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Go Figure

The book industry's new numerical populism.

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The book trade has always suffered from an acute fear of numbers. Sales measures are mostly guesswork, and in many houses, “word of mouth” still passes for a marketing strategy. Nevertheless, the whole publishing field is gradually being dragged kicking and screaming into the cold, calculating world. In 2001, the new technology of BookScan came into being. Like its music-industry analogue, SoundScan, the list produced accurate, to-the-unit breakdowns of a title’s performance in all sorts of demographic, geographic, and online detail. Now, for a hefty fee, publishers can see the hard black-and-white sales figures before crafting their ad campaigns.

But sales are one thing, criticism another. Lately the reviewing game seems to have fallen, rather absurdly, under the spell of rampant quantification. The Website metacritic.com, which has for four years offered aggregated, ranked reviews of albums and movies—assigning compound scores between 1 and 100, as in grade school—recently began including books. (Nanny Diaries follow-up Citizen Girl, at 41, outclassed Tom Wolfe, at 37.) It’s a dismaying but unsurprising step, given a growing obsession with the populism of raw numbers.

More ludicrous still, the cottage industry of book awards has also grown intoxicated with tabulation for tabulation’s sake. In January, Publishers Weekly announced it was co-sponsoring the Quill Awards, a televised answer to the lately obscurantist National Book Awards. The Quills will reward books nominated by pointy-heads but then chosen through reader surveys. Coming down the pike, too, is another sales-minded awards ceremony, to be launched by the Kirkus-affiliated Book Standard. “I would imagine something like the People’s Choice Awards,” says Book Standard editor-in-chief Jerome Kramer. “And if it were me [on the nominating board], I would not elect to insert a layer of elitists into the equation.” The anti-elitist crusade extends into featured categories, which, according to Kramer, might include cookbooks and knitting titles. Metacritic may convert criticism into raw data, but events like Book Standard’s and the Quill Awards promise to reverse the process by according the power of criticism to mere sales figures. Just what the industry needs: its own version of the Grammys.


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