Magic. Books are full of it. For real. I don’t mean this as a metaphor. I mean actual supernatural powers and every single book ever written has them. I think it has to do with why we write. No author I know sits down thinking: “I’m going to write a book for everyone.” We put something on paper because we think it’s awesome and we do it for people like us who’ll go: “Whoa! That’s awesome!” You write a book for people who will dig that book. It’s simple, but that’s where the magic is. It works every time. The people who love a book always love the book. It sounds silly, but it’s not. It’s magic. Every book is someone’s favorite book, for as many reasons as there are people.
The tricky part, or course, is to find those people. In theory at least, it doesn’t even matter how big a group that is. There are enough people on our planet for every book to sell well, but whether you find the right ones is what makes a book a success or a failure. There are a billion ways to do that, but they can all fit in one of four categories: marketing, computers, people, and luck.
Marketing and algorithms work in different ways but a lot of it has to do with statistics. There are two ways to measure how well you’re doing reaching your audience: precision and recall. Precision is how good you are at picking the right people, recall is how many of them you reach. Sometimes, they go hand in hand. If you write a technical manual for bridge engineers, you can market your book to the World Association of Bridge Engineers (I made that up). Boom. You’re done. It’s not that easy for fiction and it’s almost impossible to target only the right people when a book doesn’t fit inside a well-defined box, even if those books are often the best ones. Whatever a marketing strategy or algorithm lacks in precision, it will try and make up for in recall by reaching as any people as possible. OK, so I can’t reach only people who’ll like this epistolary first contact story told exclusively in dialogue with a giant robot that you never see, but if I cast a wide enough net, I can probably reach enough of them. It’s easy to understand why books with a larger target audience, or those that fit a particular mold, are easier to market. Algorithms also prefer them because, short of a miraculous way to target the right people, the return for showing those books, even at random, is always greater. And if you sell enough copies of something, it doesn’t even matter if most people like the book or not. Sell ten million copies of something only 10% of people really enjoy and you have a million fans who adore the book and will tell everyone they know about it. Now you have another thing working for you: people.
People are great at precision, way better than any marketing strategy or algorithm. People who know books are even better than that. They’ll put the right pair of eyes in front of the right book and let the magic happen. That’s why you’ve heard lots of people saying how much we need bookstores. We isn’t everyone, of course. The Obama book would do well without, so will the next Game of Thrones, etc., but for everyone else, the difference between success and failure is a handful of booksellers who champion a book and help it do its thing. That’s especially true for debuts. Booksellers – not the store, the people inside it – are the difference between rent and no rent, the next contract and no next contract, giving up on doing the thing you love or continuing to make magic happen. Unfortunately, bookstores were closed everywhere this year and those that were open saw only a fraction of the people they normally see. What that means is all the books that weren’t well suited for algorithms and don’t benefit from big marketing budgets were left with only one way to reach their audience: luck.
A few got some. A few always do. But most didn’t. They were left with social media posts drowning in all the political noise that plagued this plagued year. That’s if they made any. It didn’t feel great to shout: “Buy my book” everywhere while people were taking to the streets to beg for the right not to be killed by the people tasked with protecting them. It didn’t feel great to ask a friend to buy your book when they’d just lost their job. Whether authors tried or not makes little difference. With the stakes so high on the world stage, with our daily lives being upended, it’s only normal for books to have taken a backseat, but it doesn’t change the fact that many debut authors saw their hopes and dreams crushed by the latest insanity they could see on the news. So many books published in the last year and change didn’t get the attention they deserve. So many gems went unnoticed. So much magic was lost, wasted.
It’s not all bad, because you – yes you, not the general you you find in these things. You, right here, get to make magic happen. Buy books from your favorite bookstore and, when they open, tell the folks inside it how awesome they are. Then, ask them to find you a pandemic debut. For real. Use these words. I’m willing to bet good money they already have a few in mind. And publishers, launch them again when things get better. There are no rules. Let’s give these books a second, and third, and fourth chance if need be. Let’s not let all this magic go to waste.