Why Books Matter

“Why Books Matter” by Ron Unz
Unpublished, June 2000

Here’s a paradox.  A reasonably successful non-fiction public policy book may sell 15,000 to 30,000 copies, many, perhaps most of which will end up being unread.  These numbers are absolutely negligible in a nation of almost 300 million, and are even dwarfed by the tens or hundreds of thousands who might read an op-ed in a major national newspaper such as the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.  Yet such a book, even if itself unread or actually unreadable, can often have an impact on the national debate orders of magnitude greater than that comparable op-ed.  Furthermore, there often seems to be merely a loose relationship between a book’s quality or even its sales and its public impact.  How is this possible?

As was recently pointed out by Eric Alterman in The Nation, books are important not in spite of their being unread but because they are unread.  The book itself may reach only a few thousand individuals, though perhaps significant ones, and strongly shaping the future thoughts of such persons on a subject might indeed have some lasting significance.  But far more immediate impact follows from the secondary media coverage generated by a highly visible book—the dozens of book reviews, opinion pieces, and news quotes, many of which may appear in major publications, and the least of which probably has a readership far greater than that of the book’s entire print-run.

These reviews and op-eds, which effectively distill the basic ideas of the book into a highly-digestible package, are often far superior in writing quality and organization to anything which the book’s author has produced.  For a widely reviewed book, these secondary articles may reach many millions compared with the book’s thousands.  And if the reviewer or op-ed writer strongly agrees with the concepts presented in the book, they can adjust—or even modify—the author’s thoughts and arguments into a far more cogent or coherent form, making arguments which the author should have made but didn’t.   Since so few people will ever read the book itself, this transformation will go largely undetected.

Furthermore, if the author is reasonably personable and telegenic, and especially if the issues raised by the book are exciting and timely, there exists the potential for a vast wave of tertiary, electronic media coverage on radio and television, with the book tour constituting the jumping-off point.  Since relatively few Americans draw their information from newspapers or magazines, but nearly all are touched by electronic communications, the impact of the book’s ideas may thus potentially expand from the millions to the tens of millions.

The simplicity and clarity of a book’s underlying message is important for success.  A book whose theme has emotional appeal and can be summarized in just a short sentence or two has an obvious comparative advantage over a book with a more complex, diffuse message.  But a book whose message is perceived as overly simplistic or crude may be discounted and therefore ignored by the reviewers who determine the book’s ultimate public impact; a respectable book will be reviewed, whereas a “thin” polemical tract may not be.

Good timing is even more critical to a book’s success, and, given the long lead times involved in writing and publication, this constitutes an enormous element of chance.  The Los Angeles Riots of 1992 unexpectedly lifted Andrew Hacker’s Two Nations on black/white relations to the bestseller lists, and the subsequent national battles over immigration and affirmative action caused Peter Brimelow’s alarmist Alien Nation to far exceed all sales expectations.  But over the past few years, racial issues have receded from the national consciousness, and, consequently, more recent and measured books on that topic have failed to generate much public discussion or many sales.

On the other hand, the Clinton impeachment scandals lifted the sales of an endless list of analytical or partisan books on that subject, with the sexual scandals surrounding Monica Lewinsky also driving the unexpected success of books dealing with a reassessment of female relationship issues, such as Wendy Shalit’s Modesty and Danielle Crittenden’s Mothers, with the simple message of the former generating rather more attention than the more pragmatic and nuanced arguments of the latter.  At present, general affluence and the volatile stock market have driven the success of many books dealing with stock prices—ranging from James Glassman’s Dow 36,000 to Robert Shiller’s Irrational Exuberance—as well as David Brook’s Bobos, focusing on the lifestyles of the newly affluent upper-middle-class.  In today’s climate, Alien Nation would have sunk without a trace, just as Bobos would have failed in 1995.

Finally, having published a book, even one not widely read or reviewed, provides the author with perceived credibility on a subject, whether or not it is actually deserved.  The minuscule size ofAmerica’s reading public, and the obvious time and effort involved in putting 75,000 to 150,000 reasonably coherent words into print provides added intellectual heft and standing, much in the same way as does a faculty position at a major university.  

Americans may not read books, but they clearly respect those who write them.

This entry was posted in Media and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.