Tuesday, October 14, 2008

We Don't Need No Stinking Book Reviews

GalleyCat tackles, once again, the subject of book reviews in main stream media: Should we mourn the dying book review? As they say, "We've long considered (argued, really) the possibility that the so-called "crisis in book reviewing" is really only a crisis for a handful of staff editors and freelance writers who are occasionally helpful in steering people towards interesting new books but not, ultimately, indispensable." GalleyCat goes on to say it's more important to get prepub buzz; and trusted opinions. It points out (for genres, at least) that online people gained the trust of readers because the mainstream media let those readers down.

I'm looking at this, of course, thru the lens of children's/YA and a librarian to boot. And, of course, reviews can mean so many things.

Professional reviews to get other professionals to buy stuff -- these won't be going away anytime soon.

When it comes to blogs and the like, yes, we help bring books to the attention of teachers and librarians. But those teachers and librarians will still need reviews from SLJ and Hornbook and Booklist and Kirkus, to support their buying decisions, place the book in the right area of the library, and to defend against challenges.

Blogs are also not arranged for someone who is going looking for what to buy, not the way these journals are. In addition, blogs come and go. Great ones disappear. Or, like me, other things happen -- my number of reviews of books has been cut back drastically because of being on the Printz committee. Journals have stability that at this point, independent blogs lack.

Blogs don't always write for the buying audience. Some do; some do sometimes. I've read of authors being frustrated at reviews that "give away the ending," but that is exactly the type of thing that a librarian who is never going to read every book in his or her library needs to know. They don't need a synopsis, which they can get from the publisher's catalog; they need to know whether its the type of book "their" kids and teens will read, so yes, that often includes "giving" away plot points. Because the purpose of these reviews isn't to get someone to read the book; it's to get them to buy the book so someone else will read it.

Reviews to get me to read a book.

My personal 'what to read next' pile is influenced by a variety of things; bloggers, newspapers, authors I like, covers that look attractive, friends, articles in magazines, etc. As I've said before, children's/YA books get little mainstream media coverage; blogs have filled a gap. And, at least it seems to me, I've seen more mainstream media coverage of children's/YA in the past few years. Which is good. I don't want to see mainstream coverage of books disappear; it would be a loss. And, frankly, I don't think the blogosphere can "take over" for that disappearing coverage. What we can do is complement each other.

Reviews that make me think about what I've read

Some reviews are really nothing more than mini ads to get me to read a book. Nothing wrong with that; if its a reviewer I trust, and they mention reasons for me to read something that reflect my own reading tastes, perfect.

But a review can also push beyond that; and become a discussion of the book. And while some people may be intrigued by that discussion to read the book, it is as much for the people who have already read it. And this, I think, is where online blogging has helped people tremendously; they have given people a place to talk about books. And, as I said above, it is too bad that mainstream media didn't realize sooner that while yes, I do like to read the experts opinion in The New York Times, I also like to be able to respond and to talk and to discuss and to have my own opinion valued. The "listen to me I know better than you" model has disappeared. It's become the "let's discuss it" model.

That said, frankly, I do think some people do in fact "know better" than others. Reviewers and bloggers who have no sense of literary history (ie a "this idea has never been done" type of review) turn me off; I like writers who can link a book and connect it to other works, or historical perspective, etc. Frankly, some people do know more about certain things and their writing is richer for it. And some people have no idea what they are talking about. Here's the thing: the people who know stuff can just as easily be bloggers; and the people who have no idea can just as easily be writing for traditional print media. The assumption that the newspaper writer always knows better is gone. And newspapers, instead of clinging to that presumption, should have gone looking for fresh blood and reexamined whether or not their experts were, in fact, knowledgeable.

It's not too late for print media

That said, I think too main mainstream outlets are "giving up". This is a time to be inventive; to think outside the box; to realize that bloggers and their readers are not "the enemy." I think SLJ has a great model that newspapers should pick up: having their traditional print reviews, but also having bloggers like Fuse who review on their blogs. Bottom line: instead of cutting back book reviews, newspapers and magazines should be increasing the book-talk that appears on their websites.


Suzi Steffen said...

Yay for my paper, and other alt-weeklies, not giving up on reviews! The books editor and I are frantically finding time to read for our big Winter Reading issue on Dec. 10 (and we're including YA books in the mix, of course — wish I had time to pursue children's books as well). But I see your point about the back-and-forth nature of blogging and commenting. I'm just glad I get to write, usually, about books I think are good, and I have time and usually space to discuss The Bigger Issues in books ... without giving spoilers, if I can help it!

But come to think of it, I got my job, in an almost direct way, by meeting someone in my town who was also a YA fan and a blogger ... and who's now the books editor. (She didn't hire me, but she sure helped me figure out when to apply, etc.) So, Liz, I got to be a print reviewer by way of my now long-neglected blog. Hmmmm.

Note: Until print figures out a way to make as much money online as we can in print, it's going to be hard to justify focusing so much attention online (to the neglect of print, since we only have so much time in a day). So your ideas are good, but I'm not sure exactly how they'll come to pass...

Liz B said...

Suzi, part of the reason I'm fascinated by the LJ/SLJ model is that both sites make almost all of what is available in the print issue available on line, and at the same time the magazine is available in print.

Bloggers using their blog (on purpose or not) to get paying gigs is great (and something I hope to work on.) I personally think its a great thing, and why I think blogs and print media cannot look at each other as "the enemy."

Now, if I had the answer on how to make money on online content!