Thursday, June 14, 2007

Wednesday Evening at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen Library: "Save Our Book Reviews!" Panel

Recently many newspapers have been cutting or eliminating their book review pages or sections and downsizing their book review staffs. Last evening we went to the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen Library on West 44th Street for a "Save Our Book Reviews!" panel discussion sponsored by the New York Center for Independent Publishing (NYCIP; formerly the Small Press Center) and the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC).

After being introduced by NYCIP executive director Karin Taylor, moderator John Freeman, the NBCC President, who's reviewed hundreds of books in publications worldwide, in turn introduced the panelists: M.A. (Michael) Orthofer, managing editor of the web site The Complete Review; Sarah McNally, owner of McNally-Robinson Booksellers; Dan Simon, publisher of Seven Stories Press; Tim W. Brown, freelance reviewer and NYCIP Executive Council member and Hannah Tinti, author of Animal Crackers and editor of One Story.

John began by asking if book reviews matter, if they sell books.

Dan said that at best, book reviews start beautiful electricity, that some books would have been ignored but for an inspired New York Times Book Review notice that led to a snowballing series of events that got them a lot of notice and sales. Historically, book reviews have made all the difference in the world; in some ways, reviewers are his press's ideal readers. However, today book reviews carry less weight than they used to. Once the cover of NYTBR would be magic for a book's sales, but now a NYTBR cover review may not create a ripple.

John noted that the crisis in newspaper book reviewing did not affect the New York Times, whose book review is healthier than ever.

Sarah said that in smaller cities, book reviews did affect customers. Younger people may use websites to get book information, not reviews, but older people are very review-conscious. She wondered if fewer local reviews outside the New York area, particularly in the South and Midwest, have affected book sales there.

Sarah continued that although the NY Times may be okay, literary culture is based locally all around the U.S. Some reviewers do sell books, and she said that Dan's use of the word "inspired" was perfect. A single review can bring in dozens of customers in one day. An example she offered was Australian writer Tim Flannery, who got a glowing daily NY Times review for his novel Deconstruction Acres.

Tim agreed with Sarah about the importance of reviews for sales, but said that newspaper cutbacks were leading to fewer reviews. People also use their personal networks and word of mouth to decide what books to buy as cracks appear in the edifice of mainstream media.

John asked Hannah about One Story's audience, and she said the publication's now five years old; it began to fill a gap after Story and other fiction magazines closed. It provides a focus on one story, is only subscription-based, and now is sent out 18 times a year, every three weeks, to over 4,000 subscribers. When her authors do have books published, they have to work harder than ever to get book reviews.

John brought up the example of Virginia Woolf and how her literary criticism provided her with income. If literary interest leads to fewer book reviews, where will today's Virginia Woolfs make their living? He then turned to Michael and asked him about the Complete Review.

Michael said he was interested first in the possibilities of the Internet, where he noticed lots of book reviews but few places with links to them. He wanted to provide access to opinions and publish information. The Internet has great potential for book information, but it's not a substitute for newspapers.

John said that the Complete Review focuses a lot on independent presses and asked if print review culture does less for indie publishers. Michael said yes, and gave Tina Brown's book on Princess Diana, which got the cover review in Sunday's NYTBR and is being reviewed by many newspapers. But it's not appropriate punishment for lack of newspaper attention to small presses to cut back these reviews. It's just that papers aren't living up to their potential when they pick Tina Brown on Diana over their own local literature.

John said that print reviews vary widely in quality. Some NYTBR reviews are so badly written that no one would buy a book because of them while a more stylishly written review on the web could be more productive of book sales.

Sarah quoted the line said to the nineteenth century literary critic Belassarion Belinsky in Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia: "You are our one true critic." What is the point of reviews, though, if publishers have only a short-term mentality?

John said that Dan published the 2007 Human Rights Report but found it impossible to get reviews because of newspaper editors' fealty to mainstream publishers' frontlists.

This led Dan to discuss what being an "independent" publisher actually meant. He saw it not so much about non-corporate ownership but about non-corporate values: an alternative set of values that have created a network or an ecosystem that includes not just presses but indie bookstores, web people, reviewers (including NBCC folks): picaresque underpaid true believers. Nobody owns these people, so smaller newspapers can't tell them what to write. The literary ecosystem can't function without any one of these groups. As publishers, it's hard to get reviews yet somehow we always get them. When the ecosystem breaks down somewhere, as in the loss of book reviews, it has a devastating effect; writers get depressed they can't sell their books and they stop writing.

