The Future of Newspapers and Litblogs: A Thought Experiment

In yesterday’s Huffington Post, publicist Lissa Warren expressed her dismay in “the seemingly widely-held notion that these book sections are being adequately replaced by blogs.” She complained that blogs “don’t actually review books” (emphasis in original) and that bloggers are nothing more than helpful cherry pickers ferreting out the best content.

This, of course, is poppycock. Scott Esposito continues to turn out issues of The Quarterly Conversation and is now making efforts to pay his contributors. Aside from the almost two hundred hours of podcasts available at The Bat Segundo Show, this website has featured many lengthy roundtable discussions of books, running during the week of pub date, including T.C. Boyle’s Talk Talk, Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, and Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke. (Powers and Baker both joined in during the final installments of their respective roundtables.) The Human Smoke discussion alone generated some 20,000 words of commentary among fifteen people, with asides on second generation Holocaust historians, World War I history, and sundry topics. This week, Talking Points Memo is featuring a lengthy discussion on Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. Meanwhile, Mark Sarvas has been allowing his readers to see what goes into the writing of a review. This summer, Colleen Mondor helped to organize the Summer Blog Blast Tour (far from the first of this type), which featured a comprehensive series of helpful discussions about contemporary YA titles that even the purportedly best book review sections have not broached because of innate genre prejudices.

Do these efforts represent a replacement for book review sections? Well, if one hopes to find a facsimile of book review sections online, probably not. But it would take an exceptionally rigid and incurious mind to settle merely on a clone. If one wishes to discover forms of literary commentary that serve the same function as a book review section, it is extremely difficult not to find online exemplars in alternative forms.

Warren’s complaints about litblogs fall into the same tired explanations that have been bandied about by the likes of Sven Birkerts, Michael Dirda, and numerous other myopists who are incapable of accepting an alternative that has been carrying on for a good five years. The objections are less about function, or even the content (conveniently, examples of the litblogs’s inadequacies are never cited by the naysayers), and more about form and especially control. Impulsive thought cannot be accepted because it remains impulsive. Never mind that many newspaper book sections, because of the deadline-oriented nature of the business, remain somewhat impulsive and often fail to include numerous examples from the text when considering a book. (Consider, for example, Charles Taylor’s review of Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, which appeared in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. We are afforded a summary of Akpan’s offerings. But despite having 1,200 words of space, Taylor only cites a few sentences from the novella, “Luxurious Hearses.” Taylor prefers generalized speculation about the book, rather than the kind of rigorous dissections of text that one expects of a critic.)

The print boosters remain hostile to the idea that an online medium can not only modify the manner in which critics and readers approach a book, but generate innovative methods of expanding one’s relationship to a text. So litblogs are deemed inferior not necessarily because the content is inferior, but because there are doubts about the methods and manner in which litblogs transmit information.

I will agree that if one is looking for the online equivalent of the New York Times Book Review, it’s simply not going to be found on litblogs. And that is because most litblogs, on the whole, aren’t interested in perpetuating a form of literary journalism that, while often quite valuable, has grown tiresome and often predictable. And it is the unpredictablity and spontaneity of litblogs that offer both a literary renaissance and a threat to those who wish to uphold print’s humorless and oft passionless status quo.

On Monday, I posted a lengthy lexicon of very specific Yorkshire dialect terms used in Ross Raisin’s novel, God’s Own Country (known in the States as Out Backward). It was an effort not only to aid my own understanding of Raisin’s book, but also to assist other readers in negotiating the fascinating linguistic terrain of a novel that, according to a recent Google News search, has only been reviewed in one American news outlet: a 200 word “verdict” and “background” in the Library Journal. The book was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize. This failure on the part of American print outlets to include Raisin’s novel in a timely manner suggests considerable print deficiencies.

