Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Looking for undiscovered gems in a bestseller world

This is going to be a long post, but please bear with me. I hope that you'll read it, because I think it's an important issue. Also, if you stick with me until the end, I have something that you can do to help out!

Over the last year or so, I've become increasingly frustrated with what seems to be a growing obsession with the "bestsellers" and the "big books" in the children's and young adult book world. It's true that we've looked to the bestsellers for a long time now, but there have always been ways to recognize and discover those good books that may not make bestseller status, but still have strong appeal for young people. Yet lately, it seems that many of these avenues have been succumbing, one by one, to a focus on the same bestsellers and big buzz books that appear everywhere else.

Take the New York Public Library's Books for the Teen Age. This used to be one of the best book lists out there. The 2008 list is a smorgasbord of books, including, if I counted correctly, 446 books, many of which were new to me, in a variety of categories. The 2009 list (ignoring for a moment the idiocy of calling it "Stuff for the Teen Age,") includes only 73 books, very few of which are undiscovered gems. (And yes, I did not include music, video games, movies, or TV shows in my count. Are we afraid that if we include only books, teens won't think it's cool enough and will ignore it?)

School Library Journal is currently running a Battle of the (Kids') Books, pitting 16 children's and YA books against each other. While a book smackdown might be a fun idea to get kids excited about reading, once again, these are the same books appearing everywhere else. Maybe we could do a better job of getting kids excited if we actually helped them find new books that they might like, instead of continuing to tell them about books they've already heard of!

My intent is not to criticize those popular books; some of them are excellent books, and others not so much. But either way, I'm not trying to say that they don't deserve the attention, or that bestseller lists and buzz don't have value. They can be a good way to discover, and thus help kids discover, books that they will like. However, there is also value in finding good books that may not be as well known, and it's this value that seems to be falling by the wayside. As part of some ongoing discussions, a colleague of mine recently said, "...it boils down to this: are we selecting good literature or are we selecting popular literature. If it's popular literature, then why give an award? It's already popular. It's out there."

According to the 2008 Scholastic Kids & Reading Report, "Trouble finding books they like is a key reason kids say they do not read more frequently." This, in spite of the fact that approximately 30 thousand new children's books are being released each year. With so many books, why are children having trouble finding something to read? Maybe it's because they keep hearing about the same fifty books over and over again, and they don't know how to find other good books that will interest them in the vast quantities of books out there.

According to the same Scholastic reading report, the top five ways that kids get ideas about what books to read for fun are, in order: Mom, friends, teachers, library or librarians, and Dad. The list is further broken down by age, with friends ranking highest for teens and preteens, but teachers still rank second in these age categories. Given the importance of the people in their lives in helping them find books, and given that many kids who don't read for fun say it's because they can't find books that interest them, doesn't it behoove everyone who works with children to learn about as many different books as possible?

Teachers and librarians often rely on book lists, awards, and reviews to help them decide which books to purchase for their classroom or collection. It doesn't help when all the lists, all the awards, and all the sources of information are talking about the same books. Yes, these sources are all swamped with books, too, and can't possibly read all of them. But I think that, rather than retreating to a bestseller mentality, they owe it to the children that they ultimately serve, to do as much as humanly possible to help find good books that may not be recognized elsewhere.

A big part of the problem is that so many books are being published each year. With the advent of POD, it makes it easy for anyone to publish a book. And let's be honest; a lot of these books shouldn't be published, and many more of them have potential but really need a good editor and designer.

But there are many books which are good that aren't getting noticed. Some of them are from small publishers, some of them are self-published, some of them are even published through the "POD Publishing companies" (which I don't consider to be the same as self-publishing). Some of them are mid-list books from the large publishers. (How does a book get to be mid-list? That's another problem. It doesn't have anything to do with quality; it's a question of publisher-perceived salability. Each season the big publishers choose the books that they think have the most sales potential, and spend the bulk of their marketing dollars on these "push books." The rest usually become mid-list.)

How does one find good books in this huge number of books? I'll be the first to admit, it isn't easy. Let me say up front that I'm not trying to point fingers or blame anyone. We all want the same thing - to create and/or find good books that will appeal to children and teens and keep them excited about reading. But we're dealing with a broken system, one that has outgrown it's antecedents, and no one knows how to fix it. But being aware of the problem, and understanding how the system works, can go a long way towards addressing it.

Part of the problem is that you have a huge number of books funneling through a very small number of trusted review sources. While blogs and other review sources are gaining credibility, the fact is that most libraries will only purchase books that have been reviewed by a handful of trusted review sources: Booklist, SLJ, PW, Kirkus, VOYA, or Horn Book. Library purchases can make or break a children's book: a book that doesn't get a review in one of these journals may not make enough sales to continue. In our society today, we're so focused on the "new" that a book has a short time to get noticed - maybe six months at most - before it's relegated to backlist or taken out of print. This focus on the new to the exclusion of all else is a different problem, but it does make the trusted review sources even more influential.

These journals also have a huge influence in other areas, as well, such as book awards and lists. The most influential of the awards and book lists for children's and YA literature are those given by ALSC and YALSA. And since these awards and lists are created by librarians, they're heavily influenced by those same handful of journals.

But the sad fact is that this handful of journals cannot possibly review even a small fraction of the books being published. There are many books - even many excellent books - that won't get reviewed, just because there aren't enough review slots. The books that come in to these journals get weeded and selected even before they get to the reviewer. I'm not privy to what goes on in the selection process, but I assume it's like triage - quick decisions have to be made, and sometimes those decisions are wrong and good books get thrown out based on arbitrary criteria. And, I assume, books from known authors and publishers have an edge over the unknown, just because they are a safer bet. Safer doesn't always mean better, though.

