Friday, May 07, 2010

Hail the Death of the Book Review Section - Repost

A return to my lazy practice of re-posting this time on the supposed death of newspaper book review sections. Given that PW, LJ and SLJ are now under new management will we see a re-invigoration of the reviewing of books? Originally published on April 30th, 2007.

Over the past several months, there has been a lot of hand wringing and wailing regarding the demise of newspaper book review sections. The prevailing view is that if books are not supported by reviews in these publications then books will be less read. This is nonsense. I am a staunch supporter of newspapers, but they are locked in a vortex of decreasing print circulation which the reviews sections are just a part. Perhaps it should be no surprise that publishers do not want to believe that a paper based medium is fast becoming irrelevant, but rather than try to buck a trend, publishers should be evacuating this medium just as other advertisers have already done. If I advertised on a bill board at an intersection that was made redundant by a by-road, I would be a mug if I continued to advertise on the same billboard rather than seek to advertise closer to the bi-road.

'Advertising' has to morph into something different. Word of mouth is incredibly powerful as is replicating some of the in-store benefits (excepts and chapters) which is how book focused sites and bloggers can support publisher's efforts. It is doubtful that the existing print display ads work at all. They are not frequent enough and obviously one dimensional. Other than for identifiable authors it is unlikely that one of these ads will hit a reader on precisely the right occasion. These print ads also expire virtually immediately when the paper is read. On the web however, a 'body of work' can develop around a title that includes multiple reviews and supporting material from a publisher that will grow in depth and value over time. Think about how this supports the 'long tail' of publishing.

Publishers have more not fewer options when it comes to supporting their titles via review sites however they do not seem to be doing so aggressively. Currently both publishers and book review editors seem locked into presenting reviews in antiquated ways. The branding and site traffic that newspapers exhibit on their web pages could be better maximized by publishers to support their titles. In Sunday’s NYT review section, Clare Messud reviewed Edith Wharton. There were no first chapters (excerpts), no similar titles previously reviewed by NYT, no reviews or books written by Messud and no purchase option. For many years, UK national newspapers have offered more functionality and purchase options (not via for their book sites, and is a lead US publishers should encourage. (The Times).

The suggestion that eliminating review sections from major newspapers will reduce exposure to books in uninformed. There has been an explosion in the number of sites dedicated to providing good, authoritative reviews of books. Most of the work of identifying the best of these has been done and some sites have become strong ‘brands’ themselves. It may require more administration dealing with these sites/reviewers versus the metro newspapers and Publisher’s Weekly but increasingly the people who buy books are looking to these types of sites to aid their purchase decisions. Not surprisingly, these sites should represent an increasing part of a publisher’s promotion plan suggesting that galleys and pre-publication materials should be circulated to these influencers to support book launch activities. (Librarian’s Place, Grumpy, TheMillions, to name three).

A hidden third benefit derives from the breadth of the web itself that begets a wide expanse of coverage. Reviews of obscure titles can be found to be supported by proficient and/or professional writing and readers do not have to wait until Sunday for the NYT or LAT to tell us what is important or not worth reading. Additionally, these reviews are supported and linked to by other reviewers and together with comments by consumers further ‘legitimizes’ the review (and reviewer). Hence, over time, a 'body of work' to support the titles and continued sales down the long tail. There is so much more the web affords in support of reading and books that it is tragic that so much attention is paid to supporting a delivery mechanism that is not only sub-optimal but in its death throws.

Articles on Reviews Sections:
The Millions
The Century Foundation

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