Blogging for Books

September 21, 2004
Category: Uncategorized

Howdy Margo,

It was a dark and stormy night somewhere back in the booming ’90s when book publishers compared their sales figures to their publicity campaigns and came up with a stunning epiphany: Radio and TV had become major players in deciding what books people would buy.

Suddenly every publicist worth his or her press kit was knocking on the doors of the holy trinity of book-lovin’ broadcasters — namely Don Imus, Terry Gross, and Oprah Winfrey — in hopes of booking his or her author. Newspapers and magazines still mattered for marketing a publisher’s wares, but it was impossible to ignore an ironic truth: In choosing what to read, booklovers seemed to be more susceptible to the air waves than the written word.

Fast forward to the next decade and another chapter in The Selling of the Book. Now, instead of broadcast, bloggers are increasingly challenging traditional media outlets in deciding the winners and losers of the book world. Not that they’ve shaken literature to its core, at least not yet: As one blogger, Kevin Smokler, puts it, “I’m not quite ready to pop the cork and propose a toast” to this highly personal form of literary commentary.

Still, blogs are now doing for books what Drudge, Andrew Sullivan, and David Horowitz have done in the political and cultural sphere: Complementing and questioning the judgments of the traditional outlets. I’m talking about sites such as Beatrice.com, BookSlut, Readerville, BookBlog, The Elegant Variation, 800 CEO Read, Cosmic Log, JOHO, Boing Boing or eJournal, as well as those of individual writers (Jennifer Weiner is a case in point) who must take their laptops everywhere so that they can connect directly with their readers while, not incidentally, advertising their books and promoting their public appearances.
 
It’s way premature to say that literary blogs have supplanted the established media (just as it would be to say Drudge is a better news source than the networks’ websites). But it’s reasonable to call them old media’s stealth competitors, because they draw a young and educated demographic that advertisers desire. Their audiences are not immense, but established blogs like Bookslut claim a respectable 3,000 hits a day. And smart publicists are on to the game: Lisa Warren at Da Capo Press says she uses “a matchmaker mentality,” sending appropriate books in her line-up to both bloggers and the mainstream media, then contacting bloggers again to let them know what press the book has received in traditional media outlets. The idea is to start a buzz and keep it going. 

Consider the San Francisco-based Smokler, (www.KevinSmokler.com) who developed the Virtual Book Tour to promote individual authors on the Internet. (He has done five and claims 100,000 hits for his most successful, M.J. Rose’s “Halo Effect.”) He says writers like Dave Eggers are making books and reading cool among twenty- and thirtysomethings, and the Internet serves as their community. 

“The format of the book review is 30 years out of date,” he says, where blogging offers the opportunity to discuss not only the book, but the context and process of its creation. It also puts the book’s creator out in front of his or her work, a notion that may not sit well with authors who value their privacy.

For his part, Smokler has no patience with those who want to play hide-‘n’-seek with their readers. “If you suck at speaking, take $1,000 out of your advance and pay for a media coach,” he says. “We expect a lot more transparency from creative people now.” 

So how does his perspective strike you, Madam Editor?

Hey Ellen,

Someone better alert Thomas Pynchon and other literary recluses.

Personally, I’d hate to think that literary success depends mainly on the importance of an author’s self-promotion skills. Let’s hope that even introverted authors can find an audience — made up, perhaps, of other crazy introverts like themselves who are more interested in books than book tours. It seems to me the presence of — and interaction with — an author (virtual or otherwise) aren’t necessary for a lively discussion of a book. Literary critics don’t have to meet authors; they only have to read their books.

For me, literary criticism is nothing more than a lively discussion of books. Whether a literary critic chooses to publish his or her thoughts in a mainstream newspaper or post them on the Internet, he or she still needs the same skills: To read deeply and communicate well. For me, a single book review is one person’s take on a book, which becomes part of a larger discussion — of the structure and language the book uses but, above all, of the ideas and themes contained there. 

The biggest difference between a book review in a newspaper and one posted on the Internet is the lag time it takes for others to respond to it. That’s a real advantage the Internet has: It is a highly interactive medium. Newspapers, on the other hand, have their own advantage: Regionalism. Because most newspapers are produced for clearly defined geographical areas, they can — and should — be geared to the audience they serve. I review, for example, far more Southern books than I see reviewed on the Internet in general, where interest in those books is not as strong. I’m sure Western newspapers focus more on authors in their region.

Will literary bloggers eventually trump the traditional book reviewer? I think everyone spends far too much time fretting about the various media and their influences. Clearly, each has its own strengths and weaknesses. And in all cases, certain personalities emerge with more influence than others. In radio, it’s the curmudgeon Don Imus who has the power to send books up the bestseller list. On television, it’s the all-embracing Oprah. In newspapers, it is the cover of the New York Times Book Review that is said to influence book sales. The Internet surely will also eventually produce its own version of Imus, Oprah, and the NYTBR — without necessarily diminishing the other media book-promoting stars.

I, for one, am cheering on the literary bloggers. Books need all the support they can get.  

Margo, 

Funny you should mention regionalism and the New York Times Book Review. So does Mark Sarvas, creator of a year-old blog called The Elegant Variation, which is dedicated to serious fiction and the Los Angeles literary scene. In an e-mail responding to my questions, Sarvas noted, “If you visit my recent posting on ‘Cloud Atlas’ (a finalist for Britain’s prestigious Booker that’s been much-discussed in literary circles), you’ll find a dialogue taking place there that The New York Times couldn’t replicate on its best day.” 

Later on, he said: “Publicists and editors are increasingly aware of blogs and have begun courting us rather aggressively to review their work. I think there’s a sense that a small house (that) has no hope of getting into the NYTBR (for whatever that may be worth these days — there are different schools of thought on this point) might find a sympathetic blogger, and that’s how word of mouth builds up.”

I see reason for your “more the merrier” attitude. Book types feel underserved in this culture, so it would seem that there’s plenty of room at the table. But I quote Sarvas because I think we need to see literary blogging in part as a “Take Back the Night” effort, just as conservatives feel their Internet presence is challenging the liberal bent of the traditional media. From a blogger’s perspective, old media feel too old-fashioned, too corporate, too confined by non-literary objectives and philosophies to meet the needs of today’s reader. 

Spreading the power is good. Challenging the powers that be is even better. But I don’t think the already beleaguered audience for literature needs to be minced and diced into too many small pieces, to the point that we’re all having our own separate conversations and losing sight of the larger cause, which is a commitment to the beauty and value of the written word. For all the Internet’s interactivity, it seems like more people than not are on send mode. The narrowness and meanness that pervades American politics has shown us how a good idea can devolve into name-calling. I wish better for books.