Q: At PW, we just launched Tip Sheet, a new weekly newsletter (and print column and Web page) that covers the books hitting shelves each week as well as those making some noise in the marketplace. Which brings me to the subject of reviews and book coverage. There are so many ways to discover books in the age of social media. At the same time, at many local newspapers, book coverage is shrinking, and stand-alone book reviews are folding. Do you have any thoughts on the state of the book review and its future?
A: The demise of the Washington Post Book World and other traditional stand-alone print book reviews, as well as the loss of space devoted to reviewing books in most American newspapers, indicates a sea change in the way readers will find books to read. It was always a great pleasure to me when I visited my daughter in Arlington, Va., and got caught up on all the Book Worlds that she had saved for me since I had been there last. These days, the places where readers look for information about their next good book is, as with so much else in our information culture, increasingly moving online.
We're at an intermediate stage right now. There are still trade publications devoted to reviewing books. These, however, are intended mainly for booksellers and librarians (but can be quite useful as well for members of the general public if they're aware of them and are willing to make the effort to find them). There are also a few print magazines, such as ForeWord and Book Marks, aimed at the "civilian" reader. Online booksellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer a mix of reviews from these sources and informal reviews and recommendations by individual readers. Anyone can post a review, and anyone frequently does.
The amazing upsurge in social media (LibraryThing, Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter et al.) as well as individual book-oriented blogs provide other rich sources of reviews and recommendations. I have many friends (librarians and others) who use Goodreads religiously, not just to post their own opinions of the books they read but also to help them select their next book. Other readers follow particular reviewers on Twitter. I very much enjoy seeing what Ron Charles and Laura Miller are up to in 140 characters or less. And then there are the legions of bloggers who regularly offer views of books.
I often think that one could spend all day reading blogs, twitter feeds, and other online reviews, leaving no time to actually read a book.
One concern that I have is that the relatively healthy balance of book-related information that can be found on the Internet now might evolve into a Wild West solely of personal opinions. So what's wrong with that? Is something lost when readers look only to the views of their peers rather than the views of the sort of "expert" reviewers found in traditional print media?
When I read a review in the Seattle Times, for example, I feel reasonably assured that reading what the author has to say is worth my time and attention, whether I agree with his assessment or take her advice. When I look at the innumerable reader reviews that can be found on any bookselling Web site, I can never stop at just one. It's incredibly entertaining to see what different people have to say, but I have no idea how much credibility I should assign to any particular person's views—how much I should let it influence my reading behavior.
I worry that as the world of book-related information evolves online, less and less of the information available to me will be of the former sort, and, sadly, I'll be left largely with access only to the latter sort. This state of affairs would make the person-to-person reader's advisory function of the professional librarian or the hand-selling that takes place in independent bookstores more important than ever. And this is something that would warm my heart.
Hearing New Voices
Q: There is a term called "raw art," which generally refers to visual art made by people who have no real formal art training—they just feel compelled to create. It's also called "outsider art." Is there such a thing as "raw literature" or "outsider" literature? And what are some good examples of it? Who are some of the authors that might fit in? One author I can think of is Anzia Yezierska, an unschooled child of Jewish immigrants who went to night school, learned to write, and went on to write novels and short stories, including Bread Givers (her best-known novel). Her writing is direct and emotional and, I would say, raw. Your thoughts on this? —Jyotsna Sreenivasan
A: I don't think there's an exact equivalence in literature with outsider art. But what I do see in the field of literature is that there have always been authors who don't write in a conventional manner or on conventional topics, and increasingly, it seems harder for those authors today to find a publisher.
The publishing industry has always been an uneasy compromise between art and commerce, but in recent decades it has tipped in the direction of commerce. While there are still small independent publishing houses, the major publishers, those responsible for the vast majority of book sales, are owned by large corporations, and these houses pretty much dictate what the public sees at the big box bookstores, and for perhaps valid business reasons they seem generally not to be interested in outsider, or unorthodox, untested authors. On the other hand, self-publishing and gaining an audience by simply making one's work available online now offer an opportunity for such authors to gain a readership.
At the same time, because self-published work is not "juried" or, let's be frank, edited, finding worthwhile self-published work can be like finding a needle in a haystack. But that's not to say that some of us (me, in any case) don't have the same problem finding a good read from the major publishers, even though those books have gone through not only an editorial but also a marketing process.
I find that much of what I enjoy comes from smaller, independent publishing houses. These books tend to have smaller print runs and small marketing budgets, and many folks will never encounter them. Publishers salivate over finding an author who might be the next Dan Brown and, these days, have a hard time resisting any book that features a famous person interacting with a werewolf, or a zombie, or, God help us, a vampire. But I'd much rather discover a novel of the sort that Unbridled Books frequently publishes. Or that offbeat fantasy that Small Beer Press regularly offers up. Yet it seems to me that fewer of the big mainstream publishers are willing to take a chance on the kind of outsider literature you ask about. It makes me wonder if Jack Kerouac's On the Road would find a publisher today.
One partial solution is to support both our independent bookstores and our public libraries, where these outsider books will be found. But even the best library and indie book store have to do some metaphorical heavy lifting to discover these books in the first place. Our reading choices seem too often dictated by publishers that seek out books that will be liked just enough to be purchased by a large number of readers, rather than books that will be absolutely loved by the perhaps limited number of readers to whom each one appeals. This of course makes perfect sense from a busi-ness perspective. It just leaves some readers like me, and sounds like you, out in the cold.
Fiction for Adults to Read Before They Die
Little Big Man by Thomas Berger
Mr. Bridge; Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell
Libra by Don DeLillo
The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
The World According to Garp by John Irving
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers
Searching for Caleb by Anne Tyler
Email your questions or comments to Nancy Pearl at Checkitout@publishersweekly.com