Critical vs. Popular
As we gear up for a busy fall publishing season, we naturally start thinking about the fast-approaching awards season for books. A week or two ago, the longlist for the Scotia Bank Giller Prize was announced (the most prestigious Canadian literary award for fiction), and on September 11, the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize (The prize, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2008 after launching in 1969, aims to promote the finest in fiction by rewarding the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.) was announced, and those are just the tip of the iceberg! In just about a month, the National Book Awards finalists will be announced, with the winner being announced in November. In Ontario, the shortlists for the k-12 provincial reading programs (fondly referred to as the "Tree Awards because each of the programs is named after a tree) will be announced in October, and in November, the Governor General Award for Literature, and the Canadian Children's Book Centre awards are announced at a black-tie gala that is growing in prestige and popularity each year. Recently, my boss and I also had a discussion about review journals, where he asked me to keep a running list of starred reviews (in addition to prize nominees/winners) to post on the company website for our library customers. This got me to thinking about the two separate categories we tend to place books (much like movies) in- Critical-Authors/books that get lots of review attention, but goes largely unnoticed by the masses vs Popular- books like 50 Shades of Grey which everybody is reading, but are far from critical darlings. According to my boss, a starred review, or being on an award shortlist will guarantee an automatic sale for some libraries regardless of what it is. As a buyer, I have to be aware of and pay attention to the various awards in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., and I mentally classify my selections as a teaching book (one that is literary but probably won't be a popular choice) or a popular book (books that kids are certain to enjoy but won't be winning any literary awards). At our trade shows, I offer our customers a mixture of both, and while the "popular with kids" titles fly off of our tables, I find that the more "literary" or teachable titles need to be hand-sold, and often, the customers are hardly aware of- or influenced by reviews and nominations. With the growing influence of bloggers in the book community, and the ever increasing Social Media presence by publishers, what is our actual determining factor in whether or not to purchase a book by a new or less-familiar author? In my case, I find I'm largely influenced by recommendations from the friends, the Twitterverse, and blogs that I trust. I do take note of reviews and awards, but I'm much more interested in what non-industry people think! What about you? Do you count on reviews to help you decide what to read? Are you swayed by a starred review? Does it's presense on an award longlist/shortlist spur you to go out and purchase it? And as prestigious as an actual win can be for an author/publisher, does knowing that it won an award make you more interested in reading it? I'd love to know what you all think, so chime in with your thoughts on what (other than familiarity with the author/series) makes you decide to buy a book either for yourself, your library, your students, or your kids?
Rachel Seigel is the K-12 buyer at wholesaler S&B Books in Mississauga, Ontario. She also maintains a personal blog at http://readingtimbits.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter as @rachelnseigel.