Unlocking the Gates

Yesterday I wrote about my belief that lower ebook pricing will make books more accessible in general, particularly for people who don’t have access to libraries, due to budget cuts or geography. But I think the e-revolution is bigger and more important than the pricing alone.

For quite some time, multi-layered gatekeepers have determined what books will be published and how and where they’ll be sold. Those gatekeepers made their decisions based on a number of factors, including the very subjective one of what they, themselves, thought they would sell.

Though the bookstores and publishers are more quiet about their criteria and
the methods they use to predict success, many literary agents who blog have
been generously vocal. A common theme among them is that they have to “love”
the book themselves in order to sell it. Considering the difficulty getting
books from query to bookshelf, it’s understandable that agents would need
passion to see the project through as far as they can take it.

But then one must ask what makes an agent–the first in a string of gatekeepers–love a book? What makes them think they can sell it?

Of course the love part is as intangible as it is in any aspect of life, but there’s more to the story. In order to decide whether a book “will sell,” the various levels of gatekeeping make several assumptions, particularly about who reads and what people want to read about.

Fiction providing windows into various cultures seems to come and go with the prevailing winds; a book about young Latina women is hot, and then suddenly you see young Latinas everywhere, and then, just as suddenly, nowhere. It’s a trend we’ve seen with culture after culture. What happens to the people who enjoy a book that allows a window into another life regardless of the cultural temperature? Do people stop reading?

While I am in no way saying that people of color only want to read books about and by people of color, any more than people not-of-color want to read books only by and about people not-of-color, it’s human nature to want to see oneself represented in popular culture. I’ve had more than one conversation with friends of mine who are very successful in the melanin-producing department about how they don’t see themselves reflected anywhere. And they read.

They read a lot.

With the e-revolution, the market itself is free to decide what it wants to read. Readers of all backgrounds will have an opportunity to find writers of all backgrounds. The preferences of a few will remain the preferences of the few, while everyone will be free to decide what they want to read and by whom.

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