I’ve been in Huntsville, Alabama this weekend, attending ConStellation as their Literary Guest of Honor. It’s been a good con. They’ve treated me well and worked me hard, which is just as it should be. But that didn’t leave me a whole lot of time for writing my post, and so for that reason I’m going to take a one week hiatus from my various post-series that I have ongoing on MW right now (Writing and Fear; Ideas)
But I did want to comment on something that happened this past week (and was brought to my attention by our own Mindy Klasky). Amazon.com has started ranking authors by sales numbers — or “popularity,” as they put it. Apparently it’s no longer enough for the folks at Amazon to drive us authors to distraction with the sales rankings of our individual books. Now they’ve decided to rank us, too, to make us into yet another category to be quantified and compared. So, for instance, I read somewhere that William Shakespeare was ranked, like, number 89. In “Literature,” I think, or maybe in “Dead British Playwrights.” Or something like that.
So what’s wrong with this? Why does it bother me so much?
Well, maybe because writing is not a competitive sport. Writing sales are not a zero-sum game. And the quality of written work cannot be judged by its sales figures or popularity. Don’t believe me? Well, I’m fairly confident that the authors of Hamlet and A Light In August are ranked lower than the author of Fifty Shades of Grey.
But more than that, I don’t want to think about where I rank in relation to Faith and A.J. and Misty and my other author friends. Part of what I love so much about this career is the fact that, unlike some professions, my colleagues are not my competitors. Their successes don’t make it harder for me to succeed. If anything, our careers are mutually supporting. And I love being able to share good career news with the rest of the MW crowd, just as I love hearing of their triumphs. We root for one another; I wouldn’t want it any other way.
We also devote a great deal of times and energy to this site, a site designed to encourage and help aspiring writers, a site founded on the principle that writers who are developing their skills and building their careers are not our competitors, but rather our future colleagues.
No, there is nothing in these new Amazon rankings that will keep us from continuing this site or continuing to support one another. And for the record, no, I have not checked to see where I rank (either as D.B. Jackson or as David B. Coe). Amazon is free to post these rankings, and I am free to ignore them, to refuse to let them make me crazy (or crazier than I already am).
But the numbers are out there. And like the sales rankings of individual books, these author standings encourage consumers to equate “popularity” with quality, to compare books numerically (which makes about as much sense as comparing baseball players based on the spelling of their names). I live in a small college town that hosts one of the most famous writers’ conferences in the country. I’m never invited to work the conference because the people who run the conference view genre fiction as inferior to mainstream “literary” fiction. In a sense, they denigrate what I do because it is popular, because it is purchased widely by an undiscriminating public. Many in our genre face similar prejudices, and we complain about them all the time. It seems to me that Amazon’s author rankings encourage similar biases from the other side. Just as we should not judge fiction as inferior because it sells well, we should also not assume that the best books are those written by the top-selling authors.
Some of the greatest works of art our culture has produced were incredibly unpopular when they first were created; others were dismissed as not worthy of serious critical attention because they were popular with the masses. Popularity is a double-edged sword. Yes, I would love to be on bestseller lists, but I would not want to have people dismissing my work because of its popularity. And until I make one of those lists, I don’t want people ignoring my work because it has yet to be deemed popular.
The biggest problem I have with the Amazon author rankings is that they conflate sales numbers with creative merit — an equation we all know is faulty to say the least. And more, they bring more attention to those works that least need the publicity. Sure, those authors whose work is popular deserve attention and congratulations. Selling books is not easy; those who do it well have my admiration. But wouldn’t it be great if Amazon used its considerable reach and influence to shine the light of its commercial attention on works that maybe did not sell as well as their critical success would seem to warrant? There are plenty of such books out there (and they’re not just mine . . .). Do we really need another list to tell us that J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins and George R.R. Martin sell a lot of books? I mean, yes, they do. And good for them. They have earned their success. But I would love to see a different list, one that says “Here are ten authors you’ve never heard of who you really ought to be reading.” Rowling and Collins and Martin will still sell their books. And I believe that all three of them would be more than willing to share the spotlight with their deserving but less famous colleagues.David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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