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Published:June 22nd, 2006 08:01 EST
Where does the best-seller list belong?

Where does the best-seller list belong?

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

Nothing would become newspapers more than reconsidering their fondest conventions. But don’t hold your breath. Consider the hoary best-seller list. It adorns the book pages like a tombstone, but more logically it should break up gray type on business pages. Why? Because the books were published in the first place because of their expected commerciality, not because they were considered to be worthy additions to the literary canon. No marketer and few editors are interested in the next Proust or Joyce, but Patterson, Cussler, Ludlum and Brown successors are more than welcome. The best-seller list gauges not merely a book’s success in the marketplace, but the success of its marketers. It does not gauge a book’s prowess among the literati.

So it’s a business story. By positing the list among book reviews newspaper editors encourage the fiction that the list has something to do, like the reviews, with quality. They have good reasons for doing this, but those reasons belong to their corporate owners, not to readers interested in literature and its propagation.

A clever lawyer could make the case for the editors’ logic, but it doesn’t take much cleverness to grasp that what we’re talking about here is commerce, not literature. If you’re in any doubt about whether the “lead” here is business or literature, consider this: there are six major trade publishers in the United States; when is the last time you saw the major press review one of the books published by our thousands of small presses?

It’s not just a housekeeping problem—how could they possibly consider all those books for review?—it’s plain commercial fact that big media review big media because that’s where the money is. And it goes without saying it makes the newspapers’ editors’ job easier, if not a cinch. But does it well serve the culture? Is this worth saying? Isn’t it obvious? No, it’s not obvious to the average reader and it’s one of those deceits which in the aggregate ought to be called into question by every generation of journalist and shareholder, but it won’t be because newspapers are not run for the public but for the owners’ and the shareholders’ bank accounts. They’re businesses that happen to bask in the glory of the First Amendment.

These are the sort of issues citizen journalists ought to raise in the blogosphere. This is an important juncture in the history of American journalism. Free dailies are rising up to challenge venerable papers like The Baltimore Sun. The blogosphere is tackling taboo issues eschewed by the mainstream press.

It ought to be standard operating procedure for a journalist today to see what the bloggers are saying before writing a story for the traditional press. The bloggers may not get it right, they may not get it at all, but they are getting some things right that the mainstream is either ignoring or missing. The blogs may not be reliable sources, but they can and do provide valuable leads and they provide an overarching view of what concerns keen observers.

The bloggers, for their part, should not merely poke their noses into what the press seems to be missing or suppressing, they should raise issues about the way the press does business, about what newspapers offer, how they offer it, and what they don’t offer. Revisiting the best-seller list is just one of many ways to engage in the discussion.