Monday, August 04, 2008

Trust in Book Lovers Not Reviewers

The termination of several book review sections across the country in recent weeks has reignited the same discussions that took place last year regarding the future of reading and books generally. The arguments remain sentimental suggesting a Utopian book-centric world where every reader weighs the careful words of the reviewer before making a particular purchase. Yesterday, Lissa Warren in HuffPo lamented the demise of the book review section of the LA Times and calls out those who believe (like I do) that blog reviewers are filling the void left by 'official' reviewers:
But I'll tell you what does make my jaw drop: the seemingly widely-held notion that these book sections are being adequately replaced by blogs. To be sure, there are some excellent book blogs out there: Mark Sarvas's The Elegant Variation. The National Book Critics Circle's Critical Mass. MediaBistro's Galley Cat. Jessa Crispin's Bookslut. The Boston Globe's Off the Shelf. And, of course, the New York Times' Paper Cuts. They're all bookmarked on my computer. I read them often for news on new titles (and older ones I missed) and Q&As with authors. Many of them are also good for stories on publishing trends, which as a book publicist and editor I appreciate a great deal. But, for the most part, these blogs don't actually review books.
In my view there is a macro point that makes her argument largely irrelevant; that is, we are beginning to see the development of trust networks. As consumers of information we are starting to build our own networks of people and entities we rely on to support everything from our political philosophy to our choice in vacation spot. Reading falls squarely into that paradigm and it no longer matters whether a book review is produced to the standard of the LA Times or The NYTimes book section (and many blog reviews do), what matters is the impact the review has on a purchase decision. Those interested in reading are finding bloggers that they 'trust' (even of the blogspot variety, a comment which baffles me), and these reviews do indeed 'adequately' fill the void created by the demise of some of the larger newspaper reviews sections. Interesting, some of the arguments presented by Warren as to why these blogs are not of a standard are precisely the items that lend reality, personality and connection to the readers of these reviews.
I'd also advise that book reviewing bloggers jettison the use of personal pronouns (yes, I've used a slew of them here; you can nail me in the comments). And for goodness sake, I wish they'd stop telling me what their father and their girlfriend -- or their father's girlfriend -- thought of the book. Also, I don't need to know how they came to possess the book -- how they borrowed it from the library, or bought it at B&N, or snagged a galley at The Strand, or got the publisher to send them a copy even though they average four hits a day. The banal back-story is of little interest.
It is my own personal view that the back story is of little interest; however, that might only be because I haven't found a (blog) reviewer that I identify with. The point is, many consumers reading these blog reviews do find the back story interesting and the great thing is they can move on to someone else if it becomes too tedious. Warren also speaks of 'self-indulgence' and surely nothing could be more self-indulgent than reading a Salman Rushdie review of a Martin Amis title in the NYTimes book review section. (If you would).

Trust networks will define how many people (maybe all of us) communicate - that's what myspace, facebook, linkedin, etc. are starting to show us. The blog network is a fundamental part of that and the continued development of trust networks has implications for all consumer interaction including recommending and buying books. The word 'recommend' is better than review. The word 'review' in conventional terms and as used by Warren is used pejoratively when referring to blog reviews. This is wrong, because a book review doesn't have to conform to a standard; this is a convention that has been constructed by old school journalists. What is relevant is what the opinion/review/recommendation means to the consumer. Someone yelling over the back fence to their neighbor that they really liked The Corrections is a 'review'. And that's synonymous with replying to the Facebook 'what are you doing' by typing "I'm reading The Corrections and I really hate it".

Lastly, who was reading the reviews in all these newspaper reviews sections anyway? Most people in the US who read (and that's not many) only read one book a year. That book is likely to be something like the Da Vinci Code, a diet book, Dr Phil or an Ophra pick so what's the return? It is (was) a mystery. Not so on the web. These evolving trust networks concentrated around people who love books, talk about books and opine about books provide publishers with a window on the community they never had. Stop with the whining and recognise that as a publisher you have a tremendous opportunity to understand your consumer in ways you never could before. Rather than lamenting the demise of the newspaper, publishers should be rejoicing in front of the window to a vibrant community of book lovers and opinion makers.

To answer Lissa Warren's question: Blogs may not save Books but they may be all we have so pay attention.


PersonaNonData said...

Ed Champion has an excellent post:

Andrew Wheeler said...

You wrote: "Those interested in reading are finding bloggers that they 'trust' (even of the blogspot variety, a comment which baffles me)...."

I'm not sure what you're implying here -- is it that those who write for old-media-style "networks" of blogs are trusthworthy? Or only those who bothered to buy their own domain?

I'm on blogspot, and so are you, so you might just be flying over my head.

In my experience, the greatest trust is in the tightest communities -- the web message boards and LiveJournal, where readers already "know" each other socially and accept recommendations based on that.

And someone needs to call "foul" on every lazy reporter's inevitable comparison: on one side, one of the better NYTBR reviews; on the other, the most gushing of fannish bloggy notes. Even the NYTBR runs some deeply lousy reviews -- such as everything under the byline "Dave Itzkoff" -- and the papers that have been eliminating their review sections are generally two or three cuts lower than the NYTBR. The quality of book reviews we're losing in newspapers are not all that different from the quality of the ones we're gaining on the web.

PersonaNonData said...


I was referring to what Ms. Warren used as an example: "Blogspot". I agree with you, why pick on them exclusively? It is a bit of a non-sequitur.

Ann said...

Interesting post. You say what I was thinking about Warren's post.