Have you ever wondered just how a book you’re enjoying — whether print or electronic — came into existence? There is, as it turns out, a whole system of people and businesses — from the author who had the story idea to the shop that sells the final product — that brings our books to life. It’s what we call the literary ecosystem.
If you’re a reader, writer, or any kind of self-described book nerd, you’ve probably heard this term being thrown around. But what does this ecosystem encompass? And why is it important for all of us to understand how it works?
What Is the Literary Ecosystem?
Although there is no single, official definition of “literary ecosystem,” the term is generally used to describe the interconnected businesses and people that create, publish, distribute, and sell books.
Who Is in the Literary Ecosystem?
Publishers are responsible for selecting the authors — often through the authors’ literary agents — whose stories we will eventually read. A publisher’s various departments will typically oversee editing, promoting, and distributing an author’s manuscript. At the time of this writing, there is a publishing “Big Five,” which includes Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan, but the industry also includes independent publishing houses and self-publishing authors.
Distributors and Wholesalers
When it comes to distributing books, most large publishing houses rely on an in-house sales staff to distribute their titles, while small- to mid-sized publishers tend to hire outside distributors to sell titles on their behalf. Distributors sell, warehouse, and ship titles to retailers and libraries. In addition to distributors, there are wholesalers who also distribute books to retailers and libraries. While a distributor typically represents a single publisher exclusively, a wholesaler is able to sell titles from multiple publishers.
Booksellers and Libraries
It’s at indie bookshops, bookstore chains, online retailers, and libraries that readers finally get their hands on books. Book buyers are responsible for curating the selection of titles available for purchase. Indie bookstore buyers are usually the store owners or managers, while chain bookstore buyers work from corporate offices. Book buyers base their decisions on a variety of factors, including experience and previous sales of an author, the prior success of similar books in their stores, and how much room they have on their shelves for a particular kind of book. Indie bookstores often try to make room for books from local authors.
Although they aren’t always included in the larger definition of the literary ecosystem, readers are arguably the most important component. They are, after all, the ones who determine the success of the books that have been published, distributed, and sold. Those successes, in turn, help publishers decide which authors and manuscripts to select in the future, which begins the cycle all over again.
Why the Literary Ecosystem Matters to Us
Not all of us work in the publishing industry, but all of us are readers. Not only can our book purchases support the authors who write the kinds of stories we love and crave, but if our choices help a book become successful, publishers and bookstore buyers will take notice. In this way, our purchasing patterns can affect the quality and diversity of the books we eventually see on bookstore and library shelves. And of course, being intentional about where we purchase books also gives us the opportunity to help support the bookshops that are important to us.
So, what are some simple ways we can help shape the literary ecosystem? Here are some questions to consider the next time you walk into a bookstore and see all the millions of possibilities awaiting you:
- Am I considering a diversity of authors (e.g. experienced, local, debut, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, etc.) that I’d like to support?
- Am I including the kinds of stories that I’d like to see more of, especially if those stories are underrepresented?
- Is there a book I borrowed from the library that I loved enough to buy, so I can further support that author?
- Am I buying from a retailer I want to support?
Once you’ve purchased and read a book that you really love, you can continue to bring visibility to it within the literary ecosystem by rating and reviewing it on Amazon, Goodreads, and other outlets. No matter how you decide to take part in the literary ecosystem, understanding how it works is the first step. Now, when you pick up a book, you can appreciate everything that’s gone into its creation and feel inspired to help bring more stories you love into the world.