On the Contrary: Today’s Book Reviewing Is Better
by Martin Shepard
After hearing so many other publishers declare that using social media is a must, I tried Facebook for a while and then dropped out. My epiphany came when a woman from Sri Lanka wrote to me saying she wanted to be my friend. I wrote back that not only didn’t I know her, but she already had nearly 200 friends listed and hardly needed another one.
While this may be a useful thing for adolescents and college students, or a way of staying in touch with a large group of people in one’s present or past when you don’t have the time to talk with them directly, I find no value in it at all. I’m not interested in what people have for dinner, or who they are dating, or any of the other items that occupy 95 percent of what you find on this site. If I want to get in touch with a friend, or a friend with me, there’s nothing that beats a personal email or a telephone call.
Same with LinkedIn, supposedly a network that establishes business connections. Like Facebook, though, it seems to resemble a game in which the “winner” has the most “links.” But these links are rarely in the service of anything I work at, and I no longer answer these requests either. Too little time to play with electronic crazes such as these. Nor do I understand Twitter mania for any purposes other than organizing street protests here and abroad. Writing haiku is something I respect: disciplining oneself to write a poem in 17 syllables. But what is the big deal of sending messages limited to 140 characters (including spaces)?
But I do take part of the blogosphere seriously—the part populated by book lovers who have started their own blog sites—for many excellent reviewers have taken up the baton that print reviewers have dropped. There is no bias here against first novelists (as there is in the daily New York Times reviews), no bias in terms of “brand-name” authors versus unknowns, and no favoritism of nonfiction over fiction (as there is in the vast majority of newspapers and magazines).
Now and Then
There is also wonderful, articulate writing. The best reviewers we’ve met are simply searching for good books—including quality fiction—and, not being salaried, they review out of love and passion.
My faith lies with Internet reviewing by people who value substance over flash, who appreciate good writing and write well themselves. Contact with extraordinary bloggers who write about books has been an eye-opener this past year, bloggers like Wisteria Leigh, Marc Schuster, Allison Campbell, and several others. More than that, it’s provided a high that I can compare only to the high I’ve gotten when jamming with other musicians when we are in sync and the music connects us in the most intimate way. It goes beyond words and becomes a spiritual thing, sending a message from your heart and having it returned by another.
When my wife, Judy, and I started the Permanent Press 31 years ago, we happily found extraordinary support in the Sunday New York Times Book Review section. To begin with, Thomas Lask, in his “End Papers” column, somehow picked up on a letter we wrote to the Authors Guild, announcing that we were starting an imprint called Second Chance Press, seeking to give worthwhile books, out of print for at least 20 years, a second chance. This resulted in our being sent 600 books, and the six we chose made up our first list. Later, under editors Mike Levitas, Becky Sinkler, and Chip McGrath, we often had review coverage in the TBR for three or four of our 12 titles a year, nearly all for Permanent Press releases.
But over the past three decades, our relationship with most newspaper or magazine book reviewers was largely one-way. The publisher was a supplicant and the reviewer royalty who might grant a favor. Print media people were overwhelmingly in favor of the well-known writers and the promotional efforts of conglomerate publishers and publicists who could curry that favor much more effectively than we could.
Consider, for example, the daily New York Times reviewers. There have been 9,292 reviews in the daily Times over the past 29-and-a-half years, and not one other book of ours has gotten coverage: this despite the fact that in that period we published a Nobel Prize–winning author (Halldor Laxness) and 12 novels by a Nobel Prize nominee (Berry Fleming), had a National Book Award finalist (Sandra Scofield), Hammett Prize and Edgar Award finalists and winners (Randall Silvis, Domenic Stansberry, and Reed Farrel Coleman), and, in 1998, won the equivalent of a publishing Oscar: Literary Market Place’s LMP Award for Editorial Achievement—a prize open to every publisher, large and small, in America, and voted upon by our colleagues in the book industry.
From Books to Blogs to Book
If books sell by word-of-mouth and coverage—which they do—and if one values quality over celebrity and spin, it should be clear that online is where the important reviewing action is taking place.
There are many online sites such as Book Reads and Library Thing, where all one needs to do is supply galley copies electronically to readers interested in the books you offer. Maybe 50 percent of them will be reviewed. Then it becomes a question of who you want to stay in contact with. For me, it’s people who write well and share our aesthetic, rather than people who just say they “liked” one of our novels but don’t write about the books in a way that is interesting to me.
Those book bloggers who approach our novels in ways that amaze me, who write reviews that are as original as the flap copy our authors compose, who give me new perspectives on what we’ve published, and who have a flair for expressing themselves are a treasure.
One of the novels we’ve signed up for 2011—The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl—was written by a blogger. Marc Schuster, the author, advertised it on his blogsite. It had been published in paperback by a community press and gotten no reviews. I wrote him a few months ago saying that since he’s read so many of our books, I’d like a reading copy of his.
It proved to be a delight, though both Judy and I thought it needed editing and cutting. I wrote Marc, telling him that if it was available and he wanted to work on it, we’d be glad to consider it for publication. Weeks later, he addressed the issues, and we read a polished manuscript that we felt was a gem—the sort of gem we plan to order galley copies for 18 months ahead of time, as it seems to be one of those books for which you have a good chance of making both film and substantial international sales well in advance of publication.
All this was unplanned, spontaneous, and ironic—instead of just submitting books for review, you wind up taking on a novel because you are so appreciative of a blogger’s storytelling gifts. What is a good review if it’s not good storytelling, after all?
Martin Shepard is the co-publisher of The Permanent Press in Sag Harbor, NY, and has his own monthly blog, thecockeyedpessimist.com. The press’s Web site is thepermanentpress.com; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.