There’s been lamentation in the streets about the abandonment of book coverage by many newspapers. The economic model of publishing a newspaper is troubled in our time. Many in the business have decided that book reviews aren’t popular enough to survive.
Let publishers shed crocodile tears if they must. With the extinction of reviews, it’s feared that casual readers might be discouraged from purchasing books. Concern in the media community always seems to be in getting non-readers to read. But if publishers would place stress on serving dedicated readers better, they would make more progress on encouraging literacy and book buying. Indie bookstores already understand this.
I’m afraid I’m cynical enough to believe that publishers are in their comfort zone with non-readers because they are not a threat to media hierarchies. It’s wonderful to lead non-readers into the light. But what do you do with reading fans who have already seen the light? I think they make publishers uncomfortable because they can know more about the books than most publishing employees.
I’m fascinated by the opening up of the BEA, ever so gingerly, to serious readers, to bloggers. Isn’t the possession of knowledge…power? What happens when a blogger, who knows their favorite writers as if they were members of their own family, encounters marketing managers who have never read them but are charged with promoting them?
Aren’t you supposed to know something about the product you’re selling? Or has that basic sales principle been suspended for publishers? Okay, I’m going to sell you a Mercedes, only I don’t drive.
Here at Three Guys, last week saw the close of a three-part discussion of Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW. Most of the first two parts of our discussion were devoted to Zadie Smith’s importance in our reading lives and how we think the new novel works. In the last part of our discussion, we had some serious criticism of the book.
Recently, I read several newspaper reviews of NW, especially from the U.K., and was shocked at how superficial they were…and how anodyne. My perspective on reading reviews has changed in the five years or so that I have been writing about books. If someone is paid by a newspaper to write a book review, that review had better have a higher quality of insight than I can provide for free. Often, it doesn’t. (Michiko, I love you!)
So you can see why I am not concerned if most casual newspaper reviews disappear. No great loss. We are not seeing an extinction of the critical evaluation of literature but an evolution into a more wide open country where any reader who cares can find a wealth of critical opinion. Some by paid professionals, some by unpaid bloggers…or write it yourself. The old passive model where we say: “If only that casual reader will stumble onto that book review on their way to the telly listings, then publishing will thrive.” is dead.
To professional reviewers I’ll say: “You have to be better than me. You must be. If you’re not, don’t expect any respect.”
Enthusiasm is contagious. Why don’t publishers understand? The best way to encourage the reading habit is to market to the fans, not to the blinking multitude who are waiting to be shown what they should care about.
When people sitting on the sidelines see how much fun the readers are having…and how much respect and attention they are getting from publishers…from writers…they will want to join in and become readers…and why not?…become critics or become writers…if they discover that they have that magic touch with words that all readers would love to have and the determination to develop it.