Woke books are a flop with readers

The publishing industry needs to prioritise quality over ideology if it wants to survive.

Nick Tyrone

Topics Books Culture Identity Politics

An article in the Daily Mail confirms something many of us have seen coming for a long time. It reveals that scores of woke books published by major houses have been flopping. As it turns out, publishers have been throwing money at books that no one actually wants to buy. It shows that the mantra of ‘go woke, go broke’ applies even in the publishing industry.

The shining example of this is Pageboy, the memoir by Elliot (formerly Ellen) Page, an actor famous for ‘coming out’ as transgender. According to the Mail, Pageboy has sold 68,000 hard copies. That might seem like a lot of books, but context is important here. Selling 68,000 copies would have a small indie publisher popping open the champagne. But for a huge house like Macmillan, which published Pageboy earlier this year, these kinds of numbers are embarrassing.

Crucially, Page was given a $3million advance for Pageboy. As a rough estimate, Macmillan would have needed to sell about 500,000 copies to break even. I’m being generous here, and probably vastly underestimating the promotional budget for the book – another huge additional cost. An advance of that amount tells you the publisher thought the book was going to sell millions. Yet all available sources point heavily to the fact it has not.

Publishing is now littered with these kinds of stories. The Big Five publishing houses (including Penguin and Macmillan) that dominate the publishing industry are prioritising ideology over quality. Large advances are routinely being given for books that parrot the current social-justice narrative, only to sell a comparatively abysmal amount of copies.

The interesting thing is that woke publishers should have a guaranteed market, if what we’re told about the younger generation is true. Younger people are supposedly obsessed with slapping trigger warnings on controversial books. Many do seem to enjoy having their politically correct worldview reflected back at them. And, somewhat surprisingly, physical book sales are high among Gen Z. In theory, the industry should be booming. But perhaps young people aren’t all as woke as we’ve been led to believe.

It doesn’t help that many publishers have started to outright reject books that go against the woke narrative, or those that are written by white, straight men – thus further reducing the pool of good-quality works they can draw from. One senior editor at a large publishing house recently told the Free Press: ‘We flat-out decided we weren’t going to look at certain white male authors, because we didn’t want to be seen as acquiring that stuff.’ Established crime novelist James Patterson has previously complained that he now finds it more difficult to have his works published as a white male writer, calling the practice ‘just another form of racism’.

If the woke Big Five don’t want to destroy the traditional publishing industry altogether, they must return to a few basic principles. Publishers should put out books based on whether they are actually going to shift copies, and whether they have any literary merit. Factors like race, age, class, gender or sexuality shouldn’t come into play at all.

Once upon a time, orchestras held ‘blind auditions’ for musicians looking to get a seat in one of the large philharmonic orchestras. The auditioning musician was placed behind a sheet and asked to run through the music. The idea was that the person judging had nothing to go by other than how well the music was played. This method worked well for breaking through any potentially racist or sexist biases held by the judges and ensured that only the best musicians got spots. Publishing might do well to adopt a similar strategy now.

The publishing world needs to escape from the cul-de-sac it has trapped itself in over the past several years. An obsession with ‘lived experience’ means that authors are no longer trusted to write characters whose lives they may not have lived beat-for-beat. And publishers clearly think that readers cannot be trusted to know that novels are based on people literally just making things up. Ultimately, the result of this is publishing a lot of tripe that no one actually wants to read.

Smart publishers ought to embrace the fear of controversy. If a book stirs things up, it gets talked about – and that means more sales. Publishers may believe the average reader is incapable of grappling with controversial or challenging content, but that’s clearly not the case. They’re sick of being served up the same woke pablum.

Nick Tyrone is a journalist, author and think-tanker. His latest novel, The Patient, is out now.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Books Culture Identity Politics


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