Being “underrated” might be the good luck the writer is hoping for
“The realisation usually comes slowly. First, there is the conspicuous absence of reviews, publicity spots and invitations to literary festivals. Then there is the all-too-swift removal of your title from the glamorous New Release section of the bookstore, and its relegation to the densely packed Australian fiction shelves in the bowels of the shop. Lastly and most humiliatingly, you see that the single copy of your book has been turned perpendicular to the wall, now only visible by its spine. At this point, you know your novel has lived its short, inglorious life and there will be only a few more spluttering sales before it passes into the annals of the entirely ignored.” – Ilka Tampke in Writing is tough. My book went so unnoticed I won an award for it
Tampke says she was embarrassed about the award. Her family thought it was a joke. She didn’t even want to tweet about it because that would imply her publisher hadn’t done a good job when she thought they had.
I have mixed feelings about this award and also about lists that come out about this time every year about the most underrated books of the year. Excuse my cynicism, but most small-press books never become well known enough to be considered underrated. An entire segment of the bookselling industry is so far off the RADAR of the all-knowing and all-powerful movers and shakers that we’re totally ignored when sighs and whispers for underrated books are handed out.
At least, when a book is called “underrated,” much less getting an award for it, it is getting some publicity. Finally, somebody has noticed it. I understand the author’s embarrassment because I feel it with every book I write. It’s not my fault, nor my publisher’s fault because it’s an industry-wide problem: completely apathy from mainstream reviewers and publications about small-press (sometimes called boutique-press) books. The result is a real or imagined collusion between those who write about books and the big presses that control the industry.
If your book is labelled as “underrated,” you might have a chance because calling it underrated causes people to hear about it. Not that anyone really wants their long-time writing effort to end up in that category.
While Tampke is quick to point out that a writer’s primary motivation is not recognition, she adds that “The gift of the Most Underrated Book Award is that it gives my idea a second life. It says that the conversation begun by my book is worth continuing. It is a quietly handsome, yet sensitive man, walking over and finally asking my bespectacled girl to dance.”
I also don’t think writers write because we’re seeking gushing reviews and hefty monetary prizes. However, writing is a business and so a certain amount of recognition is required for that business to be profitable. That doesn’t happen when reviewers and off-book-page article writers ignore small-press books. There’s just no level playing field here.
I am happy to be with a wonderful small press, Thomas-Jacob Publishing, a Florida based publisher that releases books on the premise that “Readers want quality books that stimulate thoughtful discussion and debate.” My colleagues and I write books about issues that matter, so we’re always pleased when they find an audience. All we need now is for a major publication like The Guardian to come along and say, “Wow, look at these underrated books.”