Sunday, August 3, 2008

Will blogs save books?

I wasn't planning to talk about this, but I'm beyond frustrated with Huffington Post right now. They ran a column I found particularly annoying, Will Blogs Save Books, and I really felt moved to comment on it. You have to register with them to post a comment. So I registered. Then I waited. And waited. Two days later, my account was finally activated. (It's like they have a mandatory 48-hour cooling off period.) Now, when I've pared my comment down to the 250 words they'll allow, I still can't post it. (The website says "Trouble with comments? We've released a new system, and we want your feedback." Oh boy, do I have feedback for them!)

So, since I have my own little space here, I have a few things to say about Ms. Warren's column. First of all, she's reading some pretty lousy book blogs. No reviews? Only links to reviews? No discussion of books? Every single one of the sites I read does a much better job than that. Of course, she doesn't mention any of them by name, so she paints us all with that same dirty brush.

Most newspaper book reviewers remind me of those annoying sportscasters - the ones who would rather talk about how the quarterback reminds them of some guy they played against two decades ago (that you've never heard of), instead of talking about the game I'm currently watching. My main interest is not in the author's place in "the genre" - in fact, I am automatically suspicious of anyone who uses phrases like that. I don't want someone teaching an English Lit class. I'm not necessarily interested in a discussion of their previous books - if I've read them, I likely have my own opinion; if not, it's useless to me. I'm interested in the current book, the one I'm thinking about buying. I want to know if it's a good book. I want to know if it had big plot holes, if it held the reviewer's interest, if it was true to the jacket description, if it was funny or exciting or moving or informative. I want an opinion from someone who has read this particular book and thought about it.

I certainly don't need reviews like the NYT's recent review of The Lace Reader, with this marvelous insight: "Women write books that other women will want to sit around and discuss, preferably over tea and cucumber sandwiches." Why would I trust their judgment on any book after a comment like that? (I've talked about that comment elsewhere.)

I don't think we book bloggers believe we're going to replace newspapers. That's certainly not why I'm doing this. We do this because we love books - buying them, reading them and talking about them. What it really comes down to for a publisher is what makes you buy a book? Nothing builds buzz like blogs and internet gossip - ask the folks behind The Blair Witch Project - that's why even books these days have trailers on YouTube. I haven't bought a book based on a newspaper's review in ages, but I've bought dozens based on the reviews of my fellow bloggers. I think that makes blogs a pretty good market for the publishers to cultivate.


Amy said...

I wrote about this today as well. I agree with you. I read a ton of book blogs and I get to know the bloggers and how their opinions mesh with mine. I trust them to give it to me straight without trying to make their job seem more important than it is. :)
Huffington Post only took 24 hours to activate me, but I had lost interest in commenting by then...obviously they are not very interested in comments.

Wendy said...

Yup, yup, yup - *nodding head furiously* You said this quite well (for a blogger - HA!). Thanks for visiting my blog today and leaving a comment :)

Amy said...

wow i completely agree with you! that's the reason i even started a book blog: i really just wanted to be able to get my opinion out there to people that i knew would appreciate it. and to find suggestions from other book bloggers who aren't trying to sell me something.

anyway, thanks for the comment!:)

Anonymous said...

On top of Entertainment Weekly's review of The Gargoyle and this I'm about to spit nails. This just affirms me in my decision not to read The Huffington Post in the first place. Your comment is well said. Has anyone ever started to think that book review blogs are so big precisely because they are typically not written like a graduate term paper? My blog exists to express my love for books. If I wanted to discuss cannon and dissect an author's catalog like a freaking frog I'd go back to school to get my doctorate.

As angry as I, I thank you for bringing this to my attention. It makes me wonder, if what we do is so beneath them and unimportant, why they bother to to write about us at all? Hmmm?

Lenore Appelhans said...

QUOTE : I'd also advise that book reviewing bloggers jettison the use of personal pronouns. Also, I don't need to know how they came to possess the book -- how they borrowed it from the library, or bought it at B&N, or snagged a galley at The Strand, or got the publisher to send them a copy even though they average four hits a day. The banal back-story is of little interest.

MY REACTION: Way to slam us book bloggers! Maybe I'm weird, but this is the kind of thing I like reading about - I love back-story!

Thanks for alerting me to this article.

Literary Feline said...

*Applause* Very well stated and I completely agree. I'm not trying to take away the jobs of professional book reviewers--but honestly, I'd much rather read a blog book review than one in a newspaper any day. I want to know what people like me think and have to say. Not to mention the newspapers and journals do not always review the books I am interested in reading.

I don't blog for money--this is something I do for myself and to share with others who love to read just as much as I do.

The people who complain about lit and book blogs do not have to read them. It's as simple as that.

Ruth King said...

I feel as though I could have written this myself. I can't recall the last time I bought a book based on a newspaper review. You hit upon one of my pet peeves -- the reviewer making the review about a book that was published 20 years ago that I've never heard of, instead of actually reviewing the book they're supposed to. I HATE that!

On the other hand, I've purchased at least five books this week that I learned about from bloggers' reviews. (And I thought LibraryThing was an enabler!) Most of my hits from search engines are for people searching for reviews. I think a lot of people want the view of a "real person", not someone who's going to spout off about a book's place in the history of a genre. (Isn't that, ultimately, up to the readers anyway?)

Ruth King said...

Oh, and Lenore, your comment almost made me spit Sprite onto my screen. I love how they say bloggers should lose the personal pronouns, and then second word of the next sentence is "I". Pot, meet kettle!

