Top 7 reasons I think End of Year lists are Bad
Near the end of the year, all book content is the same, but this year even more so. Not only is this month the end of 2019, it is the end of the decade. What this means is that it is TIME FOR LISTS. I have worked in digital media for a while now, and I know the value of a good list. A good list (generally) does well on Google search when people are trying to decide which books to buy for their loved ones who may or may not read books. A list also serves a couple of purposes for the reader herself: it allows you to think back on the books of the year that you read and pick out the ones you really loved, and it allows you to try and force others to read them. Generally, I like a good list. I really liked Katy Waldman’s 2019 list for the New Yorker (even though we didn’t like all the same books!), which you can find here.
All of that said, lists are definitive in a way. ((Media also does this with upcoming books (best books to come in 2020!!) which is its own can of worms)). I was texting with a fellow writer whose book is set to come out next year, because she was frustrated. The lists are coming out and that provides a perfect platform of self-hate to step right up onto if your book doesn’t make a list, or if it doesn’t make enough lists. Most writers are self-conscious and honestly, I think in some ways that is our own problem that we need to deal with. But I do think there are some upsetting things about how end of the year book lists work and so IN THE SPIRIT OF THE SEASON I have made a list for you.
Top 7 Problems with End of the Year Book Lists.
7. No single person can read every book
Do you know how many books the publishing industry puts out? It is insane. The estimated number of books that the United States publishes every year (new titles and new editions only) is 304,000 books. That means that even if you read one book a day, you would not be even close to 1% of books published. Now, obviously that is every single book. If we make some assumptions say that half of them are trash, half of those left aren’t for adults (we’re talking adult lists only), and half of those are about very niche subjects that are not interesting to general readers, we still have 38,000 books. That’s too many books! Read one book a day, and you’re still at only 1% of published books.
This is part of why I like when lists include many people picking their absolute favorite book this year. Often, people are afraid to pick popular things so they pick their true favorite, and with 20 people it is more likely that you have read more of the books. The true bane of this problem is a list like Real Simple’s which has more than 100 books on it. That is both not helpful and insane.
An end of the year list is inherently based only on the books that person read, which is often not transparent to the reader. On top of that (and more on this later), some books you have to read even if they aren’t good.
6. Okay but which best books of the year??
This is similar to the “too many books” problem, but there are too many genres and sub-genres of books. What is your list really about? Is it the top 10 FICTION books. Top 10 Adult Fiction? Top 10 Adult LITERARY fiction? The more you narrow a list, the easier it is to have read most of the books in that category (or at least most of the Big Books), but the more you narrow a list, the fewer people your list appeals to. Generally, we make lists for every person you could be buying for which means ideally a list has genre, age, gender, sexuality, and racial diversity to it, which WOOF imagine doing this with 10 books.
I, for example, barely read anything that is not adult literary fiction or narrative non-fiction. Those are the books I can recommend. I finally got around to reading the Broken Earth trilogy, which has one a bucket of awards ,this year and was furious no one had told me about it. Of course, people had tried. But that series was relegated away from mainstream major publicity because it is fantasy. It was on the fantasy lists, which I was not reading.
America always has the same problem which is that we do not know that other countries exist. Sally Rooney (Irish) has managed to break into a lot of Top 10s this year, but she writes in English! The Ferrante novels did well on lists, but that was an anomaly. ((Good point to note that these are both white Western women)). I am reading a GREAT book in translation that came out this year that I will write more about later that I found by accident. I hadn’t read anything about it. We rank the books we read and most of the people writing lists (and the assumed readers) speak English as their primary language, so those are the only books we pay attention to.
4. Years are fake! So are decades!
No one I know, even book reviewers, are reading only books that came out this year. Though you would think that you would have to read only new books in order to keep up with the insane amount of books published each year, it’s boring. A lot of new books are bad, and people just haven’t realized it yet! Every good reader I know is reading books across years and decades, sometimes centuries. Often, the best book someone has read that year can’t be added to an end of year list because it wasn’t published in 2019. That’s particularly bad for books that come out in December or even October. No one has gotten to them in their stacks by the time it is time to rank and then they aren’t the right year to hit the next year’s list. This is just me ranting my favorite point: read old books.
