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Saturday Book Discussion: Reading books because they're popular

Judgmental owl



Following onto marycatelli's review poll, how often do you read a book because everyone else is reading it?

Sometimes there is a backlash against books that are popular or cool, and a general perception that the public's taste is crap and books on the NYT bestseller list appeal to the Lowest Common Denominator. This is also echoed in the common (mistaken) belief that books become popular because of huge marketing campaigns, and books that become bestsellers, like Twilight or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, only became so because the publishing gods deigned to favor them.

A big marketing campaign will obviously boost a book's sales — duh — but it can't guarantee a bestseller, any more than it can for movies. Publishers put lots of money behind the books they think have bestseller potential, but if they could just decide to make a book a bestseller by marketing it heavily, why wouldn't they do that for all their books?

Popular books become popular because lots of people read them, and tell their friends, and write reviews, and generate buzz. It's an ineffable thing, this "buzz" that can turn a modestly popular book into a phenomenon, and it's something that marketers have been trying to figure out how to put into a bottle for over a century. It's the hidden raison d'être for most social media nowadays.

At a certain point after a book "takes off," most people reading it are reading it because they've heard everyone else talking about it. Some people are too cool for that, of course — how often have you seen someone say "I hate all these rabid fans telling me I have to read this book"? But a book wouldn't generate that kind of fanatic devotion if it didn't have something that speaks to a large number of people who read it. Yes, even Twilight. People think Stephenie Meyer was just fantastically lucky, that she came along at just the right moment in the post-Harry Potter lull, that her publisher cynically repackaged her book for broader appeal (gosh! a publisher cynically tried to do something to improve sales!), and all of that was a factor in its success, but the bottom line is, people liked it. Meyer did something that can't be put into a bottle.

I read things because they're popular



I had no interest in Harry Potter for the first ten years of its existence. Even after people I knew became fans, a children's story about a wizarding school just didn't sound that interesting to me. It wasn't until the summer that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published and the world was going crazy, with practically everyone I knew waiting in line at bookstores at midnight, that I decided, "Okay, maybe I should check these books out." I started with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and tore through the whole series in a month. And then started writing Harry Potter fan fiction.

I would never have read The Hunger Games if not for all the buzz, but I became curious, and I liked that series a lot too.

Of course there are times I've tried books that everyone else raves about and found that I just did not see the appeal. (See: Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer.) There are series that still intrigue me somewhat but I just haven't been enticed enough to make the investment ‐ the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold (I've read one book, liked it, was not blown away); Harry Dresden, by Jim Butcher (I hear too much negative about it, and most of the raving fans are the sort of tasteless neckbeards to whom the stink of Parents' Basement tends to cling, and yet, the worldbuilding does sound interesting enough that I will probably try them eventually); and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time (which is like.... fifteen doorstoppers about a Farmboy of Destiny? You'd better be promising me hourly orgasms, eternal salvation, and a guaranteed Return On Investment for that kind of commitment). Or anything YAish and Magical Boyfriendish.

And I still haven't read A Game of Thrones because I learned all I needed to know about GRRM from Kid Dinosaur.

(I kid. I don't think GRRM was even the one responsible for Kid Dinosaur. And I actually like it when beloved characters are kacked now and then. But again... super-dense fantasy doorstoppers. Unfinished. And I don't have HBO. I'll wait.)

I do not, of course, read every popular book. I don't read books that flat out don't interest me, and I don't pursue whatever is trending or on a bestseller list. But anyone who sneers at "popular" fiction is missing the obvious fact that books usually become popular because they're enjoyable. Once you know your own tastes pretty well, you can usually tell whether a book that millions of other people enjoy is something you will too. I still shake my head at Dan Brown fans — and most of what's in the YA genre, because teenagers don't know shit. But if a lot of people I know are reading something and writing reviews that make it sound interesting, yeah, I'll put it on my TBR list. If everyone is reading it and saying it's awesomesauce (or criticizing it in interesting ways), then it becomes something I figure is worth checking out.

I mean, what is the alternative, to seek out the most obscure, unread books you can find just to assert that you are not influenced by popular opinion?

So, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is still on my TBR list, even though the description alone would not really interest me.

Poll #1844389 Reading popular books

Do you read books with buzz?

No. The more it's hyped, the more I probably don't want to read it.
9(6.5%)
Not usually; I don't tend to like what's popular.
8(5.8%)
No more or less likely than any other book; I don't really pay attention to what's popular.
26(18.7%)
If it looks interesting or comes with good recommendations, sure.
90(64.7%)
Yes, I'm often interested in whatever is popular.
6(4.3%)

Do you believe that marketing is what determines a book's popularity?

Of course - look at all the great books that get ignored and the crappy ones on bestseller lists.
12(8.7%)
It's the biggest factor, though of course some books stand or fall despite publicity (or lack thereof).
16(11.6%)
Marketing can boost a mediocre book or bury a good one, but it's just one of many factors.
79(57.2%)
It doesn't hurt, but you can't make a book popular just by promoting it heavily enough.
28(20.3%)
No, I don't think books ultimately benefit much from marketing. It's readers who decide whether or not it will become popular.
3(2.2%)

How often do you find that you enjoy books that are popular?

Never. The public's taste is crap.
2(1.4%)
Rarely. Now and then a good book actually becomes popular.
18(12.9%)
Sometimes. There are good books that are popular, but popular taste varies widely.
103(73.6%)
Often. There are some books that just aren't to my taste, but a book is usually popular for a reason.
17(12.1%)
If everyone else likes it, I probably will too.
0(0.0%)




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  • Terminus, by Peter Clines

    A sequel to 14, in which the Great Old Ones arrive to eat the world. Kavach Press, 2020, 333 pages Murdoch’s past has finally come…

  • Burr, by Gore Vidal

    Aaron Burr in his own words... kind of. Random House, 1973, 430 pages Here is an extraordinary portrait of one of the most complicated -…

  • Aria: The Masterpiece, Volume 2

    Aria: The Masterpiece, Volume 2 by Kozue Amano Further life on the wet Mars, now known as Aqua. Akari helps a lost visitor, learns about the…