Luck Be A Lady

There's an article in the Times today called "The Greatest Mystery: Making a Best Seller." If you're in publishing, it will tell you what you already know -- that is, nobody knows anything -- but if you're not in publishing, it's a concise little introduction to the gamble.

Saying "Nobody knows anything" is disingenuous, though; or at least, it should be more specific: "Nobody knows anything about what makes a bestseller." (This article is in the Business section, not the Arts.) Editors know what makes a good book, or we hope we do; like all readers, we get that tingle up our spine, that feeling of falling in love, that urge to tell everyone about this wonderful new experience -- compounded, in our case, by the desire to help the book be even better. But a book's quality is no guarantee of its sales, and conversely, things of what I would judge questionable quality sometimes sell very, very well. And of course, standards of quality vary hugely . . . from grown-ups to children, editor to editor, reader to reader.

I've always thought we don't need more market research, we just need better ways to connect readers to books that already exist: You love Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane; you're in the mood for an intelligent literary mystery with wit and romance; you input all this into a computer, and beep-boop-beep-beep-bop-boo, you're told to read Laurie King's Holmes-Russell books. Something like that. And, of course, we need to expand the market, to figure out some way to show all those people staring into space on the subway or watching infomercials for vegetable choppers at 2 a.m. that hey, you could be reading something that would interest and engage and surprise you instead, and wouldn't that be more exciting? (And then connect those people with the right books, of course.) (Though that might require market research, to reach them.)

So maybe a better way to say it is "Everybody knows what they feel, and loves a good book, however they define it." But after that: "Nobody knows anything."