The Book Business: An Industry of Whiners
No industry in the world is so completely peopled with whiners:
* Book publishers whine because they are forced to eat 35% of the products they send out in the form of hugely expensive returns.
* Authors whine because publishers don’t promote their books.
* Book publishers and authors whine because newspapers do not review their books.
*Newspapers whine because book publishers are putting their advertising dollars elsewhere, so, in retaliation, they drastically cut the number of reviews they carry.
*Book critics whine because with fewer and fewer venues for their work, they are deprived of places to show off how much smarter they are than the authors whose books they review.
* Readers whine because with 200,000 new titles a year and so few reviews, they have no way of hearing about new titles or acquiring information on which titles are worth their money and time.
The problem is complicated by book critics who—with the exception of bloggers—are the most long-winded, undisciplined writers on the planet.
The Movie Review Model
Last Friday, the Weekend section of the Inquirer had a page of 31 capsule reviews of films being shown around town—movies that had received full-dress reviews in previous weeks. In addition, five new films were reviewed at length by Carrie Rickey and Steven Rea, the paper’s excellent critics.
I wanted to see a good movie—one that rated three or four stars. In under a minute, I homed in on the following:
The Hoax ***1/2 Richard Gere stars in this smart, witty tale based on a stranger-than-fiction yarn that really, truly occurred: Clifford Irving’s legendary 1971 scam in which he convinced a publisher to pay him almost $1 million for the exclusive, authorized biography of billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. 1 hr. 56 R (profanity, adult themes)—S.R.
Steven Rea had boiled down his full-length review to just 55 words, telling me everything I needed to know to make a buying decision. The $9 admission and 2-1/2 hours of my time were well-spent.
Book Reviewers: Writers who Write About Writing, Oh My!
When reviewers spend four to seven hours reading a book, they don’t want to write 55 words and give it one to four stars à la film critics.
Book critics want to express themselves by showing off how much they know. They clear their throats, roll up their sleeves, and rub their hands together in order to prove they have the credentials to critique a book. We are forced to suffer through a tiresome account of the reviewer’s intimate knowledge of the subject, the genre and opinions of the author’s previous books.
The ultimate aim of book reviewers is to make that one reader out of a hundred, who knows what the hell he or she is talking about, feel good, while they gleefully make the other 99 of us feel like illiterate chumps.
At about paragraph five or six, the real review begins.
When the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal arrived last Saturday, I found the review of a new book of interest to me, “Can We Trust the BBC?” by Robert Aitken.
Mark Steyn’s review ran a mind-numbing 1,455 words.
The first 409 words were devoted to a series of rambling observations about CNN and the reviewer’s experience with the BBC in an Amman, Jordan, hotel room. This was followed by a tale of how he watched the BBC in London and found himself
... mesmerized by a game show on BBC4 in which the four male contestants had to remove the brassieres of the four female contestants without using their hands. I used to be able to do this myself, but frankly I’m a little rusty and was eager to bring myself up to speed. Yet, as miscellaneous noses and teeth nuzzled and gnawed at clasps and underwiring, I found myself oddly distracted: Talk about a public service!
I am a media junkie. What I really wanted to know was whether this book on the BBC was worth $29.95 and four hours of my time. That could have been accomplished in 55 words and one, two, three or four stars.
Meanwhile, in the 48 column-inches that included the reviewer’s puerile drivel—and which featured a useless a 4-1/4˝ by 5-1/4˝ cartoon-like drawing—the Journal could have performed a real service to readers, authors, booksellers and publishers by printing 55-word capsule reviews—with star ratings—of 25 or more new titles.
Last week, Rupert Murdoch made a bid to buy The Wall Street Journal. How would he change things? “I’m sometimes frustrated by the long stories,” Murdoch told interviewers from The New York Times, adding that he fails to finish many of the articles.
How I hope the Bancroft family agrees to the sale, allowing Rupert Murdoch to take over and inject some adrenaline into that dreary, wordy rag.
The Anatomy of Book Promotion
The key to book sales used to be reviews.
No reviews, no sales.
My friend and neighbor, Cordelia Biddle, has written a humdinger of a mystery novel, “The Conjurer,” set in old Philadelphia. The work received two dandy reviews from the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Except for readers of these two newspapers—plus attendees of her various book signings—no one in the country will have any way of hearing about this beautifully written, gripping book.
Without reviews, many, many copies of “The Conjurer” that have been fed into the vast book-distribution maw will be returned unsold to the publisher (at great expense), and reshipped (at great expense) to remainder tables—often in the same stores that just returned them. Ultimately, they will be squirted out publishing’s back end and used as landfill.
Under the current broken system, the one thing that book publishers do best is turn trees into landfill.
Cordelia Biddle—and all authors, publishers, booksellers and readers—deserve better.
