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Around the Web with Jessica Zellers

*Originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of RA News.*

Writers have a long tradition of taking liberties with nonfiction. In 1539, for instance, Friar Marcos de Niza went in search of gold in the New World. His subsequent report about the Seven Cities of Cibola contained certain embellishments, if not outright lies, and led directly to the launch of the Coronado expedition. 

Unintentional mistakes are the most forgivable offense; even with diligent research and conscientious fact-checkers, errors do make it to print. This is the case, I would like to think, with Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich. Peter Schweizer's scathing book was found to have "seven or eight" inaccuracies after publication. There's nothing to be done for the print version of the book, but Amazon removed or revised the inaccurate passages for the Kindle edition.

"With physical shelves, at least, it's manageable to browse all of the books in your favorite section."

Schweizer's errors were relatively minor and presumably innocent. The same cannot be said for Primates of Park Avenue, a quasi-anthropological study of elite New York housewives who have somewhat more disposable income than the average librarian. Considering that the book is a memoir, one would expect author Wednesday Martin to be aware of such details as the year she gave birth to her child.

Incorporating a nonexistent son may make for a more compelling narrative, but it does cast doubt on Martin's reliability. For what it's worth, Simon & Schuster will add a disclaimer to future editions explaining that some details were changed. But don't worry: the controversy isn't stopping plans for the movie adaptation.

And then there are the doctors who publish books for popular audiences. On one end of the spectrum are the cautious, almost reluctant practitioners like Oliver Sacks. Sacks does not promote any agendas or hawk any products in his books; he simply blends medical science with storytelling. This is in sharp contrast to doctors such as David Perlmutter, whose book The Grain Brain promotes unorthodox medical theories. If we are to believe Perlmutter, following his nutritional advice can lead to nearly miraculous health improvements -- though it certainly can't hurt to purchase his food supplements or to attend his detoxification retreats.

Perhaps I am being too harsh on Dr. Perlmutter. He needs to earn money somehow, and writing is such a dicey prospect: nonfiction writers, according to a survey conducted by Queen Mary University of London, earned an average of £14,135 in 2013. Which is -- hold on a sec -- okay, that's $22,291. Actually that figure doesn't sound too shabby, if that income is supplementing a fulltime job, but it's not going to encourage anyone to drop everything and live the dream as a professional writer.

The survey results are depressing; in 2013, for instance, 17% of all UK authors earned a grand total of zero pounds. (This translates to zero US dollars.) And the income disparity is stark, with the bulk of sales going to a small handful of top earners. This is unfortunate for writers, obviously, but for readers as well. Because publishers see the most profit from established, bestselling authors, they are less likely to promote backlist and debut authors. This narrows the field of choices for readers.

Or rather, this narrows the field of books within traditional print publishing. With the glut of self-published titles flooding the market, especially in e-book form, not just hundreds of thousands but millions of books are being published each year. There's something for everyone, but good luck finding it. If you spent thirty seconds looking at precisely one million titles, it would take nearly a full year to glance through them all -- but then you wouldn't have time to actually read the books. Or sleep.

The problem is discoverability: readers' advisory writ very, very large. Libraries and booksellers have always tried to collect good titles and to connect them with readers, but we all know of excellent books that languish on the shelves, despite our best efforts. With physical shelves, at least, it's manageable to browse all of the books in your favorite section.

Otis Chandler, CEO and co-founder of Goodreads, channels his inner Malcolm Gladwell to describe the people who drive discoverability. He identifies three types of people who have the power to make a book stick out from the crowd. First are the notable readers, people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who have both the fame and the credibility to promote books. Then there are popular authors, who can steer their fans toward new books, and finally there are the influential readers, who are ordinary people with a lot of reach. This group includes book bloggers and Goodreads reviewers.

Regrettably, Chandler didn't say a single word about librarians, a group of people dedicated to promoting books. But we'll get the last laugh. Roly Keating, director of the British Library, reckons that libraries predated the internet and may well outlast it.

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Jessica Zellers is a Collection Development Librarian with the Mid-Continent Public Library. She has a weakness for fat Russian novels.