Reading what the literary agents say they’re looking for in a novel, I’m struck by how similar and bland these wish lists are. They want excellence, which generally comes down to a distinctive voice, sympathetic characters, and stories so compelling they make the agent miss her next subway stop (several used this same image of compellingness). In making your inquiry, you should be able to blurb your book in a single paragraph and synopsize it in a single page or at most two — straightforward linear narratives would seem best suited to this sort of punchy summary. Are these really the indicators of a good book, or are they features that make a book easy to sell?
There’s no good reason why individual readers should have to pay for books. A reader does not “consume” a book: after it’s been read, the book remains intact, available to be read again and again. Public libraries use tax revenues to buy communal copies of books that are made available without charge to all residents. Electronic books cost nothing to print, distribute, and warehouse, and so the marginal cost of downloading each individual copy is zero.
Suppose that, instead of selling books directly to individual readers, the publisher sold exclusively to libraries. Each library would pay the average retail price of a new hardback — $25 or so — to acquire an e-copy of the book. Then anyone who wants not just to borrow the book but to own a copy can download it onto their electronic reading device for no charge through the library.
Let’s say that 600 libraries buy a copy of a given book: that’s $25 x 600 = $15,000. Let’s say that it costs around $3,000 to edit and format a novel: $15K – $4K = $12K net. Allocate another $1000 for informing the libraries about the new book: that leaves $11,000. There are no investors or marketing people to take a cut of the proceeds, no printers or distributors or wholesalers or bookstores to reimburse. All $11K goes to the author. That’s just about what the average published novelist makes these days via royalties, but it’s earned on 10,000 copies of a novel printed, distributed, and sold one at a time, the old-fashioned way.
The main problem with the library scheme is visibility. How would readers find out about these books, freely available for them to own through their local public library? There would be no hard copies to browse at the local bookstore, no promotional campaigns pushing the latest titles in the mass media. Not very many readers patronize their local libraries, so library-based educational campaigns would have limited impact. On the other hand, the publisher would make its $25 per library copy regardless of how many patrons actually download the book. And if librarians acquire new titles based at least in part on the enduring archival quality of the collection, then the publisher’s sales pitch would rely more on the excellence and distinctiveness of the book than on its appeal to fleeting pop-cultural tastes.
Still, it’s not like the traditional publishing industry is going to cease and desist in order to make way for this new, less expensive, more populist yet more elitist alternative. Despite perpetual lamentations about the end of literacy, book sales in the US generate around $30 billion annually. The library-based distribution system could make those same titles available to everyone for a tenth the aggregate price. Authors of best-sellers wouldn’t like it, but there aren’t very many of those. Nearly all other published novelists would make just as much money as they do in the current system, while making their books freely available to a potentially much wider readership.