Thursday, April 07, 2005
Blogging and print publishing
I had started to draft a post about the manifest wrong-headedness of the idea that engagé critics are only interested in literature instrumentally, but got sidetracked by an article in the April issue of Quill and Quire, “Canada’s Magazine of Book News and Reviews,” for which I was interviewed: “Better marketing through blogs: Publishers ponder potential of opinionated online outlets” by Charles Mandel. (Not yet available online — the website still features articles from the Feb. issue — and anyway, one needs to be a paid subscriber. There is, however, a weblog).
Update (9/4/05): Sorry about the broken links. Damn curly quotes. John’s strategy of mixing seasoned bloggers with newbies is really paying off, hmm?
Mandel asked me if publishers sent me review copies, and I replied that generally, they did not. (Mandel seems to think that Canadian publishers are behind the times, here). Apparently I then said, about book-blogging, “It’s kind of more like a book club.” Now leaving aside the ticklish issue of whether or not an interviewer should clean up an interviewee’s verbal stumblings, I’m trying to remember what I said, and more to the point, what I meant. I was probably being modest about my own blog and ended up sounding as though I were minimizing everyone else’s as well. Sorry, everyone. And just before that pithy quote, Mandel paraphrases: “While Jones believes blogs may end up supplementing print reviews, she says many people just like to blog what they’re reading.”
I am not claiming here that Mandel misquoted me. I used to do media work; I knew the interview was to happen; I neglected to formulate some points ahead of time and made the mistakes of just chatting, and of not framing my remarks adequately. Well, face it, in this interview I sound like Diane Keaton in Reds:
Jack Reed (Warren Beatty): Louise is a writer.
Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton, turning, interested): So what do you write about?
Louise Bryant (Keaton, giggling and rolling eyes): Oh, everything!
Goldman: (stares, then turns back to Beatty and continues previous conversation).
Or words to that effect.
For the record, what I think I said was that most people probably still rely on print reviews though that would likely change. And the majority of book blogs do function like book logs and/or reading clubs, though if I had had my wits about me I would have focused exclusively on the ones that don’t. The ones I read, in fact.
Several publishers are quoted as saying that, no, they haven’t gone after the “blog market” because they don’t see much economic potential, as of yet. Well, hell yes! That’s what most of us like about it. The blogosphere has its own economies of links and hits, of course, but they are refreshing separate from commerce. (Leaving aside the question of the elusive book-deal. And not all publishers are convinced: Mandel quotes Rolf Maurer of Vancouver’s New Star Books as saying that a “certain mental capacity” is required to frame an argument over a couple of hundred pages, the ability to write shorter pieces is no guarantee of said capacity, and people who have it, can be found in print. Somewhat tautological, but hey. Helen Reeves of Penguin Canada, on the other hand, is apparently looking at blogs as part of her search for “cutting-edge fiction and non-fiction,” but admits that most publishers prefer the quality control of going through agents.)
Apparently, then, the interests of most Canadian publishers are limited to this: blogs are cheap venues in which to advertise and they represent an interested niche market, so why not?
Again, I don’t want to sound like I’m going after Mandel. He is writing about the book business, for the main paper of the Canadian publishing industry, after all, and his article reflects that. But with some exceptions, it does not reflect much about what blogs are; it’s much more about what they aren’t. Though he does quote Alana Wilcox of Coach House Books describing how Ron Silliman blogged about Mark Truscott’s Said Like Reeds or Things: “It’s all about community, especially in the poetry world, and blogs are the perfect vehicle to communicate to a community, especially when poetry doesn’t get reviewed anywhere anymore.”
Some publishers have set up blogs for writers; some of those writers have kept them up. Most seem to peter out, or have a limited duration: Guy Gavriel Kay kept a blog on his recent tour to promote The Last Light of the Sun, but he closed it when the tour ended, citing the standard Gibsonesque argument. Anansi set up a “web blog” for Michael Winter when he toured last year, and he continues to post (though he seems to leave the technical side to others). Mandel goes on to discuss publishers who set up house blogs, and quotes one bemused marketer, from Random House, who complains of blogs in general, “Because they are fluid and changing, it’s hard to figure out how to target them from a marketing perspective.” Momma always said, be a moving target.
I suppose this post is by way of an apology to the blogosphere, for not better representing us, and the possibilities of what we do, when I had this chance.
And I bet I didn’t sweet-talk my way into getting many review copies sent my way, either.
But the truth of the matter is that I read a lot more about books online than in printed reviews, because I have found a cadre of bloggers who review books that interest me, and whose opinions of those books I have come to trust. And part of the reason I have come to trust them is that they are, or seem to be, disinterested participants in an intellectual exchange between like-minded people. They are not worried about their advertisers or their editors. They are not paid by the line (they are not paid at all). They are amateurs (amātor, lover, from amāre, to love).
In my utopia we would each work with our hands a couple of hours a day to meet our material needs. The rest of the time we would do what we loved, for its own sake, and for no external reward apart from the appreciation of others who shared our interests.
And beggars would ride, I guess.
Authors with Blogs at BookBlog
Blogs and Weblogs by Speculative Fiction Writers
Maud Newton and Daniel Green on publishers using blogs as promotion.
Well, that’s enough.
(This post is cross-posted to my blog.)
In the past few weeks I’ve started getting emails from people at the Village Voice and other papers, along the lines of “Hey, talk about what’s in this week’s issue!”
Even if publishers aren’t quite hip to the way they could be marketing themselves to bloggers, daily papers and weeklies seem to recognize the link between blog-interest and eyeballs on advertising banners.
Publishers don’t need eyeballs on their websites so much as buyers in stores, so the same motivation doesn’t appear to be there. But what would happen if they started sending free copies of new books to book bloggers? (Do they already? Does Maud Newton get free books in the mail?)
I’m not sure what I myself would do if that started happening. Would I return the books? Would I read them but refuse to blog about them? I don’t know.
Yes, from what I understand, the prominent bookbloggers like Maud Newton and Jessa Crispin regularly get sent review copies.
If I were to receive any, uninvited, I would read and blog only the ones that struck me or fit with my areas of research or teaching competence (not always the same thing) and donate the rest to the campus library. In this respect I would think of myself as the book review editor of a periodical, wading through the mail and deciding what to parcel out to reviewers and what to ignore. I don’t see any conflict of interest — less than a publication that sells advertising space, certainly — does anyone else?
Great post, Miriam. (I have a feeling I could be among those wrong-headed folk who have argued that “engagé critics are only interested in literature instrumentally.")
Although I couldn’t count myself among the “prominent bookbloggers” like Maud or Crispin, I do receive complimentary copies of new books. Some of them I blog about and some of them I don’t. I always warn the publicist or the publisher that I may not mention the book at all on my blog. A time or two the free copy has led to a review in another venue. Otherwise, the books are being sent in the full knowledge that I have no obligation to do anything with them--even to read them.
Thanks, Dan. (And it sounds like we can look forward to some lively conversations.)
Other bloggers are also pondering the ethics and etiquette of accepting books for review. Someone ought to write a manual.