We're Not Who We Think We Are (Random BEA Thoughts, Part IV)

Follow these links for Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Over the past few years the debate between print and online reviewers has been one of the more contentious in all of the book business. Similar to publishing, this is an area where technology has outstripped the prevailing model, where with a couple bucks, a smart website name, some literary talent, and a bit of ambition, basically anyone can become a reputable commentator on books, participating in—and altering—the ongoing larger conversation about literary culture. (And you can even get Press access to BookExpo!)

Pair this quick, cheap, and easy growth with the precipitous decline in newpaper book reviews (not to mention magazines) and it’s easy to see why so many online vs. print barbs are exchanges on panels across the country every year. Personally, I think this all gets a bit stupid, but there are valid points on both sides. (No one likes losing their job to technological advances—hell, if e-books knell the death toll for print publishers, I’ll be the first to call for Luddites to unite.)

And the argument just won’t go away . . . See this year’s book reviewing panel (thanks again to Gwen at Literary License for a great write-up) that circled around separating “book reviewers” (generally print, representing authority) from “book recommenders” (internet dwellers, representing the pure democratic ideal). Even without having been there, I’m sure I could repeat most of the arguments from both sides (well, more from the one particular site that was more aptly represented), which are actually kind of interesting within the context of BookExpo, where desperate—and I do mean desperate—publishers were trying how to figure out how to mobilize the tweeting universe to promote their titles . . .

That’s really why I find this debate so silly . . . If the industry wasn’t fucked, there would presumably be enough space in the culture for long-form, independently edited print reviews, book news magazines, online literary mags, bloggers, social networking recommenders, etc., all of which would connect readers with books in different ways, with different levels of authority.

What’s really funny is that the most vital section of BEA was the Firebrand/NetGalley “blogger signing” area. No matter when I passed by there was always a small crowd of well read bloggers/readers chatting. And no surprise to anyone paying attention, HarperCollins and other big publishers came over asking bloggers how they could work together . . .

No offense to HC—er, rather, pox on everyone—but haven’t we been talking about figuring out how to work with bloggers to promote literature for the past five-plus years? But that’s the point—publishers and authors are still trying to figure out this landscape where the bastions of book reviewing are only capable of doing so much (even the NY Times is shedding pages), but where people still want to talk about books and are finding new ways of spreading the word.

So, going back to an earlier point, if the overall point of BEA is to “create buzz,” why would we want to keep any of these “book influencers” out? I mean, granted, at some point in time BEA was the perfect meeting ground for the best of the book review editors to wander the floor and find out what they should be reviewing in the floor. No offense to anyone (maybe “no offense” should be the title of Part V . . .), but that’s just not really the case anymore. Most reviewers who do come (unfortunately there’s not many that do—only one or two from the biggest publications) are there only on Friday morning, or come for the panel they’re on and jet. Saturday and Sunday aren’t the best days for getting your hot new galley in the hands of a traditional book reviewer . . . yet, the money for the galleys, booth, trip, etc., has already been spent.

Lance Fensterman (who, if I haven’t said it already, did a kick-ass job with the show, as did the rest of his team . . . none of this is meant to reflect on them . . . they do all that they can to put on the best show they can for the rest of us—it’s the rest of us that sort of screw up their intentions) always uses the example that technically the number one reviewer on Amazon.com isn’t considered part of the “trade” and therefore isn’t allowed into BookExpo. I’d bet my last free PGW drink that dozens upon dozens of presses would love to get their books into the hands of these top Amazon/LibraryThing/GoodReads reviewers . . . But this sort of exclusion is exactly what notions of “authority” tend to lead to—there’s no “authority” without an “in” and an “out.”

OK, so publishers have ceded some control to iUniverse, self-publishers and the like, and reviewers have done the same with bloggers, online magazines, etc. So who really makes up the book “trade”?

Some people will always reject this notion, but the traditional ideas of what constitutes “trade” are totally demolished. . . . But this—I think—is a good thing. Say what you will about book blogs or the like, but there’s a reason HC is trying to figure out how to get books into these people’s hands. In contrast to the often grumpy, Eyeore-like traditional publishing folks (shit, isn’t this series simply four days of complaining?), the blogging, twittering, book loving, word-of-mouth spreading general readers actually get excited about books. About meeting authors and receiving a galley. It’s refreshing to talk to readers who aren’t totally jaded . . .

Tomorrow I’ll get more into what I think BEA could really look like, but my core belief is that BookExpo could—no, should—be an event that generates excitement about all facets of the book industry. That fans of New Directions storm the floor to find out what books are coming out in the next few months. That college kids who are intrigued by the publishing world can start to see what it is, who the players are, how a book gets launched. That readers, regular book buying readers, can get a glimpse behind the curtain and see where the book magic happens.

That’s all a bit over the top, I know, but seriously, book culture (of this sort) in this country needs a real injection of life, and if there was a vibrancy about BEA in the way there is about ComicCon or other fan shows like that, we all might be in a better place. And increased buzz, increased excitement, necessarily leads to increased awareness—of books, publishers, authors, goings on. Even, perhaps, of bookstores and the issues surrounding book culture . . . but more on that tomorrow.

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