A bookstore, supply and demand, and reality check for readers and writers

“Seventy-five dollars?” said Imp. “Just to play music?”
“That’s twenty-five dollars registration fee, thirty-five dollars up front against fees, and fifteen dollars voluntary compulsory annual subscription to the Pension Fund,” said Mr. Clete, secretary of the Guild.
Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

The conversation between Imp, a harp player who has just arrived to the city of Ankh-Morpork, and Mr. Clete, who “was not, by the standard definition, a bad man; in the same way a plague-bearing rat is not, from a dispassionate point of view, a bad animal,” revolves about a Catch-22 situation: a musician must earn money to pay the Guild of Musician’s exorbitant fees, yet he cannot play music without paying the Guild first.

I borrowed Soul Music from our local library, after I recently borrowed Pratchett’s Hogfather and Guards! Guards! According to Wikipedia, Terry Pratchett wrote 41 Discworld novels. A quick search discovered that my local library system doesn’t have most of them. Buying a few Discworld books (not audio-books or e-books) seemed like a good idea. But which ones?

I prefer not to read other readers’ reviews before I read a book, because of spoilers. Usually, after I add a current best-seller to my list on Goodreads, it recommends the author’s other books. When I gave five-stars to Hogfather, Goodreads did not send recommendations. This kind of digital silence (typically given to self-published authors) should have clued me that Pratchett’s books are not a must-have anymore.

Once upon a time books were bought in bookstores. The mid-Atlantic town I live in does not have a bookstore, so when I was in New Brunswick (the home of Rutgers University with tens of thousands students), I went into a Barnes & Noble store. The ground floor was packed with merchandise likely to attract students and visitors to the university – hoodies and t-shirts with university-related logos, the latest best-sellers, snacks and similar items. Fiction and non-fiction books (except textbooks) were on the second floor. In libraries, the stacks rise high. In that store, one did not need to lift their eyes to see the highest shelf. Shelves were few, low and separated by very wide aisles. Whoever runs the bookstore seemed reluctant to stock it with books. Or maybe they did not bother to display more books due to scant demand for the many thousands of titles published every year. In the fiction section, the books were lined alphabetically. At the letter “P”, between Jodi Picoult and Marcel Proust, I expected to see books by Terry Pratchett. There were none, which seemed impossible.

We live in a time when a lot of what I’ve thought as impossible turned to be possible. Maybe it has become unreasonable to expect a large bookstore to keep a book by a highly popular and prolific author? It turned out that I was not altogether wrong. A few paperbacks of Pratchett were found in the Science-Fiction/Fantasy “section”. A possible explanation: after he was knighted for “services to literature”, Sir Terry commented that, “I suspect the ‘services to literature’ consisted of refraining from trying to write any.”

Next, I turned to the 800-pound gorilla also known as Amazon. As I wanted neither e-books nor audiobooks, I searched in “books” for “Terry Pratchett discworld.”

The first six results (after sponsored products by another author) were free Audible audiobooks. Numbers seven and eight were kindle books. “Incidentally” both Audible and Kindle belong to Amazon.

The next four recommendations were Audible audiobooks again. Next came three sponsored books by other authors. Fed up with the shenanigans of the search, I left the Amazon page.

I can blame algorithms, inefficiency, or even a conspiracy against a liberal-minded author who laughed at the absurdity of greedy organizations. None of these, however, explains why a large bookstore leaves a considerable part of its space unused while it displays an abysmal selection of books (and I’m speaking about a very small group of hugely popular writers, others are completely ignored). I can make a guess on why a leading e-commerce giant pushes products of its companies, not out of a mere disregard, but as a manipulation of supply and demand.

From a certain point of view (for example, Mr. Clete’s), this is not a big deal. On the other hand, ignoring the problem, we let a trove of excellent books that are not the current runaway bestsellers to slip from our minds and fade into obscurity. This is not just a matter of current tastes and fashion. Our society relies on maintaining a balance between supply and demand. When the causality between supply and demand is disrupted (either purposely or by corporate carelessness), writers and readers should do a reality check.

I get more book recommendations in one week than I can read in a year, but the vast majority of the books I enjoyed didn’t come from AI analysis of previous preferences. They were discovered in conversations, reading reviews, or in occasional advertisements. (Famous writers who publish regularly or writers who can afford the prohibitive cost of advertising have an advantage in putting their work before readers’ eyes. Most of the writers don’t have the budget to move the needle, neither on Amazon nor in a physical store.) Libraries offer more than the latest best-sellers. It is my favorite place to try writers who are new to me and genres I usually don’t read. Sometimes, especially in non-fiction, our library doesn’t offer what I want. I usually turn to Amazon when I want to buy a book online, but there are other options, so at least for now, readers do not completely depend on Amazon. Nevertheless most readers, myself included, check out what is readily available. We don’t know what great books we miss.
They are right there, somewhere, along with great music and art, not necessary hidden but certainly obscured. I have no solutions and instead of casting blame, I conclude with citing Terry Pratchett again:

“And although the Guild had a president and council, it also had Mr. Clete, who took the minutes and made sure things ran smoothly and smiled very quietly to himself. It was a strange but reliable fact that whenever men throw off the yoke of tyrants and set out to rule themselves there emerges, like a mushroom after rain, Mr. Clete.
Hat. Hat. Hat. Mr. Clete laughed at things in inverse proportion to the actual humor of the situation.
“But that’s nonsense!”
“Welcome to the wonderful world of the Guild economy,” said Mr. Clete. “Hat. Hat. Hat.”

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