Why? Why?

Posted on March 9, 2010

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A book that I published two years ago finally got a review. Aside from the fact that the review was a stellar one, the reviewer concluded by asking why this particular book had not been reviewed by major review outlets and why it’s not available in bookstores.

Well, you could say that most trade book reviews blew it. If bookstore buyers don’t see a review in Publishers Weekly, or Kirkus or The New York Times Book Review, they just won’t stock it. (Same goes for librarians: if it ain’t in Library Journal, or any of the above periodicals, it ain’t gonna make the library shelves.)

But those trade review periodicals won’t touch a book if it has a whiff of print-on-demand (POD) on it. I utilize POD for all Quale Press books, which means that the book is printed as it is ordered on a digital press. But these revered trade periodicals have the ill-conceived notion that any book using POD is either a vanity publication (author pays to have it published) or it is self-published. This crazy notion got lodged in the minds of the editors of these periodicals too many years ago when most vanity presses and self-publishers utilized POD to save on manufacturing costs. (It’s the same reason Quale Press uses POD: we can print 4 to 5 titles a year for the same cost to print one title the traditional way using offset printing technology.) These trade periodicals have not changed their minds (and can easily identify POD books since many of the digital press printers add in a leaf at the end of the book with a barcode identifying the title). The trade periodicals justify their intransigence by stating that bookstores cannot order POD titles. In the case of Quale, that’s not true. Our standard operating procedure is to print enough copies to stock our distributor – Small Press Distribution – so that they can fulfill bookstore and individual orders. We can keep track of our inventory with them online and replenish stock as need be.

Another reason trade review periodicals won’t touch Quale Press books is that we don’t have the money to advertise in them. I have worked long enough in magazine publishing to know that while ethically there is not supposed to be a tit-for-tat, there is a distinct correlation to a book publisher’s propensity to advertise in a reviewing periodical and editorial coverage of said book publisher’s titles in that periodical. (It even goes down to the second and third tier review publications. Quale used to advertise in one book review journal and regularly received review coverage, but since we stopped advertising a few years ago there has not been a single review in that journal.)

Another reason I can think of for lack of coverage is not a very pretty one: homophobia. The novel, Jonathan Strong’s Drawn From Life, details the life of Peter Dabney, a gay painter from childhood to well past AARP eligibility. It’s a tour-de-force character study of exceptional quality (otherwise I would have never published it). But the book is unabashed in its portrayal of Dabney’s sex life. Some reviewers might be squeamish to tackle the subject, which Strong has dealt with in serious and intelligent fashion. (I also think it’s a prime reason the book did not fare well with the public librarian jury for the Massachusetts Fiction Book of the Year Awards.)

If Quale had the resources (read large budget for marketing – ads, in-store placements, etc.), we would be able to find a distributor with more clout and an actual sales force. Trade review periodicals will stand up and notice books with 5- and 6-figure advertising budgets (which can translate into ads in their publications). Bookstore owners also notice that budget too. And distributors with sales reps can capitalize on that to get bookbuyers to place orders.

(But, stop here, why would a very respected author work with such a small publishing house – one with no trade review publication clout and with a relatively powerless distributor? Maybe because we actually believe in our authors and their books here at Quale, where this book is not one of hundreds released a year, where the book really does matter to us. But we would not begrudge Strong – or any of our other authors – if they could place their work with a larger publisher and have the potential for greater review coverage and sales push, and, we hope, more money.)

The last reason deals with shear numbers. In 2008 (the novel’s year of publication), 47,540 other fiction titles were published, each one clamoring for attention. The odds of the book garnering a reviewer’s, or a bookstore owner’s, attention are not good (to say the least). It’s just one exceedingly small drop in a very large bucket.

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