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Pull for the Underdog

by Anne Trubek

October 26, 2008

A method for socially responsible book-buying

Say you decide to spend some of your discretionary income on a good, recently-published novel. (Note: I won't blame you if you want to use what's left of your spare cash on food or rent.) When you go into a bookstore to browse titles, what do you look for? Catchy title? Cool cover? Blurbs on the back from authors you like? Hot author photo? An intriguing first line? An Oprah's Book Club sticker?Many of those are on my list, too, but I also look at a book's publisher and whether or not the writer is new to the literary scene. What's the method behind my madness? By practicing a simple, homegrown brand of socially responsible book buying, I can have a small impact-in my own financially strapped way-on the life of an author, the sustainability of a press, and the direction of literary fiction.The book world is struggling, particularly with respect to fiction. Major publishers have become exceedingly bottom-line-centric. Whereas debut authors have a relatively easy time getting a book deal-we all love the hot new thing-a writer trying to publish her second book is at the mercy of the sales numbers from her previous titles. According to one publishing industry blogger, if a writer has already put out a work of literary fiction, a press can essentially score their marketability: if the book sold more than 7,000 copies, the author is a star; if it sold between 4,000 and 7,000 copies, she is a "strong seller." If a previous novel sold between 2,000 and 4,000 copies, she may not get another contract. If she sold fewer than 1,500 copies, her next book will be a tough sell.Since so few people buy literary fiction, a few copies go a long way. Your purchases could help keep an author writing and a press publishing. Many laud the virtues of buying books from independent bookstores, and I'm all for that. I focus, however, on what I buy, not where I buy it-I may order novels from amazon.com, but I favor those published by independent presses or written by lesser-known authors (regardless of publisher). Each time you buy a book this way, you help preserve literary diversity.So when I need a book or to buy a gift, I take a few steps to ensure my money is well spent. If a book is selling well, or is highly touted-perhaps it's sitting on one of those tables right where you walk into a store-I walk right on by. I'll check it out from the library if I want to read it. When I am wandering the aisles with a few good candidates in my hand, trying to decide which to buy, a small press or a newer author is my tiebreaker.If your mother's birthday is coming up or you need something new for your night table-and the bigger if of whether there is a spare $20 bill in your wallet-give my brand of socially responsible book buying a whirl.As a special bonus incentive to try out my method, here are a few of my favorite small, literary presses and some sample titles to get you started.Presses:Soft SkullUnbridledGraywolf MacAdam/Cage AlgonguinSuggested Reading:The Wonder Singer by George Rabasa (Unbridled)The End by Salvatore Scibona (Graywolf)Get Your War On: The Definitive Account of the War on Terror, 2001-2008 by David Rees (Soft Skull)Leave a comment on the post and let me know how it goes.(Photo courtesy of Unbridled Books)
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Pull for the Underdog