Much of the problem lies with the publishing industry. For each of the biggest companies — including Macmillan and Simon & Schuster — a book is anointed each season or year as The One. The limelight is thrown upon it. The bulk of the promotional budget is funneled toward it. Reporters are marshaled to support it. The book is pushed hard with established chains and indie booksellers.
They make it a success. Ostensibly, this effort offsets the weaker sales of other titles. One or two big hits, such as Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” or Michelle Obama’s memoir “Becoming,” can subsidize a publishing house’s less trendy offerings. But look too hard at this model, and its flaws become clear. It costs a fortune to make a book a best seller. (Again, Ms. Cummins received a seven-figure deal for “American Dirt.”)
And there are other allied mechanisms applying pressure to the market, such as endorsements by celebrities, tastemakers and influencers. Early “American Dirt” blurbs from prominent writers, several of them Latinas (Sandra Cisneros, Erika Sánchez), have recently been underscored by book selfies from prominent Latina movie stars (Yalitza Aparicio, Salma Hayek, Gina Rodríguez).
Perhaps the most significant imprimatur a new release can get is selection by Oprah’s Book Club. Established in 1996, the initiative selects up to five books each year based on criteria known only to Ms. Winfrey. The list is mostly books by white and African-American authors, ranging from obscure literary fiction to pulpy popular thrillers. Uncomfortably, not one of the 82 books selected so far was written by a Mexican or Mexican-American. Only four are by Latinx or Latin American authors.
According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Oprah’s Book Club has proved to be the greatest outside influence on sales in the market. As you might imagine, there’s a downside to her ability to ensure a best seller: The economist Craig L. Garthwaite has found that for at least 12 weeks after the club’s announcement, sales of other adult books decline.
In turning down the offer with Oprah’s Book Club, Ms. Horan was willing to put her reputation and job on the line. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this act. Ms. Horan runs what is believed to be one of the largest single-story libraries in the country. She holds leadership positions in multiple organizations. She’s a powerful figure in literacy on the state and national level.
And she was a collaborator, standing with us. The underrepresented. The less powerful. The A.L.A. knew from the beginning what title had been selected. That’s why they suggested the McAllen Public Library as the best venue for promoting this atrocious piece of cultural appropriation.