Are the vagaries of the publishing industry a representation of today’s zeitgeist?

  • Robin Sutton
  • August 9, 2018
  • Comments Off on Are the vagaries of the publishing industry a representation of today’s zeitgeist?
  • Book Publishing

It turns out there is no provenance to suggest the aphorism about living in interesting times is either old or Chinese. But here we are, living in interesting times. Politics is nothing but a 140 character soundbite with an hour lifespan and the idea there are consequences to actions is outdated.

In all this uncertainty, where race, color, sex, gender identification and politics are more polarizing than ever and, where an opinion poll can prove any point of view, is there any barometer pointing to what the average person in the street feels?

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The books we are reading could be an indicator of what we are thinking

There has been a marked phenomenon in recent years, where a non-fiction, almost academic book has hit the bestseller list and somehow continued to stay there. These are serious books which make important but sometimes dry points. Looked at as a genre this reading suggests an audience looking for authoritative, considered answers.

Books have a popularity span

Non-fiction books tend to be a creature of their time. Popular for a while (if the author is lucky), after which it drops off. But over recent years this has changed.

Some non-fiction books continue to remain popular when there is no reason for them to be so.

The theory

As Alex Preston describes it in The Guardian newspaper, “books retain a special place in our culture, an aura that means we look to them first when searching for deep truths about the world.” Or put another way, when we cannot believe any other source of information we turn to reading to get a nuanced balanced view from which we can extract a personal perspective.

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Which books?

The books themselves run the gamut but perhaps highlight our concerns. Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge at one end of the spectrum, to Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli or Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction at the other end would seem to be a neon sign showing the reading population’s concern on the issues that face us today.

The ‘have you read’ effect

Is this a real phenomenon or are there other ways to explain it? There’s always a certain amount of discussion between readers which leads to a book making the rounds. But this goes way beyond word of mouth.

Sales of A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari have reached the million-copy mark; More than a publisher, agent or author imagined, and it continues to outsell the sequel too. These books are hitting a nerve and continue to do so.

What’s next?

In lieu of a Ph.D. thesis really connecting the dots for us, we probably have to wait and see the results of the next election. But it will be interesting to see which issues the voters identify with as key and to see if those issues are reflected in our reading.