3.Let’s talk about publicity budgets
Books are not equal. To people or to publishers. A book that gets a big advance (is paid highly for before it is even published by a publishing house) will by nature get more publicity. The publisher has, in fact, already dumped a ton of money on this book. They need it to do well. On top of that people with built in fanbases or built in expertise, are more likely to sell well, so they are publicized more highly as well. Like everything, it’s about money. But that also means that there are some real gems of books that get lost because they didn’t have any publicity budget and maybe their author is bad at social media or they (god forbid) got slated for the same publish date as a much Bigger Book. Which brings me to my next point:
2. Every list has the same books on it
Look at any major list and you’ll see the same books. This year it’s Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We Were Briefly Gorgeous, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Colson Whitehead’s The Nickle Boys, and Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is In Trouble. LitHub did a kind of compilation of data of 38 major book lists and it found that those top 4 books appeared on more than 20 lists.
I have read two of those four books and have the other two in my stack and they are good books! This is not a shot at those books at all. What it is is a commentary on the way we read. If you are a reviewer, and a book is getting a lot of publicity and doing very well it is now a part of the “public conscious” there is a “conversation” that your editor will expect you to partake in, which means that even if you don’t care about a book or you don’t think a book is particularly good, you now have to use one of your coveted reading spots to read the buzzy book. See that image above with Margaret Atwood’s The Testament in the number one Google search ranking spot? That’s undeserved buzz. That book is not Top 10 worthy. Everyone I know (myself included) who has tried to read it has said its a slog. Buzz is great. Buzz is what every author DREAMS of, and a lot of it is well-deserved. Having a book on 20 end of year lists is a blessing from above.
But many end of year lists have literally the exact same top 10 books in a different order. This makes me wonder if people are copying one another, or if rankers are just afraid of adding something a little too weird or a little too much, something that doesn’t quite have mainstream appeal. I don’t know. What I know is that only one of the approximately 20 book lists I’ve opened had a book on it that I haven’t heard of before which is insane because there are literally 300,000 books published each year.
1. There aren’t enough book reviewers
Not to make everything about the waning media industry (which lost, I shit you not, more than 3,000 jobs this year), but here we go. All of this boils down to the fact that there aren’t enough jobs. There aren’t enough people reviewing books to provide diverse enough lists to satisfy everyone. Because of that, very few places (Slate) are running more than one top 10 list for their writers. Because the industry is collapsing we have fewer outlets running fewer stories and trying to appeal to the broadest audience possible. When you try to appeal to everyone, you run into problem #2. No book list should be trying to appeal to everyone, but if your site needs clicks to survive and your colleagues are being laid off right and left, of course that is going to be your priority, and there’s no shame in that. But it’s bad for readers, and it’s bad for books.
Part of the reason that the lists feel so bad if you’re excluded from them is that both of these industries (writing in media and writing in books) are extremely volatile. It is hard to get published. It is even harder to make money. There are very, very few wins. Whether your book succeeds or fails is based on 500 factors that you have absolutely no control over. Because there is no stability in the paychecks or careers of most writers, they are more vulnerable. Without a job and worried about the next four months, I am much more vulnerable to criticism than I was before. I am also much more desperate for praise. Praise, being on lists, writers hope, can fill the dark hole in ourselves created by an unstable industry that tells us we’re worth nothing. But of course it can’t.
The problem with the End of Year lists is that they exist in the center of a venn diagram of two industries that are deeply broken and deeply unfair, and that’s why they feel so bad.
Now that I’ve talked a whole lot of shit about lists, I will be sending my list of the Top 10 books I read (with absolutely no constraints because this is my newsletter!!) for subscribers only on December 27. This Friday, subscribers will get my special emotional dispatch from Portugal.