Jacket Copy

Books, authors and all things bookish

« Previous Post | Jacket Copy Home | Next Post »

At BEA: The critics and the crowds

May 30, 2009 | 11:15 am


About 150 perhaps overly optimistic people -- heavy on book reviewers -- piled into a basement meeting room this morning to hear a panel of five discuss “Book Reviews 2010: What Will They Look Like?” sponsored by the National Book Critics Circle. The short answer: No one really knows.

The panelists were Otis Chandler, founder of Goodreads.com; Peter Krause, formerly of Muze and now one of the leaders at Tactic Co.; Bethanne Patrick, freelance critic and former Book Maven blogger for Publishers Weekly; blogger Ben Greenman of the New Yorker; and David Nudo, who has been involved with media old (the New York Times) and new (Shelfari).

The panel, moderated by John Reed, books editor of the Brooklyn Rail, sought to get a sense of what the media move to the Internet might mean for reviewing -- and which reviewers and reviewing platforms will retain authority. Tellingly, newspapers weren’t mentioned until near the end as the panelists debated the varying merits of the continuing evolution.

Chandler pushed the theme that most people don’t rely on reviews to decide what books to read, but on the recommendations of friends, which has fueled Goodreads’ success. But if those with authority now can “figure out and stay with the new methods of distribution they can absolutely retain their authority,” he said.

The conversation evolved into more of an analysis of the lay of the reviewing land, which was a recitation of the obvious. More and more bloggers are weighing in on books while mainstream media are laying off writers and cutting back on space. What they were describing, though they didn’t say it in so many words, is that book reviewing is at its Big Bang moment. The explosion has happened (we’ll skip the obvious “Million Little Pieces” joke) and now from the dust new systems are forming -- but no one can say for sure what the new universe will look like.

But it looks like two dominant systems will probably evolve from this mess. The informal reviews on sites like Goodreads and Amazon.com will continue and become something like the vox populi, amplifying the success of mass culture phenomena (“The Da Vinci Code,” “Harry Potter”). And there will still be the serious attempts by professional reviewers to assess literature as art, some from established outlets and others from the still-gelling litblog world. How anyone will make a living at that is still the great unknown question.

-- Scott Martelle