Best book articles are all the rage these days. Readers look to them for bookish guidance, Google can't seem to get enough and editorial outlets must adore them, considering they pump them out like factories powered by the tears of unpaid interns. Well, what about authors?
Truth be told, many authors would rather get railed by an inexperienced top than write a single top 10 best book listicle. That could just be a me-thing, but judging by the very real scientific data that is definitely not a Star Trek: DS9 music video, unlikely.
Let me explain why best book listicles are about as fun as a backdoor root canal, why it matters, and why you should probably occupy your time reading books instead of articles about books by brands paid to push specific books into your dry sockets.
To set the scene for this exploration of the business behind book articles, Denis Leary's "Asshole" (1993) is great mood music. Pleasant acoustic guitar strumming, a self-aware comedian sings about the stereotypical American asshole using himself as parody proxy. In all honesty, I might be Denis Leary's spiritual twin and this article might be my "Asshole."
Not literally, of course. I don't have anything against my asshole. In another life, I might've had a career revolving around it, but that's a story for another time.
This time, you're reading an article about articles which will probably make you think I'm an asshole. I'm fine with this, but I need you to be fine with this, because if you can't you're going to have a bad time. Denis is singing. Let's go.
The Problem With Top 10 Best Book Listicles
Something I struggle with as an independent author is the juxtaposition between book business online dynamics and the call of the artist. Essentially, I'm constantly torn between doing the business thing vs. doing the artist thing.
To get specific, many independent authors struggle with PR and reach. For this reason, we must rank online all by ourselves with no support. Neat, huh? You do that with search engine optimization, reader keywords and targeting consumer needs with op-eds. But this is painfully boring.
It's not interesting for those of us who enjoy writing-as-art to pen articles like "The Top 10 Sci-Fi Books of The Past Decade" or "Looking For A Good Book? Try These 5 Bestsellers." Sure, they're effective for business KPIs, Google likes them and readers do too. But they're about as fun as anal anarchy. Which is to say, not fun for most people (I'm not here to yuck anyone's yum).
Moreover, author-artists like me are picky. I don't have 10 science fiction books made in the past decade I'd recommend, let alone 5 new titles. My book recommendations? Live in 1867, 1973, 1997, 2008, some incredible indie books including ones that haven't been released yet (Dave! Natalie!), only 1 blockbuster title, and 1 gorgeous novel trad pub should've drenched in marketing money, but didn't.
Ultimately, the issue with Best Book Listicles is that the marketing angle is obvious, they're boring to write, and when you know why they're written, they're even more boring to read. Fun!
How Do You Solve The Top 10 Best Book Listicles Problem?
There are four solutions that can temper the dissonance between Effective Book Business Move and Interesting Artist Move. Just like life, all of them come with pleasures and pains. Pleasures like a field of wildflowers, and pains like a boring person installing yet another Walmart directly on top of said field, killing everything good, pure and beautiful on God's green earth. This is fun.
First, you can write your real book recommendations instead of suctioning onto trendy titles you definitely didn't read all for the love of SEO. Secondly, you can write blog novellas based on keywords. Both these options come with issues.
The first doesn't hit KPIs, because if the book isn't trendy, people don't care and won't find your post past all the digital chicken grease. Read a marketing book, this is science. The second makes for crap that nobody will want to read anyways. Are you having fun? I'm having fun.
Moving on, number three: write tips to help indie authors actually succeed. Sadly, this only works if capitalism forced your art-brain to run business software. It's not unlike strapping someone to a cot and torturing them until part of their brain liquifies into runny snot. Actually, it's exactly like that, which I know for reasons I will only tell you if you pay me a million dollars.
Finally, you can write a real short story and say "Fuck it" to the madness of book SEO. This is beautiful, but as sad as it is to say, it won't help you pierce the attention economy's wall of strategically compressed plastic unless you get extremely lucky. As I have yet to create a blowtorch for the plastic barrier, all of us must suffer. Sorry.
Moreover, both these options bring artists and business people to your internet doorstep. While attracting artists is lovely, they tend to have very little money and are less of the population than you think. Moreover, asking artists to pay for anything makes me feel like shit. In reality, independent authors need cash for books, because most of us weren't lucky enough to score millions via Twilight fanfic written for cishet women with husbands who can't find the fun button.
I'm not currently poor, but I will definitely become poor again while writing and marketing a 10-book series with zero industry leverage. Unless, of course, I attract people who have money to burn that I don't mind latching to and draining of all life essence. But that raises yet another problem.
You'd think gathering business people with how-to articles would be clever, but if you do that, they'll think you're a freelancer. Then, they'll beg you to build complex things they can't for reasons they don't understand and rarely value and now you're distracted from making great art because you're puking boring graphics for somebody's miraculous Uber of Yogurt.
Now, I love my clients from the freelance days, but they were gamers, artists and nerds. You know, normal people. But they're the exception to the rules. Furthermore, the longer you sit in business lanes, the more your brain cooks and you need your grey mush to make great art.
If These Solutions Seem Bad, Congraggulations. They Are.
You're seeing the issue: the Contentifuckation of Al Gore's internet turned writerly essays into myths that—as of right now—are only effective if you already have reach. Big authors can write cool shit whenever because their established reach affords it. SEO articles make easier wins for tiny indies who have none of that heft. However, SEO articles are fucking boring.
Another way to score reach without feeling like you're whisking your brain with a metal rod inserted in the eye is to pitch writerly essays to big editorial outlets. But I shouldn't have to tell anyone how difficult it is to get a foot in that door these days.
First of all, inboxes are stuffed with corporate rot and AI novella spam. If you're lucky enough to get seen beyond the wall of mattress newsletters and robot diarrhea, publishing is all about connections and vibes. Regardless of your wordsmithery, if you haven't already paid your listicle dues, nobody knows you're a human because COVID killed book events, you're too autistic for that shit anyways and online networking is full of robot DMs, this is hard to pull off.
Basically, you can never run from The Top 10 Best Book Listicle once you know its curse exists. It Knows Where You Are. It Watches You Even When You Take A Shit. You can't escape, just like that indie horror/psychological thriller about the outlandish fears of STDs. Which was very good, but I digress. Let Denis Leary's voice carry you through to the end.
Is There Another Way to Solve This Business vs. Art Issue?
Yes, there's one more way to get beyond the "BookTok's Top 10 Best Romance Recommendations" problem. In fact, you're reading it. Right now.
I've finessed book keywords all over this article. When I submit it to Google, which is now cracking down on AI op-eds, it'll know I'm human and reward me for being made of meat. Then, I'll do a slutty Satanic ritual in the forest with a computer carcass surrounded by dick-shaped candles, thus increasing my power level in ways I don't find criminally boring.
The only problem now is that everyone reading this knows I'm an asshole, but maybe that's OK. Maybe drawing a line in the metal sand with a rusty fork will save me from the curse of book listicles. Maybe Denis Leary will read it and tell me he's proud of me.
I don't know, but what I do know is that if I'd rather write an article for assholes, get my asshole destroyed, or look like an asshole than write a single book listicle, those things must be really painful for me. They might even be painful for most authors who actually enjoy writing, and wouldn't that just suck a big bag of unwashed butts?