Monday, September 04, 2006

I promised ...

... a couple of weeks ago, as it happens, that I would have more to say in reference to this post: Dick Margulis sends along ... Now's as good a time as ever to make good on the promise.

When I became The Inquirer's book editor in 2000, about 125,000 new books a year were published. This year that figure is likely to be 175,000. Usually, the month of August is a slow one in publishing. Not this year - at least in terms of the number of books sent to me. I spent yesterday trying to catch up on all the books that had piled up in my office (at one point there was something like 40 or 50 bins of unopened books outside the book room).
Back in 2000 I had a full-time assistant. Later it became a part-time assistant. Now it is a sometime assistant - and the sometimes are increasingly rare.
I mention this for two reasons. One is to show that the volume alone is obviously more than one human can master in any but the most superficial manner. The other is that there are obviously plenty of books worthy of consideration than are ever considered. Which is why I get so annoyed whenever I am told - and I am told it frequently - that a particular book ought to be considered for review because .... the New York Times wrote admiringly of it recently. The idea that the only books worth considering - or at least the books most worth considering -- are those the Times considers worth considering is, quite simply, a stupid idea, every bit as stupid as the idea that the Times is still the newspaper of record for anyone except too many journalists.
There are some books that have to be reviewed, because their appearance is an event - Thomas Pynchon's forthcoming novel comes immediately to mind. But how pick fresh and interesting choices from all those others?
Well, the first thing anyone in my position has to do is resign himself to the fact that you can only review a fraction of what is out there and will therefore miss many books that deserve better and review plenty of books that ought to have been ignored.
That said, I pay attention to what others tell me, especially my reviewers, many of whom have more expertise in some areas than I will ever have. I also read my fellow lit bloggers. That's how I chose to have Jane Gardam's Old Filth reviewed.
One of the things you would notice if you had to, as I do, spend the greater part of the day opening one book package after another, is the lack of imagination on the part of publishers. Book after book decrying the Bush administration (which has but two years left), book after book announcing some social, economic, or environmental disaster looming on the horizon that only reading this book can help stave off, book after book in imitation of - mirabile dictu! - The Da Vinci Code.
At any rate, I look to review books that seem interesting and in danger of being overlooked. I also make sure that books of poetry are reviewed as, well, books. The idea of a poetry roundup - giving each maybe a hundred words or so - betrays a complete lack of understanding of what poetry is. I also pay a good bit of attention to genre fiction because (a) a lot of people read it and (b) a lot of it is very good, better than much that calls itself "literary."


  1. I only review mystery and thriller fiction. Yet even in that small corner of the book world, it is an impossible task for anyone even to keep up with everything that is published, much less give each book a fair consideration.

    As critics or book review editors, we can only do our best to pick and choose as wisely as we can -- always knowing that we will inevitably miss some true treasures.

    Considering how difficult it is to get any coverage at all for books these days, I consider myself fortunate to have the small soapbox that I do.

  2. Anonymous5:51 PM

    It is a deliciously terrible problem, for readers as well as book reviewers. I agree with all you say, Frank (especially the assistant bit, writes she, feelingly), and David. I am an avid reader of crime fiction and can't possibly keep up even with that. And I realise there are loads and loads of great books, mainly classics but also some contemporary novels that aren't pretentious or slavishly following some trend that I'm really missing out on and will never have time to read.
    I am glad that you do sometimes listen to what the litbloggers say, Frank. I've discovered some good authors (to me) that way, which I would not have discovered otherwise. Some not so good, also, but one learns the foibles of the recommenders.
    Authors and potential authors say they have a hard lot with publishers and I can certainly agree with them.
    But readers and reviewers are certainly faced with an inhuman and impossible task in selecting what to read or cover.

  3. Frank,

    Thanks so much for following up with your lengthier comments. That helps put the situation into perspective.

    Others have noted that reviews don't have an obvious effect on book sales (something I'm sorry to learn). But I imagine they have some effect--not necessarily a sanguine one--on the choices publishers make as the manuscripts flow into their maws.

    It seems to me that the mainstream fiction publishers are nearing the same battle the mainstream record companies have been losing of late. While the record companies have tried to hang onto their model of paying as little as possible in royalties to the artists and controlling the distribution through the usual channels, music consumers and artists have invented new models that increasingly flatfoot the record companies and make them less and less relevant.

    In fiction publishing, the majors are still trying to drive the model of flooding reviewers with minimally considered new releases in the hope that something will catch, then pushing those few supposedly important titles through to the bookstore chains with massively expensive marketing campaigns. Meanwhile, despite the unending supply of suckers to support the vanity industry, more and more smart authors--like smart musicians--are creating excellent work outside of the mainstream channels.

    When those independent authors finally discover a way to connect directly with readers, the big publishers are going to find themselves in the same position as the big record companies.

    I think there's a role for the critic in thinking about and writing about this transition as it takes place, perhaps even in shaping the transition by coming up with creative ways around a situation that is obviously becoming problematic for critics, too.

  4. Dick,

    From what I've been told (and from what I've observed), reviews definitely have a positive and not inconsiderable impact on book sales. This is especially important, I think, for the smaller titles, which otherwise would get no publicity at all.

  5. Anonymous1:04 PM

    I think many factors have an effect on book sales, including factors some of us have never even thought of (how close to the cafe in Barnes & Noble is that particular book?, to give one example).

    Here are some factors: Can the book even get shelved in the megabookstores? If it can't (and if it's self-published, we all know it's going to have a tougher time), then no one can see it to look at it and perhaps buy it.

    Does the book have compelling cover art? Look at women browsing the chick-lit section, where the covers are bright, with lots of pink, images of fashionable shoes and handbags, etc. Covers definitely influence undecided people on picking up a book.

    Has it been optioned for a movie, or become a movie? I don't doubt for a nanosecond that lots more people have been reading Annie Proulx's short stories since hunks Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger are now featured on the cover of _Close Range_.

    Does it have a dog on the cover? Americans *love* dogs, especially labs -- the #1 breed in America -- so I have no doubt quite a few people bought John Grogan's book for that reason and then discovered they liked it. (And, by the way, I read a section of it and found it rather charming and decently written -- despite snarky comments to the contrary that I've been hearing from others.)

    Did it have a publicist who blanketed print sources with ads? Lots of books make it thanks to p.r.; lots of others disappear because they never got any. Novelist friend of mine spent $15K a few years ago to market her book after the publisher said their budget had been cut and they couldn't do anything for her. Did it help her sales? You betcha. And the book turned into a movie, too.

    Is the author attractive, likable, a good speaker? Author appearances sell books. If I see a lovely or intriguing-looking person in a jacket photo, I'm more likely to buy the book. Dumb reason, but I'm sure it's psychologically sound.

    Finally, reviews. People who love books tend to read reviews. Good reviews have excerpts of the book. If I read an excerpt that turns me on, via the quality of the writing, the insight, the wit, or whatever, I am going to buy that book. Strangely, a bad review doesn't *necessarily* turn me off (esp. if the excerpts are full enough for me to make my own judgment), but a positive review is much more likely to send me to the store or

    Most important: This is another book by an author I already know i like. Hands down, I'm going to buy the new books by people like Alice Munro, David Mitchell, Michael Ondaatje, Annie Proulx, Margaret Atwood, Michael Chabon, and on and on. Why? Because I derived a great deal of pleasure from their other books and I'm confident I'll find more of the same.

  6. This is fascinating to me, from the writer's perspective. I wonder if puplicists are starting send off-the-book-page editors heaps of books too, in hopes of getting feature stories rather than reviews?