The Raisin example also suggests that litblogs are not only covering books that are ignored by the seemingly impeccable vanguard, but that litblogs are presenting new forms of coverage that are inconceivable to Sam Tanenhaus and, yes, even a dutiful reformer like David Ulin. Unprohibited by length and unhindered by house style or crazy billionaires who don’t know how to run a newspaper empire, litblogs are in a position to change the journalistic terrain, possibly usurping freelance reviewers if a comparable revenue model can be established.

While I disagree with Kassia Krozser’s assertions about gender imbalance at the Los Angeles Times Book Review for reasons similar to Carolyn Kellogg’s (disclosure: I am an occasional contributor to the Los Angeles Times), Ms. Krozser is correct to point out that the hand-wringing about book review cuts has indeed represented a sense of entitlement. Not a single books editor, litblogger, or freelance reviewer is entitled to the lives they lead. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of generating content that will ensure that the writer can carry on writing. But if one operates on a smaller scale, then the financial obligation is seriously reduced (assuming that one wishes to make this sort of life one’s center) and the writer’s freedom to write in any fashion is greatly augmented.

So perhaps what we’re really seeing here is a situation in which the leading online voices will carry on doing what they are doing, with the unusual and passionate voices prohibited by the constant scrutiny of newspaper executives, precisely because the financial demands of supporting one individual are lesser than the costs and overhead of running a large newspaper or magazine. As Howard Junker observed yesterday, ad sales for the Atlantic have declined 11% in the last month. For Vanity Fair, the sales were considerably more severe, dropping a whopping 49%. With print advertising starting to dip, the onus now falls upon newspapers and magazines to either (a) increase advertising to support current operating costs or (b) reduce operating costs to bring the outlet in line with the reduced advertising. But if newspapers and print boosters will remain obdurate about these apparent online yahoos, the onus also falls upon litbloggers to find sustainable revenue models that will permit them to operate independently.

I should observe that the cost of a full-page advertisement in People Magazine is $250,000. I cannot speak for other bloggers, but it is safe to say that I could live off of this sum for a good five years and be relatively happy. I think it’s also safe to say that the money could also be allocated to other writers to turn in high quality freelance reviews for this site. Now imagine if a People advertiser wised up to this idea and decided to sponsor me (or another blogger) for five years. The People full-page advertisement fades away from public consciousness in a week, but the advertisement would run here for five years to a more limited, but very specific niche audience. Because there is only one sponsor, my editorial integrity would be fairly well preserved and I wouldn’t have to fear upsetting many sponsors who keep a big newspaper operation afloat. I would not need to always pander to a mass audience by reviewing the latest by a big name author. Small press and genre authors tossed out with the galleys deemed extraneous could be included with the same rigor that a newspaper grants the celebrated big names. Gender imbalances, whether genuine or perceived, could be greatly remedied.

If enough bloggers were to initiate an advertising scenario along these lines, it is safe to say that blogs could adequately replace newspaper book review sections, adopting both the form of the well-considered essay featured in book review sections as well as many alternative forms now practiced and conjured up by current litbloggers. I don’t know if the newspapers have discussed this possibility, and I don’t know how many litbloggers have truly considered this ambition. But the time has come to set a precedent. If this does occur — and it just might — then it may very well be the print contributors who begin coming around to the online venues. Let us not respond with the same snobbery and entitlement.

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12 Comments

  1. Here, here. Mr. Champion.
    Lively and insightful commentary regarding books and their authors may be found easily with only a minimum of effort. While I do find the decline of the newspaper book column regrettable, I see it as part of an ongoing evolutionary shift of the conversation from monologue to dialog between readers, authors and critics.

  2. You’re looking for a patron, methinks, not a sponsor, and I’m not sure I see how being beholden to a single sugardaddy (mommy?) makes one less vulnerable to corruption than grabbing the goods from many.