Sarah said that for her as a bookstore owner, it's impossible to buy books without review quotes, especially for paperback originals. Consumers respond to the review quotes when they see books at McNally Robinson's front tables. John asked if front table placement affects sales more than book reviews, and Sarah said yes, but not without review quotes. She will not buy paperback originals that don't have review quotes.

Tim said this was not so much interconnectedness, the term Dan and John used, but a kind of sick symbiosis in a highly dysfunctional publishing industry and went back to his metaphor of cracks in the edifice of mainstream media. He mentioned Rain Taxi, which he reviews for (copies were being given away for free at the symposium), as an example of a thoughtful independent journal that reviewed books. Other ways to sell books are through personal appearances, panel discussions, publicity events. NYCIP's mission is to defend and uphold the ethos of indie presses. Aside from Rain Taxi, Bloomsbury Review, American Book Review and other publications exists besides the NYTBR.

John said he was worried that Tim's model for book culture excluded the mass audience. Tim said no, books like Jerry Seinfeld's autobiography are review-proof and will sell to the masses regardless. The type of book Tim wants to review is not for everybody, it's for a niche audience: "I work as a reviewer below the radar."

John noted that many of the publications Tim mentioned are also available on the Web and that Rain Taxi is sold in China. Turning to Hannah, he asked if her story collection (an excellent book, if I can intrude here) Animal Crackers got a wider audience due to book reviews.

Hannah said word of mouth helped more, especially her parents' word of mouth. (Laughter.) But also before every reading she did in various towns, the local indie bookstore would usually contact the local newspaper, which would schedule a review or interview her. She said that playing all angles with a lot of will power can overcome a publisher's lack of financial resources for publicity.

Book blogs are exploding, Hannah said, and these vibrant websites are more "where the action is" than a newspaper recycling an AP review. Authors want a variety of reviews, wherever they are found. She said that One Story's website provides information about their authors' books and their forthcoming readings; this has made a lot of difference for some of these writers.

Tim said that journalists were very lazy people, that the books they write about are the result of being fed press releases: "Every newspaper reviews the same five damn books on Sunday." Book review pages shouldn't be this passive; they should be more engaged and proactive.

John noted that of NBCC's 700 critic members, many live outside New York, with the largest contingent in San Francisco. The NBC believes that the more people discuss books, the better off American culture is, and the best way to reach average people is in the local newspaper. However, regional papers are abrogating cultural responsibility to the New York Times, AP, etc. No matter how great book websites are, the average person can't read 200 blogs and webzines every day, but they can pick up a newspaper.

These papers are, with the exception of some family-owned entities like the NY Times, owned by conglomerates, John said. For example, the Village Voice is run by a Phoenix-based chain of alternative weeklies that is openly hostile to book reviews. The venues for young writers to get paid for their reviews are shrinking as these weeklies tool their culture coverage to entertainment, pop culture and corporate interests. While the Internet exhibits a lot of promise -- and have the advantage of being able to review books past the narrow time frame newspapers require (very close to a book's pub date) -- does this mean giving up on the "accidental reader" that a newspaper review may attract? Will book reviews be read only by a certain niche?

Michael said that although he publishes on the Internet, he wanted accidental readers. If we are just talking talking to ourselves, separating ourselves into a group of people who think the same, can that be good?

John then turned the discussion to literary prizes, one of which seems to be given out every three weeks. What effect do prizes have on sales?

Sarah said that prizes are a huge deal. People particularly love her store's Booker Prize display (they put out the current and past winners) even more than the displays for the National Book Award or the Pulitzer. Prizes bring people into the store and give books a wider audience. She thinks it is a good thing for a lot of people to read some particular book so that it serves as a pillar for discussions. Prizes also can eliminate the gap between indie and corporate publishers. She reiterated that indie books sell well only when they are on a table with "mainstream" books, and this happens when stores create displays based on prizes and awards.

Then the panel took questions from the audience.

Someone asked who is the "client base" of book reviewers, publishers or book buyers? Reviewers seem to hype big-advance Random House books, for example. If you rip off a book's title and strip it of its publisher and author, it would be better for the many good books that get published but not read.

