By Ana Grilo and Thea James
Instead of buying a Sunday paper and flipping to the book review sections, these days, book lovers are finding instant gratification online as a simple Google search leads them to hundreds of online book reviews.
This month, the Los Angeles Times announced that its standalone book review section in the Sunday edition was no more—a downsizing trend that has been reflected for the past year in print newspapers everywhere. As The New York Times reportedin 2007, a part of this trend has to do with the suffering of newspapers themselves, especially the Los Angeles Times with its sharp decrease in circulation over the past decade.
The demise of print reviews doesn't mean people are buying fewer books, though. Book sales have been rising steadily over the past few years. People are buying books, and, more and more, they're buying them with online; 2006 marked the first year Amazon.com surpassed Borders bookstores in total revenues. In 2007, Book Industry Study Group reportedthat net revenues for U.S. publishers rose 4.4% over 2006, and is expected to continue to grow the years to come.
The downsizing of print reviews prompted a Huffington Post article response, Will Blogs Save Books?The columnist argues that "good" literary review blogs are few and far between, and that that the steep drop-off in quality online is due both to mediocre writing and less-than-great books. It's an overgeneralization, but fair enough. One wonders, though, what "good" books the columnist is addressing—there are a number of excellent in-depth book review blogs out there: A Dribble of Ink;Dear Author;Realms of Speculative Fiction;or, heck, why not The Book Smugglers,our own blog? Perhaps for the columnist it is the genre of books that determines what "good" books are-certainly these blogs aren't focused on Oprah's Book Club picks, not to mention hoity-toity journals like The New York Review of Books.
“The number of book reviews in mainstream print media was always small compared to the number of books that deserve reviewing,” says Kimberley Cameron, the founder and head agent of Reece Halsey North literary agency. “And reviews have always been exclusive to a short list of writers, genres, and publishers.” Now, even those are shrinking as periodicals’ budgets shrink.
“The editorial schedule also has to be navigated to get books reviewed,” Cameron adds. With magazines and even some newspapers, books have to be submitted three months in advance, and if reviews for a book aren’t published within three weeks of the book’s release, it never will be—it’s no longer news.
To the columnist's hand-wringing lament that book review blogs could not possibly replace print reviews in terms of quality, we politely disagree. Book review blogs kick ass.
Why Book Review Blogs Kick Ass
Review blogs allow for more varied genre coverage as well as specialization in niche genres that would never see the light of day in a newspaper review section. Because of the personal nature of blogs, anything can be read and reviewed. Whereas newspapers tend to focus on the behemoth bestsellers (a la Harry Potter) or more "literary" fiction (i.e. The Road by Cormack McCarthy), blogs do not face the same limitations
Book review blogs provide reviews of genres that the "general public" reads. For example, statistics published by the Romance Writers of Americashow that romance novels comprised the largest share of the consumer book market in 2007. Not only were romance sales the top performers in 2007, but they also represented the largest fiction category in the U.S. book market. And yet, formalized print book reviews for romance novels are, to put it mildly, scarce. Readers turn to other outlets to hear about new releases and search for book reviews: namely, the blogosphere. This applies not only to romance novels, but to other genres with a similarly stereotyped "lesser" repute, such as fantasy, science fiction, and graphic novels-although the market share of these genres are significantly less than that of romance fiction.
Book review blogs also encourage discussion. Much less formal and stuffy than print reviews, blogs provide a more relaxed, personal view of reading experiences that allow readers to connect with each other and have dynamic discussions via comments. There is also a much greater accessibility via blogs—especially in terms of creating contact with publishers, and authors themselves.
What else can be said for review blogs? From a consumer standpoint, they are a wonderful resource. From an author and publisher standpoint, they are also extremely useful marketing tools, providing word-of-mouth "buzz" for authors whose names aren't J.K. Rowling. Online buzz and followership is a big deal—just ask Ann Aguirre or Meljean Brook, both authors who have generated a whole lotta publicity via blogs, and without big budget Borders or Barnes & Noble marketing schemes.
Furthermore, blogs are cheap—both for reviewers (via free and user friendly platforms such as Blogger, WordPress, or, ahem, Red Room), and for publishing houses (who only have to front postage fees and offer free review copies of books). This has caused some discussion and controversy recently across blogland (see the excellent article What Are Bloggers Worth?by Aidan Moher, for example); often, running a blog turns from a casual hobby to a second, unpaid, full-time job. Regardless of subject, it's serious business for many of us.
Book Review Blogs: The Final Frontier
Book review blogs seem to be the future of the industry—efficient, cheap, and in a much more dynamic environment than a review section in a newspaper could ever be. Furthermore, they cater to a much broader audience, conferring legitimacy to many genres that do not see the light of day in printed media. And to be able to speak with your favorite writer and discuss the books you love with the person that wrote them? That is, again, pretty darn great.
The discussion of whether book review blogs will replace the equivalent sections in newspapers and magazines has only just started.We are fervent believers in the medium, and relentless in our quest for openness and diversity when it comes to reviewing books. In the end, it is all about the love for reading and the need to spread the word about our favorite books.
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