Saturday, May 12, 2007

Colbert & Rushdie Spar Over Book Reviews

Listen up nation, as some of you will remember I commented on what I thought of this pandemic of flagellation over the fate of the nations big city newspaper book review sections. Perhaps the concern ascribed to their obvious fate cuts some of us too close to the bone as we watch a print based media struggle with extinction but nevertheless the ensuing discussion about publishers not supporting the sections and perhaps readers not reading anyway continues to miss two main points.

Firstly, newspapers are simply not the best method of promoting books. It maybe they were never that great but for a long period of time they (and magazines) were the best outlet available. Word of mouth, which derives from publicity, not advertising which is message and awareness based has always been the most effective method of influencing sales. Witness the amazon 'reviews' sections and the ranks ascribed to reviews which 'helped' in confirming the book choice. In contrast, the web supports book reviewing and book promotion in ways print based newspapers and magazines can never achieve. As I commented in my original post, the ability to interlace supporting content around a central essay linking directly to sections of the book discussed, enabling direct author involvement and allowing readers, fans and critics to add content results in a valuable package or 'body of work' about the book. Here is the opportunity to make exploring reading more interesting but it is not an argument seen in any of the discussions over the past few weeks. For the most part the conversation has been one long lament.

Last December, Genevieve Tucker in The Australian newspaper anticipated some of the discussion around the reviews issue and eloquently discussed the issues and opportunities that the web offers book lovers. The following is representative of her article and is her conclusion.
Indyk may not consider his republic of letters has come to stay just yet, but many book bloggers would heartily endorse the words at the end of his 1997 essay and see them as a warning to those who would encroach upon their independence in he name of the marketplace: "It is in the conversation about literature, the recommendation and the debate, that the literary community really exists. It is here that reputations take root, and word of mouth, that mysterious and voluntary power that can sell more books than a fortune spent in advertising, has its source. To insulate authors from this realm, as has been the practice, is to guard them from the kind of challenge that is a spur to creativity. If you try to tamper with the conversation of criticism, if you restrict it in order to take all the space you can for hype, if in the end you silence it altogether, not only do you drive away readers, but you place a fatal limitation on authors as well.'
Secondly, there is a cultural snobbery that pervades best summed up in this comment by the author Richard Ford in the New York Times:

“Newspapers, by having institutional backing, have a responsible relationship not only to their publisher but to their readership,” Mr. Ford said, “in a way that some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute maybe doesn’t.”
Times they are a changing, and it is no longer the case that iconic media properties like the NY Times, LA Times and Atlanta Journal Constitution are the only outlets for legitimate cultural criticism. There are scores of highly regarded book reviewers with loads of web traffic producing critical analysis and support for the book industry. The publishing industry should be supporting these bloggers and website owners rather than waste time supporting a medium that hasn't adapted. Efforts by Random House and Harpercollins (others will follow) to make it easier to incorporate their content onto blog and web sites will only exaggerate the gap between the print based media reviewers and the guys (and girls) sitting in their Terre Haute basements. As they close down or reduce their expenses devoted to book reviews sections, the newspaper companies should be looking at acquiring some of these web sites and bloggers and build on the communities that these people have successfully established. That is if they are really committed to books.

I will try not to address this subject again but here is Salman Rushdie and Stephen Colbert on book reviews. I disagree entirely with Mr Rushdie:

PS: If you didn't catch the piece with Jane Fonda on the same show later that night, it is very funny.

More on Reviews:
Lynn Scanlon
Pat Holt

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