John said that critics don't all think a lot. He just sends publications queries about reviews he wants to do, and some venues are more receptive than others. If he suggested doing a book in translation to an editor in Cleveland, she might counter by suggesting a book for which she'd received a press release that day.

If a critic said he wanted to review Robert Walser but the editor wanted a review of Jasper Fforde's latest book, the latter would be the one to get assigned. If we reviewed only small press books, we'd miss out on good work. One problem small presses have in getting reviews is that unlike large publishers, they can't afford to print 5,000 galleys for distribution.

Tim said that being proactive pays off. He's never reviewed for major newspapers. He deliberately looks for books to review based on his own level of interest; for example, he reviewed one of Dan's books for that reason. Employees of newspapers are beholden to their corporate employers, but he had a day job and just got paid in copies, like most writers whose work appears in literary magazines.

An audience member said she had been reviewing books for 30 years, but she can't find anything out about small press books before their pub date. At small press book fairs, she approaches publishers asking for info before the pub date; these small presses seem unaware that editors won't accept books for review after the pub date.

John said there's a six week window generally. He just reviewed a book published in March and tried to hide the pub date from his editor. He agreed that there are structural problems regarding both time and information; if it's hard to get a book, people can't review it.

Tim said that proportionally, books from small publishers probably get reviewed more than most conglomerate books because at these giant companies, only their top tier books get reviewed and they don't care so much about the others.

Karin said that small presses should realize that they can declare the pub date later than when the books actually come back from the printer. NYCIP can help provide small presses with information like this, that they don't necessarily know but which might be crucial to success. Also, prizes specifically for indie presses tend to get overlooked and that they should work with the NBCC to get these prizes better known. John mentioned that NBCC's poetry prize winner had a press run of only 500 copies, so how many copies could that publisher afford to give away for free? They needed a targeted list.

An audience member who identified himself as a self-published writer noted that the New York Times dropped its Sunday TV listings section but kept the book review because it generated ads. He gave What Color Is Your Parachute?as an example of a book originally self-published that gained a large audience through word of mouth, which is how music albums also have achieved commercial success.

John agreed that word of mouth is the number one reason books are bought. People pick up books that look and sound interesting to them.

Tim said there's a difference between the corporate and indie personalities, and reviewers are, of course, individuals. The empowerment of an individual voice can do a lot in assessing the value of books or other cultural objects.

Hannah mentioned the lack of profitability of books of short stories, which she said were just "one step ahead of poetry."

An audience member identifying herself as an academic said that in the academic book reviews she writes, the pub date is irrelevant, that she's reviewed books years after they first came out. She stopped reading the NYTBR because it's too boring; missing from is a sense of style, a sense of verve, pizazz, or a moral vision.

She asked if NBCC members discuss this problem of style. She herself never reads reviews of fiction books because they are all plot summary; instead,she depends for recommendations on booksellers and, yes, Oprah. She is not interested in plot summary but in the use of language, a book's theme and vision, but the NYTBR fiction reviews are almost entirely plot summary when they should be the kind of essays that Woolf wrote.

John said it was often a question of space in a review that could not be more than 600 words. Once a critic presents the book, there may only be 450 words left. But longer reviews are not necessarily better; an example was the 6,000-word NYTBR review of Norman Mailer, which he found "deadly." The academic in the audience said that she enjoyed that review.

John said some NYTBR reviews are quite well-written. The NBCC has the Nora Balakin Citation for excellent book reviewing, and it was won recently by someone who reviews for the San Antonio Current. Other great stylists have also won this award.

But, John continued, some newspapers require an institutional style. It's almost always verboten to use the first person. He was assigned a review on the aftermath of Hiroshima and was writing the review on the morning of 9/11; he thought that it would be relevant to use "I" in the review to describe what he saw from his window that day, but it got edited out. For the most stylish reviews, people probably have to go to literary journals and magazines like The New Yorker.

Tim said his novel reviews were often from 400-600 words, and he compared composing this kind of book review akin to the structured way a poet might write a villenelle. Most of the skills to do this kind of review he learned by third grade, from doing book reports, perhaps combined with what he learned in high school about "theme."

Hannah said that she got a lot of responses to reviews of her book that appeared in small local newspapers. Whether the reviews were good and bad, she connected with people, and it was interesting to see the different responses.

