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Back From the Dead: The State of Book Reviewing

Five years ago, when Twitter was just another start-up and the iPad was a gleam in Steve Jobs’s eye, the state of print book reviews in this country was undergoing a spectacular and noisy collapse. Newspapers that were failing financially killed off their stand-alone print book sections, or folded them into the entertainment, ideas, or culture sections. They fired staff book editors and critics and cut freelance budgets. Hundreds of newspapers shut down altogether. Many magazines stopped covering books, and the literary quarterlies, for decades the champions of poetry and literary fiction published by independent presses, faced funding challenges as well.

Writers, readers, book reviewers, and publishing professionals feared the worst. Many equated the failure of the print-newspaper business model with the death of the book review. The heated debate of those dire moments put traditional print book reviewers on the hot seat; they were excoriated as “stodgy,” “elitist,” “out of touch,” and “extinct.” The National Book Critics Circle’s Campaign to Save Book Reviewing, which was launched in April 2007 and included more than 125 blog posts written by Salman Rushdie, Richard Ford, Lee Smith, Rick Moody, George Saunders, and others concerned about the loss to the culture as book sections were being dismantled, captured the mood of the time. As novelist Richard Powers put it, “I think our crisis is instant evaluation versus expansive engagement, real time versus reflective time, commodity versus community, product versus process. Substituting a user’s rating for a reader’s rearrangement threatens to turn literature into a lawn ornament. What we need from reviewers in any medium are guides to how to live actively inside a story.” (The campaign is archived on the National Book Critics Circle’s blog Critical Mass at bookcritics.org/blog.)

Five years later, we remain a nation of passionate readers—even during a time when movies can be streamed on demand and countless distractions are built into every smartphone and tablet. Book-related discussions take up millions of characters on the Internet each week and connect readers in book groups in many communities. No matter the form—digital, electronic, print, or spoken word—a majority of the nation’s readers recognize good writing and yearn for fresh voices from authors and critics.

The best of the feisty group of literary bloggers who began pushing the boundaries of traditional book commentary a decade ago have been woven into the mainstream, and their iconoclastic styles have freshened the form. This ongoing transformation has challenged our collective creativity and pushed all manner of innovation. This period will be seen as a benchmark in book culture. But it’s not the end of the book review.

The key word for the changes afoot is proliferation. The number of books being published has ballooned from some fifty thousand books published annually in the 1970s to more than three million in 2010 and climbing, with about three quarters of those books self-published or print-on-demand versions of public-domain titles, according to R. R. Bowker’s annual publishing report. The number of readers, writers, and reviewers commenting on books also has grown exponentially.

Readers can find book news and reviews in formats ranging from a hundred forty characters to six thousand words and up, online and in print: on Facebook, Goodreads, Library-Thing, Amazon, and Twitter; on literary blogs and websites; in newspapers and magazines; via radio, television, and podcast; and in a growing number of online-only forums. The book reviewing long tail is daunting. Whom do you trust to help you decide what to read next? Despite the flood of friendly recommendations coming from Amazon and the social-networking sites, many readers still turn to familiar gatekeepers for curatorial guidance.

Here’s a snapshot of the state of book reviewing today. It is a counterargument to the naysayers, gathered from a crowd of people who are dedicated to reviews and to sharing them with a growing readership on a growing number of platforms.  

PREPUB BOOK REVIEWS
Booklist
, Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly (PW), all of which preview books in advance for librarians, broadcast producers, editors, and other publishing professionals, have emerged from several bumpy years leaner and more web-savvy.

“We’re stable, although we’ve certainly had to cope with the same financial difficulties as everyone else,” says Booklist associate editor Donna Seaman. Founded in 1905, Booklist, published by the nonprofit American Library Association, covers some eight thousand books a year in its print publication and Booklist Online. It also publishes an array of e-newsletters, including Booklist Online Exclusives, with online-only reviews. “We’ve developed a Review of the Day app, and a Facebook presence, and the online editor is on Twitter,” Seaman says.

Kirkus Reviews was shut down in late 2009, and revived in 2010 with a broader scope that includes self-published books. Library Journal and PW, both previously owned by Reed Elsevier, were put on the block in 2009, sold to new owners—PW to PWxyz, a newly formed company headed by onetime PW publisher George Slowik, and Library Journal to Media Source—and relaunched in 2010. 

Library Journal publishes six thousand to seven thousand reviews a year. “There are more books than ever, with a bigger range,” says Barbara Hoffert, whose new online column, Prepub Alert, appears every Monday morning. “And everyone wants things much faster. And with authority. How do we write as much in advance as we can, to different audiences, and still maintain critical thinking? This is not just news, but also a critical evaluation. That’s the biggest challenge we’re facing now.” Hoffert writes about books six months in advance of publication. She and seven other reviews editors sift through a thousand galleys a week. In addition to a list of upcoming big titles, she now includes more poetry, more literary fiction, and more fiction in translation. The magazine has eighteen thousand subscribers and about a hundred fifteen thousand Twitter followers.

“We call ourselves a hundred-thirty-year-old start-up,” says Craig Morgan Teicher, PW’s senior web editor and poetry editor. (He also oversees the PWxyz daily news blog.) “We send the PW daily newsletter to about thirty-seven thousand people, and about a hundred thousand follow us on Twitter. Our core readership is still the trade—publishers, editors, publicists, booksellers, and authors—but the Internet has expanded that audience to include readers and book lovers, as well as people involved in industries affected by the book business. Twitter and Facebook are important ways for book coverage to push itself out to a larger audience.”

Each week PW’s eleven reviews editors consider between three hundred and six hundred books, ultimately publishing a hundred fifty reviews in print, plus twenty others online. “I try to pick books that represent the important presses in the field,” says Teicher. “Small presses are the lifeblood of poetry. And I try to consistently cover first and second books by emerging writers.” The magazine, which publishes about twelve poetry reviews a month, focuses even more on small presses now, Teicher says, because midlist books are being published by indies rather than trades, which are focusing on blockbusters. “And we focus more on work in translation than we might have before because more publishers, such as New Directions, Open Letter, and Dalkey Archive, are publishing translated books than before.”

“The key word for the changes afoot is proliferation. The number of books being published has ballooned from some fifty thousand books published annually in the 1970s to more than three million in 2010 and climbing.”

Reader Comments

  • xstewart says...

    Ms. Ciabattari's welcome survey missed www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com, which has been posting multiple reviews and feature articles about the world of books since February -- check it out!

    David O. Stewart

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