Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Long Tail Versus Tomorrow’s Garbage: Why Book Blogs Kick Traditional Media Into A Cocked Hat

The slashing of the Los Angeles Times’ books section has kick-started the old ‘death of books’ jalopy again, with traditional media commentators unsure of whether they should celebrate book-related websites and blogs as the last hope for book reviews, or wring their hands despairingly because the print media is tossing the keys of the city over the wall to the barbarians waiting at the gate.
  I haven’t been too exercised by the big ‘print vs on-line’ debate to date, mainly because I think it’s pointless arguing about the respective quality of the reviews / insights / opinions, especially when so many journalists are bloggers and vice versa. I’m a journalist myself, or at least I review for a variety of traditional media outlets, both print and radio, so when I read a traditional media commentator saying that he / she doesn’t take bloggers seriously, I tend to presume that said commentator hasn’t found the right blogs, is too lazy to go looking, or is afraid to search them out in case their argument falls apart. Either way, I don’t take it too seriously.
  It’s true that many blogs are slapdash and clumsy, and that far too many bloggers put way too much faith in their own opinion, and fail to observe the basic protocols of reviewing, as Lissa Warren notes here at The Huffington Post. But if the number of factual errors in this review of THE BIG O by Publishers Weekly is anything to go by, the traditional media can be every bit as culpable when it comes to being less than rigorous in their reviews.
  Now, I don’t want to pick on the poor unfortunate who got the basic details so badly wrong in Publishers Weekly. PW is not immune to the issues besetting traditional media right now, and it has its own problems at the moment, not least that it is in the process of restructuring. It also reviews a vast quantity of titles per issue. So I can appreciate that these things happen, and the reviewer is as entitled to his or her opinion on THE BIG O as I am when I’m reviewing a book. God knows I’ve dished out my fair share of bad reviews, and I’m not going to whinge when bad karma comes back to bite my metaphorical (albeit perfectly formed) ass.
  But there are a few essential differences between reviews published in traditional media and those on websites and blogs. For starters, when I review for traditional media, my name goes on the review. Furthermore, if I write a review undermined by basic errors in describing the plot, mistakes which then feed into my opinion of the book / play / movie, then the author / director is perfectly entitled to ask for a right-of-reply and / or and a corrections box in a subsequent issue. Beyond that, my editor is perfectly entitled query my substandard work, and issue a warning as to what is and what isn’t unacceptable. These are all basic and essential protocols. Reviewing books and movies isn’t exactly heart surgery, but it does bring with it its own responsibilities, and the reviewer has a duty of care to the author, the editor and the reader.
  The traditional media would argue that these protocols protect and enhance the business of reviewing, in theory at least. In practice, it’s highly unlikely that an author, say, will protest a review based on inaccuracies on the basis that, as with sending back a cold bowl of soup in a restaurant, the fact that it’s warm when it returns may not necessarily be a good thing. No one wants to get a reputation for being ‘difficult’, because it lessens the chances of a good review further down the line, and hugely increases the chances of getting no review at all.
  Blogs and websites, by contrast, are generally more accessible. Reviewing isn’t supposed to be a democratic process, but an author who receives a factually inaccurate review from a blog should have no problem contacting the reviewer, whose contact details are generally available on his or her homepage. And, given that bloggers are usually enthusiasts who are blogging in order to spread the word, and are reviewing for love rather than money, they are generally more amenable to offering corrections and right-to-reply. Of course, they’re often not; that all depends on the blogger in question. Speaking for myself, I can only say that if a writer (or a writer’s supporter) gets in touch with me to argue his or her point, then I am only too delighted to offer them the space to do so. It’s not just a matter of courtesy; it’s the very essence of the peer-to-peer relationship that characterises internet discourse.
  There are other issues differentiating traditional and on-line media, of course. In the context of reviewing books, the traditional media will argue that bloggers are often less stringent in their evaluation of a book than a traditional-media critic might be. I’d agree with this point, although I’d suggest that very few bloggers see themselves as critics, and more as reviewers, whereas traditional media reviewers tend to regard themselves as critics. Only a fool would rush out and buy a book on the strength of a gushingly positive review from a single blogger – or, for that matter, from a traditional media review. But if you read ten, twenty or a 120 positive reviews of a particular book across a range of blogs, you’re more likely to accept the general trend. Only a very few authors, by comparison, are afforded the luxury of that quantity of coverage in the traditional media.
  And that’s without getting into the issue of the ‘long tail’ of the internet versus ‘tomorrow’s garbage’ of the traditional media.
  In a nutshell, book blogs and websites provide information that the traditional media either does not provide, or is tardy in providing – Rob Smith’s CHILD 44, now a Booker Prize nominee but initially championed through the web, being the most recent case in point. Established and best-selling authors are almost guaranteed saturation coverage in traditional media when they publish a new book, but if it’s new, different or awkward voices you prefer, then it’s bloggers who are seeking out and celebrating such voices.
  That’s understandable, as the traditional media has bills to pay and advertisers to woo, while most bloggers operate without any financial constraints at all – or, indeed, any financial incentive. It’s this last, I think, that underpins the traditional media’s paranoia about the web in general and bloggers in particular, and fuels the time-honoured fallacy fostered by capitalism, which is that unless you can pay for it, it’s not worth anything.
  The point that they’re missing, I think, is that no one blog or website sets itself up as a champion of virtue, quality or worth. The blogosphere is something of a Borg entity, or an ant hill, in which all the individual blogs combine and interact. That runs against the grain of the adversarial nature of traditional media, in which each outlet is in competition with every other for a slice of the pie. When I first started blogging, coming from as I did from that adversarial mentality, I was shocked at the hospitality and sense of community, and even now it still has the power to surprise me, albeit pleasantly. It all sounds too hippy-dippy to be true, but true it is – without the support of far too many bloggers and on-line crime fic fans to mention here, the self-published THE BIG O would never have made it into the pages of Publishers Weekly, for good or ill. Happy days, people.


Martin Edwards said...

Declan, my thoughts on these issues are much the same as yours. It seems to me that, as publishers consolidate and trad print space shrinks, blog reviews and less trad forms of publishing are bound to become more significant - and reliable. Difficult to predict the future, but the blogosphere and the internet generally seem to me to be increasingly important for all those of us who aren't best-sellers, and maybe even for those who are.

Gerard Brennan said...

Excellent post.

There's also the point that a review on a blog can be accessed, in most cases, for evermore. So a book that's been out for a few years won't be found in the traditional media, but anybody with a remedial grasp of Google can still find thoughts and opinions on that work.

We're the wave of the future, bud.


Declan Burke said...

Cheers, chaps. As Martin says, it's difficult to predict the future, and I've no doubt blogs and the web will at some point be usurped by a newer form of communication. But for now, and in the short-term future, again as Martin says, I believe print journalists - in terms of book reviews, interviews, etc. - will migrate to the web, resulting in ever-increasing quality, diversity and depth. Something to look forward to. Cheers, Dec