The Fraudulent Best-Seller Lists
Instead of supporting newspapers with advertising, book publishers spend big bucks to bribe Barnes & Noble and Borders to put certain titles in their windows and give them conspicuous shelf-space inside.
They are also paying PR firms to jimmy Amazon’s—and Barnes & Noble’s—best-seller lists by dishonestly getting their titles onto it. In the words of Carl Baliak’s March 23, 2007 story in The Wall Street Journal:
For $10,000 to $15,000, you, too, can be a best-selling author.
New York public-relations firm Ruder Finn says it can propel unknown titles to the top of rankings on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble with a mass email called the Best-Seller Blast.
This causes three distinct results:
* Books on best-seller lists are not the best books. They are the ones that publishers put the most money behind. Best-seller lists are frauds.
* Books that have no point-of-purchase promotion budget—or special sales in niche markets—become landfill.
* No book advertising in newspapers means very few reviews. Newspapers’ book editors have become vestigial—the publishers’ pet charity cases.
Can Blogs Make up for the Paucity of Book Reviews?
The New York Times’ story by Motoko Rich describing how newspapers are bailing out of the book review business suggested that bloggers will take up the slack. Mentioned in the story are several blogs. I visited them and downloaded some of the leads:
The Lighthouse: An Adam Dalgliesh Mystery, P.J. James
To be honest, a whodunit is not my cup of tea. One is thrust into the guessing game very early on, the detective always gets his culprit, and this person is the least likely suspect. As a genre, the detective novel is conventional and predictable and does not often make for a good reading experience.
Confessions of a Failed Interviewer
I have always done my best to learn from failure. And I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t report that, this afternoon, while conducting an author interview, I failed to carry out my duties as interviewer. I hope that my honesty here will atone for my inadequacies.
“Boomsday” by Christopher Buckley
One thing I hate: any book that reads as if it’s based on an “idea” — you know, those plots that occur to you on your way to work in the morning. Usually, they seem great on the surface, but any attempt to build an entire book on one reveals just how empty the idea actually is. As in, “Why hasn’t anyone written a book about a time traveling serial killer?” or “What if a blind man was cured but didn’t like what he saw when the bandages were removed?” Novels like this clog bookstore shelves, often sell well, and are usually terrible.
Syntax of Things (“One person’s crap is another person’s blog”)
Thanks to the part-time paying gig, I didn’t get the chance to finish up the first set of reviews I wanted to share today. I blame the broken promise on the fact that I had to spend an evening proofreading text full of Chinese characters, typeface not people. Let’s just say I’m still hungover, so here’s a little something from Roberto Bolaño’s “Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories.”
Blogs clearly are not the answer to providing readers with the information they want.
A Possible Solution: Quickiebookreviews.com
I propose an advertising-driven daily e-newsletter that is free to anyone in the world interested in new books.
The daily announcement arrives in your e-mailbox. Click on the hyperlink and you land at quickiebookreviews.com.
What pops up is a lively page with publishers’ ads and a series of capsule reviews (70 words, max)—with ratings of one to four stars—plus price, publisher, ISBN, binding and number of pages—plenty of information to make a buying decision.
Click on the mini-review and land on a page—or a series of pages—devoted to that title created by the author and publisher. Here is a picture of the cover, one or more full-dress reviews, a list of other titles by that author, reader comments, a bulletin board and schedule of book signings. If the publisher has taken an ad for the book, it also appears here, as well as on the landing page.
Authors and publishers who feel they have been unfairly treated can run an ad in this section refuting the review and quoting other sources who liked the book.
Unlike book reviews and expensive ads in today’s newspapers—which are tomorrow’s bird-cage liners—these capsule reviews and ads will go to a national and international audience and remain on the landing page for seven days, after which they will be archived.
The archive of capsule reviews will be categorized by subject area. For example: American History, Current Affairs, Science, Drama, Arts and Culture, Fiction-Thrillers, Fiction-Romance, Mysteries, For Children, etc.
Click on any of these archived capsule reviews, and the full-dress pages devoted to the title—along with the publisher’s ad—will be available in perpetuity.
The entire site will be fully searchable by subject area, title, author, ISBN and number of stars.
In addition to advertising revenue, Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com would probably pay a pretty penny for exclusive title-by-title hyperlinks as well as a commission on sales.
For Sale: Quickiebookreviews.com
What I have described is a possible business model—one that will benefit readers, authors, publishers and booksellers. Very likely it will be profitable fairly quickly.
I am too busy to launch this thing. However, last week I registered www.quickiebookreviews.com (and .net) with Network Solutions.
Any bibliophile with a head for business who would be interested in pursuing this idea—and who comes up with a reasonable business plan—can have the two QuickieBookReview URLs at my cost: $69.98.
If no takers, they will expire in a year.