feel like they're doing something positive. Here's the thing: publishers and retailers don't give a rat's behind about your hashtag.

The last time this issue came up, I spotted Kensington editor Peter Senftleben pointing out that publishers buy books based on what has previously sold well.

Name me five NYT Top Ten Fiction books in the last five years NOT written by Khaled Hosseini off the top of your head (no Googling) and I'll grant you a pass on the subsequent roasting Senftleben received after his reality check.

The publishing industry is an ouroboros, and if you don't realize that, then congratulations! You are likely a person much less frustrated than I am, and probably with much lower blood pressure and much less er, lighter hair. In the past 10 or so years, there has been a ramping up of an expected pattern: an outlier breaks out big; publishers are jealous of the other pub's outlier; publishers buy more things exactly like the outlier.

Not sure what I'm talking about? Look at the huge boom in middle-grade wizard books after Harry Potter. The glut of vampire books in the wake of Twilight. And the current bumper crop of BDSM erotica that trail behind Fifty Shades of Grey. Publishers want to invest money in buying and marketing a sure thing. And evidence tells them diverse books are anything but.

So how does it work? Publishers put out titles and place odds on what's going to sell well, then put marketing dollars behind the ones they feel have good odds. Then they take these books to your Barnes & Nobles and your Targets and your Walmarts and these huge retailers place orders.

Guess what? A lot of the success or failure of a book is already determined RIGHT THERE. Before you even know that book is going to exist. 

Want to see what happens when Barnes & Noble decides NOT to carry your book if you are what they call a "midlist" author? Meaning one that doesn't get a whole ton of marketing dollars thrown at it? Look no further than Gretchen McNeil's story.

Note: You can probably now find McNeil's book at Barnes & Noble. However, read that whole post before you continue, because it points out the single salient point: fans of an author VOTED WITH THEIR DOLLARS. By pre-ordering and finding the book everywhere BUT Barnes & Noble, that giant behemoth was forced to carry the book -- or lose sales to other retailers who would.

What does that tell you about diverse books? Nothing is going to happen unless the MONEY changes. 

There are authors who will note that the books that sell are the books that have big posters up at book stores, and get end-cap, co-op table, and eye-level placement in stores. Those are the books with marketing dollars behind them, and the authors who point that out are totally correct. So who can change things? Who can get books about brown people and differently abled people and LGBTQ+ people on shelves?

You. 

If every tweet I've seen over the past two days had bought a title by one of these authors, the publishing industry would have sat up and taken notice. But tweeting doesn't show up on NovelRank, and that's what publishers want to see: numbers of sales. Period.

I can open my Kindle app and see at least 15-20 books right there without having to click on "Cloud". Some of these books I have pimped HARD on Twitter and when talking to friends. Yet when I look at "friend reviews" on Goodreads? There aren't a lot of people who even have these books on their "To Be Read" shelves.

The titles? At a glance? Emma Trevayne's Coda. Victor Lavalle's Lucretia and the Kroons. Kirstin Cronn-Mills Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix. Caridad Pineiro's The Lost. Ellen Oh's Prophecy. And Malinda Lo's books I got my teen in paperback... and signed.

If even ONE of these midlist authors writing diverse characters had the stock of their books cleaned out, or hit the #1 spot on Amazon's bestselling fiction list (and I don't mean the esoteric subcategories), the publishing industry would be all over it. 

Instead, you hear authors tell stories from agents who say they haven't been able to sell a gay main character. Who've trunked books about differently abled characters. Who write POC characters that either don't get sold or do, for tiny advances and low sales.

Go click on all those links I left up there. And then look at how many of those titles HAVE FEWER AMAZON REVIEWS THAN MY SELF-PUBLISHED BOOK.

Then ask yourself... what are YOU doing to make publishers sit up and realize we want to read those books? Because if we're buying the same thing over and over again, or we aren't looking past the front page or the end-caps or the big stores or we aren't reading these books and reviewing the hell out of them on social media sites to share them with others? We're missing a whole hell of a lot of great, diverse fiction that's already out there for the buying.