When a well-connected author comes out with a new book, she makes the rounds of the various shows—radio and television. Such others also get mentioned fairly often. For example, a few days ago I was listening to NPR and the author Karen Russell was apparently the author of the day. Her latest book, Sleep Donation, was reviewed and she also was interviewed. Her book was also mentioned regularly throughout the day. Authors who have their own shows, such as Bill O’Reilly, can (and do) plug their own books. The authors are also supported by those who might be regarded (or at least regard themselves) as the cultural elite. These are the people, such as Oprah, who tell the rest of us what is good.
There is, obviously enough, considerable advantage to being blessed by the curators of culture. First, there is the boon of exposure. One way to look at this is a bit inaccurate but still useful. A book can be thought of as having a certain percentage of people who will buy the book—if they hear about it. Alternatively, this can be thought of in terms of there being a certain percent chance that a person who hears of the book will buy it. So, for example, a book with a 5% purchase rating would be bought by 5% of those who hear about it (or each person who hears about it has a 5% chance of buying it). While this is obviously an abstract simplification, it does nicely show that the more people who hear about a book, the more the book will sell. This is true even of books that are not that good. This is the same principle that email spam and blog spam works on: if enough people hear about something, even if the response rate is low money can still be made. Obviously enough, when an author is able to get on a talk show to talk about her book, her sales will increase. Likewise for other forms of exposure for the author and the book. Equal obvious is that fact that access to the curators of culture is limited and carefully controlled—an author has to be suitably connected to make it into that circle of media light. This suitable connection might even be a matter of luck—the book just happens to catch the attention of the right person and the author is invited, perhaps briefly, into the circle.
Second, there is the gift of endorsement. If a book is endorsed or praised by the right people, this will typically grant a significant boost to sales—over and above the boon granted by exposure. While endorsement does provide exposure, exposure does not always entail endorsement. After all, the curators of culture do sometimes speak of books they dislike or regard as bad. While the condemnation of a work can impair its sales, the exposure can increase sales. There is also the fact that being condemned by the right sort of people can boost sales. In the case of ideological works, for example, being condemned by an ideological foe can often boost sales among ideological friends.
As discussed in an early essay, the quality of a work has little connection to its success. Luck, as noted in that essay, is a major factor. Exposure and endorsement add to this (although either or both might be acquired by luck). While the ideal would be that works receive exposure and endorsement proportion to their merit, there is little correlation. The best books need not be the most exposed or most highly endorsed. Mediocre (or worse) books might garner great attention and receive unwarranted praise from the curators of culture.
This is not to say that merit never achieves success, just that merit seems to be a rather small factor in successful sales. Sometimes, just sometimes, a meritorious work does achieve success against long odds—but this is notable in its rarity.