    Patron, sponsor, subscriber, advertiser: whatever it may be, I wish you luck in the pursuit of rent money…. I know my daydreams are more consumed with notions of cash than my girlish writerly self would ever have guessed they would be…

    Thanks for this interesting post, Ed!–Anne

  3. Thanks for a thoughtful and interesting essay in what’s become a tiresome antagonism between print book reviews and lit blogs. What bothers me in particular is that those who come down on lit blogs are making an enemy of the folks who might be their biggest allies. While the lit blog community challenges print book reviews to be their best–and we should be open to those that challenge us–NO ONE in Bloggerville thinks print reviews are pointless, or deserve to go the way of the LA Times book section. We write these reviews, after all, we avidly read them, we want insightful and innovative literary commentary to flourish in print AND online.

    Is that so much to ask? Let’s not get distracted by the petty finger-pointing, and instead move forward with what’s best in our mediums, take some risks, and go exploring.

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  7. Ed, Completely agree and my response to Warren’s article was much less artful but I conclude:

    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.
    http://personanondata.blogspot.com/2008/08/trust-in-book-lovers-not-reviewers.html

  8. There’s two important factors that you didn’t appear to consider as why publicists would be concerned about the loss of review sections:
    -The review sections get read by people who don’t read blogs. A blog is a destination; you have to know about the blog and make an effort to go there, while a book review section is something you stumble across while sifting through the paper; it’s part of a larger vessel. Lose the review section, and you lose a lot of people who would never hear about a book otherwise.
    -Reviews in a print review section are a commodity that the publicists need to stay employed. Every publicist is held accountable as part of her job–she needs to be able to go to her boss, and authors, and show what reviews or placements she was able to land. I would suspect that many executives (and authors for that matter) still don’t get blogs and blogging, so unfair as it is to the book blogs (and the publicists), blog reviews don’t carry the same weight with those execs. So now the onus will be on publicists not only to ‘sell’ books to potential reviewers, but also to sell the bosses they answer to on the idea that Blogs X, Y and Z are legit avenues of publicity–and to an indifferent boss, that can reek of desperation. As a result, the publicist’s workload doubles, and regardless of what profession you’re in, no one wants to work twice as hard to achieve the same results. Accordingly, yeah, they don’t want the review sections to go away.

  9. Clive: Thanks for weighing in. I agree with you that the targeted nature of blogs is a small problem. (Since this website does not always dwell on literature, I’ve noticed that some RSS subscribers get cheesed off whenever I dwell on, say, a lengthy history of Verizon.)

    Nevertheless, you underestimate the value of the link, memes, and the networked nature of online discussion. (See Reddit, Metafilter, Fark, et al.) Specific offerings on blogs can be linked and deemed important just as newspaper articles can. What I find is that the newspapers, who really should be linking around in the way that Frank Wilson does, have been pretending as if blogs don’t exist, while openly pilfering many of these new approaches from the blogosphere without credit and even sending bloggers pitch emails begging bloggers to link to them. (Maybe they should actually HIRE the bloggers and other passionate voices instead.)

    While there is a certain authority that newspapers have, the trust networks that Persona Non Data alludes to in his very interesting post (linked in his above comment) have created a scenario in which getting WITHIN that trust network is arguably just as important as getting a book review.

    As to your suggestion that book review sections are read by more than just plain bibliophiles, I know for a fact (people write to me) that there are people who read this site and who are more curious about my voice than the books that I write about.

    Some publicists, like Yen Cheong, who maintains the excellent Book Publicity Blog, really do understand the possibilities of these new conduits. And yes, the work is certainly harder on all fronts — whether you are a freelancer, a publicist, or an author — to justify your existence. But if a publicist wishes to keep her head in the sand about PRESENT developments, then this seems to me a foolhardy way to sell books (and isn’t that the publishing industry’s goal in the end?). For people who read blogs and listen to podcasts ALSO buy books. In fact, because of the specific niche, they may be MORE inclined to buy books. Which means that the time to set up a sustainable revenue model is long overdue.

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  11. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of the world’s population has access to electricity and computers, which means print media will last for some time. Also, if we consider the possibility of peak oil, minerals, and food, shortages caused by climate change, and major financial problems worldwide, then it is likely that we will also see a decline in computer and Internet resources.

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