Finding the Cracks in the EdificeA Follow-up to the “Save Our Book Reviews!” Panel Discussion on June 13, 2007By Tim W. BrownOn Wednesday, June 13, I did my part to support NBCC’s Campaign to Save Book Reviews byspeaking in a panel discussion at the New York Center for Independent Publishing. Appearingwith me were Dan Simon, publisher of Seven Stories Press; M.A. Orthofer, of
; Hannah Tinti, editor of
; Sarah McNally, owner/manager of McNally-Robinson Booksellers; and John Freeman, NBCC president and panel moderator. I representedthe host NYCIP, where I serve on the Executive Council.We panelists discussed how recent cutbacks in newspaper book coverage and reviewer layoffsspecifically affect independent publishers and authors. Two currents emerged in our discussion:the faults of newspaper book reviewing and strategies independents can employ to survive intoday’s reviewing climate.The potential for selling widely seems to be a major criterion for which books receive reviewattention in newspapers. It largely accounts for the decisions by editors to assign a book for review. I referred to a “sick symbiosis” between a misplaced sense of newsworthiness on the partof book review editors and a highly dysfunctional publishing industry that relies on blockbuster titles and pressures newspapers to cover them. Unfortunately, this reliance on numbers doesn’tfavor independent publishers.Of course, sales aren’t the only criterion for success of a book, regardless of what
Bestseller List or book publicists touting mega-deals would have you believe. A book’sability to share ideas, stir emotions and provide entertainment is also part of the equation. Suchintangibles conspire against the bean counters at newspapers and trade houses. Simon referred tothe independent publisher’s value system, which opposes the corporate mindset in its emphasison aesthetics and politics outside the mainstream. Money is an important consideration, but notthe only one he argued. One point made by McNally, an unsurprising one if you carefully monitor the fates of independent press books, was that book reviews don’t guarantee sales. Tinti reiterated this pointwhen stating that her publication
thrives without advertising and little media attention.A complex set of factors, including reviews, word-of-mouth, and other variables must converge before an independent book is in a position to sell any copies at all, let alone many copies.This fact suggests an alternate path for independents to carve a space in the marketplace. I statedthat it’s imperative for independent publishers to exploit the cracks in the mainstream mediaedifice. I urged a grassroots approach that focuses on niche marketing, targets independentreview publications, and disseminates information online. Unlike major newspaper book reviewsections, which are subject to a number of conflicting commercial and editorial forces, Orthofer’s
and scores of other literary blogs provide a level playing field for discussing anddebating a book’s merits.