Literary Reviewing in the Digital Age
Panelists: Bethanne Patrick, Book Maven Media, (Moderator), Bob Carlton, Kirkus Reviews, Ron Charles, Washington Post, Sarah Weinman, Publishers Marketplace
Some of the questions addressed in the discussion were: What are the biggest challenges to literary reviewing? So many books, so many critics – how do readers sort through them? Is there still authority in book reviewing? How do we review books that are now multimedia and do we need to? What will the next 2, 5 years, or even 6 months look like?
Bob – Discoverability/findability is the primary challenge they are tring to address. It’s the needle in the haystack, readers are looking to discover books they didn’t know about it and authors are trying to get discovered. Readers want reviews online. BISG study said reviews are more important in the digital world, 30% made a decision based on reviews they read online while only 25% bought based on a print review. Reputation/authoritative voice is a big shift. They realize that they have become a curator of voices about books. The volume of books published today has broken the gate. When Kirkus was established, they reviewed 600 books per year, now there are millions of book published each year. It’s a flatter, much noisier world now. Kirkus started reviewing storybook apps to increase findability of the apps. He demonstrated one of these showing Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. Future? people are starting to be boutiques online with reviews. They have read thousands and want to share the 2 they really liked. Readers are living in a golden age and they have been taught that people will help them find good things online. They see it for movies and other media, but want to know how to find this information from books.
Ron – Competition is key, space is limited. They compete against TV news, celebrity news, and everything else at Washington Post. It is the same battle they fought in print. Reviewing is an art in itself. If you want to read a 1400 word review, it’s because you appreciate literature and want to read quality literature. If you just want a recommendation and “consumer reports” type guide to good books, then simple “gatekeeper” type sources are fine. Can true criticism exist in the digital world – yes. Newspapers can run syndicated book critic pieces, which is great. Bookworld, a Washington Post 16 page supplement was closed a few years back. But now the reviews are strewn throughout the paper and they have more readers now than before. Bob did a video review on Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. It was fun and entertaining, and contained the full review of the book. But, it takes about 20 hours to make on of these videos. Yet, Ron increased his followers by 20,000 doing the video reviews. Future? Moment of opportunism now, much better off than we were two years ago.
Sarah – Authority is a challenge, in the digital age everybody is a critic. Does every reviewer have an equal voice? Sarah feels her 140 character twitter posts get more face time than full reviews. If reviewing wasn’t important, why are there so many book blogs devoted to reviewing? If those are valued reviews, we need to think about what cumulative authority they might have. She feels we need someone of authority to review books that hae transformed into some other type of media. She’d like to see the revival of a blog called “potty-mouth” which reviewed self-published titles. We need people to discern what titles are really worth reading, and which aren’t. Future? People are still looking for really strong voices, but maybe the medium has changed. Things will keep evolving, but the actual craft of writing still needs to be developed and improved.
The notes above are my interpretation of the panelists comments, my best efforts were made to ensure accuracy.