Precious Cargo

Refreshingly Bitter And Twisted Observations On Life's Passing Parade.

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Ten Best Books of the Year

Year end best lists are ephemeral exercises in drawing attention to the publication issuing the list. They're good for water cooler talk. I found a couple of mildly interesting responses to The New York Times's list of the year's ten best books.

Books of the year features can seem pretty pointless, ladling hype on books that have already been fulsomely praised. In order to elicit livelier responses, Prospect asked a range of contributors to nominate their "most overrated and underrated books of 2006."
Carol Hoenig sees something amiss with the Times's list.

What is striking to me, however, is the lack of publisher diversity on this arbitrary list. Four of the titles are under Random House imprints, three under Penguin, and then one each for Scribner, which is a Simon & Schuster imprint, Harcourt and, finally, Henry Holt, which has a co-publishing agreement with The New York Times. Quite likely, your average Joe or Joanne will not pay attention to the publisher, but when one is somehow involved in the industry, it takes on a different significance.

This is not to say that none of these books deserves to be on this list. Actually, I have respect for the authors selected and appreciate any support that one can get when it encourages reading. I wonder, though, just what the criterion was for selecting these books. I decided to check back to 2005's top ten pick and discovered that Random House, which is a division of Bertelsmann AG, had a whopping seven on the list while Penguin had two and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, one. Gladly, 2004 was somewhat more diverse, with one university press (Oxford) being represented.

There is an answer to Carol Hoenig's question. One criteria is the amount of advertising a publisher places for their books in the New York Times Book Review. observed another criteria, the relationship between the amount of coverage a book written by a Times staffer or contributor received from their paper.

A third criteria could well be sales figures for the books chosen. I haven't bothered to look at the list and then check how many of the 100 notable books or the top ten are also among the most popular books of the year, but I wouldn't be surprised if they were. To close this loop, it also bears pointing out that the books that receive the most advertising support from their publishers are also usually the ones that sell the best. The top ten list is an expression of a self-fulfilling prophecy.


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