John asked everyone to name a stylish critic and he himself offered Anthony Laine and also John Updike, whose tools include his vast experience and vocabulary. Karen said she agreed with the audience member who found the NYTBR boring. Dan offered the name of Joel Agee (an old friend of ours from a Park Slope writing group in the 1970s), who reviews books in translation. John mentioned that the New York Sun has well-crafted reviews, particularly by NBCC member Adam Hirsch. Tim said Christopher Hitchens was a stylish reviewer and Hannah offered "this guy named John Freeman." (Laughter.)

A young audience member discussed the issue of not wanting to alienate the casual reader. There is a myriad of strategies publishers can follow. He mentioned Big Crossing, a book borrowing system, as well as niche blogs. Casual readers, especially if they're older, don't have the time to do Internet surfing. But for younger people, aren't these alternative methods of reviewing becoming mainstream?

Dan agreed that the Web is becoming mainstream; as a publisher, he couldn't survive without it.

John mentioned the NBCC blog, Critical Mass, which has half a million readers. However, in comparison, every Sunday's Hartford Courant had 400,000 readers, half of whom read the paper's book reviews while the NBCC blog attracts about 2,000 each day. He said a recent New York Times article portrayed a "beef" between bloggers and print reviewers and said this was inaccurate, that there is no war happening: "If people stop talking about books, we'll all be screwed."

An audience member asked what the panel thought of C-SPAN's book coverage. He also wanted to know about the demographics of Michael's Complete Review website. Michael said that The Literary Saloon blog gets about 10% of viewers and the reviews get the rest. Individual reviews can get as much traffic as the blog on a particular day; recently, reviews of Lolita and The Coast of Utopia got a lot of hits.

Dan said that C-SPAN did some events right here (the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen Library) and are supporters of indie publishing. Karin said her husband appeared on C-SPAN and for a while afterwards, they couldn't go out on the street without his being stopped by people who recognized it, so it must be bringing attention to books. John said C-SPAN's book coverage was nice but a little too much like cable access. The book coverage on Jon Stewart's and Stephen Colbert's shows is livelier but they never invite novelists on.

An audience member whose voice sounded familiar (later we realized it belonged to Ed, the young roving correspondent who interviews authors on the Bat Segundo podcasts) returned to the question of "the lack of pizazz" in the NYTBR. He mentioned John's statement about the banning of the first person in NYTBR reviews. If book reviews are so dull, why save them? Maybe they are making themselves obsolete with their current format and style (or lack of style). Why not grab readers by their lapels and give book reviews more electricity? And isn't the latter what online coverage is doing?

John said that book reviews aren't perfect. Because the NYTBR is so widely read, people copy the style of the reviews there. But there are hordes of book reviews, not all with that NYTBR "voice." He was not saying that book reviews are perfect.

Dan noted that Ed was speaking provocatively, that a writer can slip stuff in a book review that would never appear in another section of the newspaper.

Hannah said it would be great if reviews are more dynamic, but for that to happen, we need more book reviews. First-time authors don't have the kind of personal networks in the publishing world that allow them to survive without reviews.

Tim said it was bad to cut back on book coverage but that Ed may be right, that what is happening could be creative destruction, as one thing falls by the wayside as another grows up. He said the New York Times treated him well, that the paper was highly useful, but it is still a bit narrow and parochial.

Dan said we need local diversity, not just the NYTBR. We need to make sure books are talked about at the grassroots.

An audience member asked if galleys are beyond the financial reach of some small publishers, will book reviewers or publications that review books accept digital galleys. Tim said, "PDF is OK with me."

John said he recently reviewed a 3,000-page book which he read entirely on PDF, but some reviewers like to make notes in pen or pencil on the pages of the books they're reviewing, something they can't do yet with PDF although perhaps the technology will change. As for himself, he would like to see more books on PDF. He gets 100 galleys a week. Hannah suggested small publishers might try gauging interest and then doing a small sample of galleys to send to selected reviewers.

An audience member asked a question about pack journalism, and most panelist members agreed that was always a concern. Finally, it was well after the 8 p.m. scheduled end to the discussion, and Karin thanked John, his fellow panelists, and the audience for coming.

Afterwards we had the pleasure of meeting for the first time some of our favorite litbloggers: the aforementioned Edward Champion of Return of the Reluctant, Levi Asher of Literary Kicks (Lit Kicks), and MaryDell of Book Blog. Others in the audience engaged in informal discussions with the panelists for the next 20 minutes or so.

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