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” Panel Discussion on June 13, 2007 By Tim W. Brown On Wednesday, June 13, I did my part to support NBCC’s Campaign to Save Book Reviews by speaking in a panel discussion at the New York Center for Independent Publishing. Appearing with me were Dan Simon, publisher of Seven Stories Press; M.A. Orthofer, of The Complete Review; Hannah Tinti, editor of One Story; Sarah McNally, owner/manager of McNallyRobinson Booksellers; and John Freeman, NBCC president and panel moderator. I represented the host NYCIP, where I serve on the Executive Council. We panelists discussed how recent cutbacks in newspaper book coverage and reviewer layoffs specifically affect independent publishers and authors. Two currents emerged in our discussion: the faults of newspaper book reviewing and strategies independents can employ to survive in today’s reviewing climate. The potential for selling widely seems to be a major criterion for which books receive review attention 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 part of 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’t favor independent publishers. Of course, sales aren’t the only criterion for success of a book, regardless of what The New York Times Bestseller List or book publicists touting mega-deals would have you believe. A book’s ability to share ideas, stir emotions and provide entertainment is also part of the equation. Such intangibles conspire against the bean counters at newspapers and trade houses. Simon referred to the independent publisher’s value system, which opposes the corporate mindset in its emphasis on aesthetics and politics outside the mainstream. Money is an important consideration, but not the 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 point when stating that her publication One Story 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 stated that it’s imperative for independent publishers to exploit the cracks in the mainstream media edifice. I urged a grassroots approach that focuses on niche marketing, targets independent review publications, and disseminates information online. Unlike major newspaper book review sections, which are subject to a number of conflicting commercial and editorial forces, Orthofer’s Literary Saloon and scores of other literary blogs provide a level playing field for discussing and debating a book’s merits.
While none of us could predict the future of the newspaper book review, we agreed that a passion for books will be the savior of book criticism, and the dialogue between readers, writers, publishers, and reviewers will continue uninterrupted in these alternative forums regardless of newspaper reviews. Independent publishers, which survive by their wits and imagination despite the barriers thrown in their way by conglomerate publishing and the mainstream media, are in a position to show book critics the way.