What Are the “Best Books of the Year”? Pt. 1

I’m in the home stretch, compiling the last 10 or 15 sources into the huge ABBC (All the Best Books Compilation) for 2011. I hope to post the final spreadsheet at the end of next week. It will include the best books as named by over 200 different sources. After looking at all of those lists (and compiling such a list for four years now), I’ve noticed many things about the nature of these “best of the year” lists. If you’re as bookish as me, I think you’ll find this interesting.

WHAT MAKES THE LISTS

Praise and publicity begets praise and publicity. You can’t get on many year-end lists if nobody has read your book. Conversely, obscure, edgy, boundary-pushing literary fiction receives better representation on the whole than mainstream books: there are still plenty of critics who like to ride the literary edge. The debut of a low or midlist author will likely get more attention than the second or third book. Titles published in the same year in the U.S., Britain, and Canada receive more concentrated attention than when the release is spread geographically over time. The advertising power of the big publishing houses still tells, and their books get much broader attention than those from small houses.

Literary fiction continues to get the most attention, but titles that can be thought of as both literary fiction and as genre fiction do the best of all (proportionally) when end-of-year honors are distributed. Certain genres get heavy attention, while others just don’t factor into end-of-year honors. Speculative fiction seems to be undergoing the highest growth. Are fantasy and science fiction getting better, are more people reading them, or are they just finding more critical acceptance? Crime fiction gets steady attention.  Young adult fiction and graphic works receive plenty of love. Disparities also exist in nonfiction, where certain topics–politics, history, biography and memoir, cookbooks, and technology–get much more attention than others.

WHAT DOESN’T GET REWARDED

Books in established series don’t get much love at awards time, certainly not compared to their popularity with readers. Romance novels, thrillers, women’s fiction, mainstream light literary fiction, paranormal fantasy and urban fiction receive few accolades, especially when compared to these genres’ popularity with readers. This year I reinstated the romance category in my compilation and then wished I’d left it out: there just doesn’t appear to be much consensus about what makes one book better than another in this category. Is there less to distinguish one book from another in these genres that can be more formulaic, or are those of us who work as book journalists just snobby? I’m not sure.

In nonfiction, non-narrative works–with the exception of cookbooks and a few art books–rarely get named to best-of lists. Sports writing, travel, business, the entertainment industry, consumer health, fitness and nutrition receive little attention compared to their readership. In the two previous years, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and books about the economic breakdown were heavily represented on the nonfiction lists, but this year the lists were much more diverse. Has public attention wavered from these big issues or have the publishers turned elsewhere?

Factory writers–those that farm their name out, co-writing books with other authors–have huge sales, but their books are almost completely missing from end-of-the-year honors. The same is true of most authors who crank out multiple books every year. We could debate forever whether this is because the books are formulaic, sloppy, and derivative or because critics refuse to read or appreciate writers that people love. All I’ll say is that even the more populist critics seldom put these books on their best lists. Altogether, James Patterson, Janet Evanovich, Clive Cussler, Nora Roberts and Alexander McCall-Smith have received a total of six mentions in the 2011 ABBC. Almost 200 different individual titles received more votes than these five publishing titans garnered together. Do you miss them?

E-BOOKS: VIRTUALLY INVISIBLE

Finally, I’ll note that in a time when the majority of book journalism seems to be about the growth of e-books and the reshuffling of the book world in the face of that growth, e-books don’t make much impact on the best-of-the-year lists. Very few books published exclusively in a digital format are receiving nods, and I can’t find a single example of a book published in this fashion that was mentioned often enough to make it anywhere near the top of my compilation in any category. Perhaps this is because the leaders of the book world are slower to embrace e-readers than the general populace. Perhaps the advertising machinery to break out a book published in this fashion isn’t quite in place. But then again, it could mean that works published electronically simply aren’t as good on the whole as those that pass through the process of traditional publishing. Or maybe we’re discovering that this brave new world of electronic publishing is not a good climate for new writers to break out of the pack. I suppose that time will tell.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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