I think that it's only human nature to be interested in something that we hear a lot about. I know that when I see a lot of good reviews about a book, I tend to really want to read that book. But since I can only read so many books, reading the much-buzzed about book means that there may be a less well-known book that I don't have time to read, which may be as good or better than the buzzed one. I'm as guilty of it as everyone else, so how can I blame anyone?

I think there's also an assumption that the books that we're hearing a lot about really are the best books. In some cases, that's true, but you also have to keep in mind how marketing plays a part. Marketing is not advertising, although advertising can be a part of an marketing strategy. Marketing is all the things that go into getting the word out about a product. It can include everything from review copies to social networking, and many of these things influence us in subtle ways.

We may say that we aren't influenced by marketing, but it's hard not to be. As a simple example, the big publishers sometimes send out hundreds - or maybe even thousands? - of review copies. They don't do this for all of their books, but for some books, the push books, they do. Small publishers simply can't afford to send out as many review copies. If you think of reviewing statistically - only a percentage of review copies result in a review - then it's just common sense that the book with hundreds or thousands of review copies sent out will get more reviews than one with a smaller number of review copies. And the more reviews a book gets, the more people get excited about it and want to review it, so you start to get a snowball effect.

Even some of the sources that have been most open to unknown books are starting to be influenced in subtle ways by this same mentality. For example, independent booksellers often seem to do a better job then most at finding the undiscovered gems. Their Book Sense Children's Picks list has always had some interesting new and undiscovered books on it, some of which go on to become big books, and some of which don't. In 2008, Book Sense became Indie Bound, and the Children's Picks list became the Indie Next list. The most recent Indie Next Children's List still has some books on it that I haven't seen elsewhere, but I my impression is that most of the books on the list are big authors, big publishers, and new books in popular series.

One of the best book lists for bringing undiscovered gems to light has always been the IRA/CBC Children's Choices book list. Each year, publishers send books to five (I think) schools, where the children read and vote on the books to create the list. When presented with books in this way, children are remarkably honest and open-minded, and the Children's Choices list reflects this open-mindedness, as well as the wide-ranging taste of the children involved in the program.

However, starting last year, one change was made in the program, which seems minor, but which I believe influences the way it's perceived. The top five books in each age group are selected as finalists, which are posted online for children everywhere to vote on. The wider list of books is still published, but the focus has shifted to concentrate on only those top five books: once again, a bestseller mentality. And the voting for the winner is done by children everywhere, not just those participating in the program. While this would seem to be a good thing, it means that the winner is selected primarily from books that the children have heard of - the bestsellers - not those that have been presented to them in a controlled environment for careful consideration.

Furthermore, the teen finalists were selected not from the Children's Choices list, but from a list of books posted on TeenReads.com for teens to vote on. Again, this gives undue preference to bestsellers and buzz books, for two reasons. One: when presented in this fashion, teens are going to naturally vote for the books they are familiar with, rather than books that they discover through reading in a program like Children's Choices. Two: the list of books presented for voting already consisted primarily of the "big books." Teens were allowed to write in votes, but those write-ins were not added to the list for future voting, so they really didn't have a chance, because most people will vote for those books that they see on the list.

The IRA also publishes a Young Adult Choices list, similar to the Children's Choices list. However, the Young Adult Choices list seems to have far fewer undiscovered gems than the Children's Choices list, and once again primarily includes the same books seen everywhere else. A colleague of mine and I were discussing this, and wondering why it would be that way. Part of it, I'm sure, is that teens are more influenced by their peers and by media than children. But I discovered another important difference. Reading the YA choices fact sheet, I discovered this statement: "A book must have received at least two positive reviews to be included in the collection under consideration." Aha! We're back to those same influential review journals. The YA choices book list does not include books selected by teens from a broad range of choices. It includes books selected by teens from a list that was pre-selected by adults! I don't think that the Children's Choices book list has the same requirement; if so, the fact sheet for that program doesn't say anything about it. (And, the 2008 Children's Choices list includes at least one book published by iUniverse, which I doubt was able to get two professional reviews simply because these kinds of books are often automatically eliminated in the reviewer triage).

Several years ago, we went to a gem mine which allows visitors to search for gems. Every day, they dump a big load of dirt, and visitors can dig and sift through the dirt looking for gems. It was a lot of fun, but it was also hot and dirty work. We learned that some of the most beautiful and treasured stones are not very attractive in their native form. If you weren't careful, you could throw away the best find of the day, thinking that it was a worthless rock. In the end, we brought home some beautiful stones, including amethyst. Instead of retreating to a bestseller mentality, let's look at it as a treasure hunt, trying to find those undiscovered gems.

If you've gotten this far, thank you for sticking with me through such a long post. Because I want to do something constructive, and not just gripe about a system that no one knows how to fix, I want to hear your input about the best undiscovered gems of 2008. Please post in the comments your favorite children's or YA books published in 2008 that were not widely buzzed, reviewed, or awarded. I'll compile all the suggestions into a book list and post it on my blog, with permission for anyone to copy it and post it elsewhere.

Because I want to hear unbiased suggestions, I'm going to ask that authors and publishers NOT post your own books here. I'd also prefer that books NOT be suggested by friends of authors, illustrators, or publishers, but I have no way of enforcing that. Just please try to keep it honest. Please also identify yourself in some way; you don't have to give out personal information - a first name or blog name is fine - but just something that tells us who you are and what your relationship is to children's books. (Librarian, teacher, reviewer, bookseller, blogger, homeschooler, parent, child, teen, etc) I will not include completely anonymous suggestions on the list.

Please help create a great book list of the best undiscovered gems of 2008!

Oh, and please click the "Share This" button and pass it on, so that we can get as many people as possible contributing to create a great list.

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