Sunday, July 21, 2013

Librarians and the JK Rowling Effect

I'm sure that by now you've heard the story: a book by unknown author Robert Galbraith got good reviews but made only modest sales, until it was revealed that Galbraith was a pseudonym for JK Rowling. Within days it was "#1 with a bullet" on Amazon.

The book had reportedly sold only 500 copies in the US. The publisher most likely did not do a large print run. The hard copy has not yet made the New York Times best seller list, which is determined by sales. However, it is #1 on Amazon due to the infinite expandability of Kindle ebook copies.

This may be a kind of watershed moment for ebooks, a proof that in this world of instant access the ebook is not only good for readers (as in humans who read), but they have definite advantages for publishers. The primary message here, though, is that reputation sells. This is something that advertisers have known forever. Therefore I was surprised to come upon a short article in The Nation magazine from 1897(*)  that blames librarians for making authors famous by naming them and clearly disdains this fact.
"The role of the librarians in this country as critics of literature and arbiters of literary reputation is growingly apparent. 'Poole's Index to Periodical Literature' is of necessity selective, and the selection from each periodical embraced in the Index appertains to the particular librarian or library assistant specially charged with the care of that periodical. In most cases, the name of the author is ascertained and appended to the title, and so the aristocracy of current letters is called into being. Writers in this way come to be known for their range of subjects and interests; their weight is suggested by frequency of titles; editors and publishers will naturally apply to them as authorities."
Not only did librarians select literature for the index, they actually created recommended bibliographies!

"Not satisfied with this control at once of fame and research, the associated librarians got up a list of works recommendable for a library of five thousand volumes... Mr. Melvil Dewey... 'submitted to the librarians of the State [of New York] and others to obtain an expression of opinion respecting the best fifty books ... to be added to a village library."
The author of the piece (not named, by the way, at least not in the pages that I retrieved) saw this as "a pretty generous advertisement." My concern about the influence of libraries and librarians is quite different: access to knowledge determines future knowledge. Well, perhaps "determines" is too strong of a word, but let's say that what we can produce as new knowledge depends greatly on which giants are available to us, in the Newtonian sense of "standing on the shoulders of giants."

Oftentimes, the library has a role in providing those giants. In a small library, what the library owns will necessarily be a subset of the knowledge on a topic. In a large library, where the number of documents on a topic is way beyond the capability of most researchers to absorb, the organization of the materials will determine what researchers discover. Even if collection development were a perfect process, with unlimited funds, unlimited space, and absolute neutrality, the library in some way has an effect on future knowledge.

In that sense, Amazon and other booksellers have it easy: all that matters for them is the simple measure of sales. They don't have to, and probably do not, wonder if the world is or is not a better place now that we have Fifty Shades of Dubious Personal Interaction, and a new JK Rowling bestseller. Ironically, counting sales or hits or links is considered "neutral" while attempting to make a selection of the most important works in a subject area within a limited budged is looked at askance.


* The Nation. vol. 64, no. 1663, May 13, 1897, p. 860

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