Lisa said...

I'm glad to see that so many of you agree with me - mainly, that Lissa Warren is out of touch with what we're looking for in a book review. If we were snapping up newspapers to read the book reviews, they wouldn't be cutting those pages. Publishers have to be sending scores of ARCs to book bloggers for a reason, and that reason is sales.

I keep thinking of things I want to add to this argument (I have made a couple of adjustments), but since so many people have commented, I promise to leave it alone now. Always editing... :)

Anonymous said...

I am completely appalled by this and I totally agree with you. I've actually never come across a book blog that doesn't have reviews and all the ones I read do an excellent job of reviewing books the way I want them to - they let me know whether or not I'll like the book. I also like that little backstory. We're not clinically dissecting books, these are not my English classes. These are also not always stand-alone reviews. A blog is more personal by nature and that conversational, distinctive tone is usually what draws me in. Grrr.

You're right, I don't even bother to read newspaper reviews anymore. I am much happier with the selections I've chosen from book blog recommendations. Thanks for this post, infuriating as that article is.

Kelly said...

Let's face it, nobody in the real world pays any attention anymore to so called "professional" critics. Think about movies, when was the last time you saw a critically acclaimed award winning movie that wasn't anything other than a pretentious, condescending pile of garbage? I read this article as yet another desperate attempt to explain to us lesser mortals, us little people, why we should remember our place and leave the writing, thinking and analyzing to the "pros".

Chrisbookarama said...

Blah! This is the same old boloney. "Book bloggers are costing us our jobs. Wah! Wah! Wah!" I haven't read a decent review in the newspaper in years. Bloggers speak for the masses who aren't sitting in leather chairs smoking pipes discussing metaphor. Ordinary people read too.

Obviously, Lissa is reading the wrong blogs.

Lezlie said...

I haven't even read a newspaper book review in years, because I think they're annoying. I'll take bloggers over the "professionals" any day!


Amanda said...

Thanks for writing this. It amazes me that for someone writing about book blogs, she obviously didn't do her homework and read very many...did she.


Amy said...

Very well said! Thanks for putting this out there.

I don't read newspaper reviews. They are pretentious and annoying. I just want to hear from everyday people like me who love books and recommend them(or not) because they love to read and want to share the really good ones with people like them.


Jena said...

Well said! I never read long reviews, and I prefer a virtual recommending nod (or feverish warding away) replete with personal pronouns to the long-winded, unimportant dissections about how books fit in with authors' previous works or contemporaries' books.

Cheryl Vanatti said...

I am so glad you brought that column to my attention. I've been thinking about writing a post on this subject for a few weeks because it seems to me that we are turning into a powerful force.

I quit reading book reviews years ago because (like someone ahead of me noted) I don't need a critical analysis of the book. If I wanted to take that class, I would go back for the doctorate. I want to read a short synopsis and some personal thoughts. Since I believe that most people are like me in their pursuit of a good book, I try to write succinct and honest reviews. My grammar may be lacking, but I make up for it in sincerity. I'm not trying to sell anyone anything.

Book bloggers are powerful and should roar their mighty roar. Word-of-mouth advertising and online publishing is king. The young people I know don't even know what a newspaper is (see... poor grammar again).

Bookfool said...

Excellent response!!!

Anonymous said...

Lissa Warren's piece in Huffington Post is an expression of professional frustration. The only way that post is useful is by triggering a debate on an issue that important to all 'lovers of literature'who blog.

However, the response to her piece on various blogs has been as disappointing as her piece. We bloggers have responded out of anger than logic.

The simple fact is that the purpose served by professional reviews in journals or newspapers and that by book-blogs is different. I may love to read the New York Review of Books and yet want to pick up suggestions from a blog.

The journals are supposed to carry literary pieces. More than opinion on books, they are an academically researched and reliable overview of a subject, author, or book.

On the other hand, blogs carry personalised opinions on what they read and waht they feel or think when they read. It is like a friend talking to you about something you want to know. Where one picked a book and whether one's spouse or family liked it would be absurd in a journal but fits perfectly in a blog.

The target audience, purpose, and effect of the two are different and there is no competition here. No one is shifting because of one to the other. Both have there own exclusive readerships, which may overlap.

And to the frustrated professional outburst of Ms. Warren - book editors are being laid off because the reading habits are dwindling. Book industry as a whole has been facing this problem. It's not because we bloggers are fooling your readers into shifting their reading habits. Did it ever occur to you that 90% of your readers are these bloggers themselves?

Anonymous said...

Great post. Most newspaper book sections haven't changed in a decade or more, and that's a big part of the problem. They have been slow to recognize the importance of reading as a social activity (through book clubs, etc.) and the explosion of on-line reviews. But the web also offers a chance to innovate, and at the Baltimore Sun, we've started a blog on the local book scene and conversations about reading. We've used the Read Street blog ( to try things that were impossible in the newspaper. For example, we asked readers for their favorite bookstores away from home, and posted a U.S. map with more than 120 recommendations. In a few weeks, the blog will get a home on the Sunday books page, and I hope we can extend our conversation with more book lovers. There's plenty of room for newspapers and bloggers to co-exist.

Kim L said...

I COULD NOT agree with you more. The arrogance inherent in that article rubbed me all kinds of the wrong way. Nice response.

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

I had already bookmarked this post as fodder for my panel at the Baltimore Book Festival (we're talking about this very topic!) - thanks for such an excellent post!

Lisa said...

I remember reading that you were going to be on the panel! I can't wait to read your report on it!