Indie reviewers and the “loss” of cultural authority

Book-ReviewersYesterday I was going through publishing industry research that I’ve collected over the years, and came across this interview with four New York editors published in 2009 on the website Poets & Writers. About halfway through the interview, “[t]he end of cultural authority” came up as one of the most pressing problems facing the industry. The increasing authority of blogs and indie reviewers and online friends’ recommendations over that of a professional reviewer was cited as calamitous. Yet the calamity was not over the loss of cultural critique, of a review that placed a book within its historical context or literary canon, but of the loss of the professional review’s ability to translate into sales. As editor Eric Chinski put it:

Reviews don’t have the same impact that they used to. The one thing that really horrifies me and that seems to have happened within the last few years is that you can get a first novel on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, a long review in The New Yorker, a big profile somewhere, and it still doesn’t translate into sales. Whereas six years ago, or some mythical time not that long ago, that was the battle—to get all that attention—and if you got it, you didn’t necessarily have a best-seller, but you knew that you would cross a certain threshold. Whereas now you can get all of that and still not see the sales. I think that phenomenon is about the loss of cultural authority. There’s just so much information out there now that people don’t know who (sic) to listen to, except their friends, to figure out what to read. And that’s the question we wrestle with the most. I think publishers have to communicate more directly with readers—that’s the big barrier we’re all trying to figure out.

Call me a cynic, but if this is all the industry feels is lost by the alleged irrelevancy of professional reviews, then what real cultural value did they ever have? If they were never anything more than a marketing ploy, if they were not meant as quasi-academic treatises on a book’s literary value, then why should anyone but authors and publishers care about the slide into obscurity of the professional book reviewer? If Joe Blogger’s five stars will translate into sales—and that’s all that matters—should anyone care if he doesn’t know his James Joyce from his Nora Roberts? If the issue is only about sales, then shouldn’t the industry welcome the democratization of critique? Should they not be welcoming the new plethora of voices? Do more voices talking about books not raise the possibility of even more sales?

The fact that the industry—if Eric Chinski is symptomatic of it—is not thrilled about this new democracy tells me that what is really being mourned is the clarity of knowing which reviewers to target, and the control over public taste this oligarchy possessed. If there were, say, only a hundred literary critics worth targeting for any given genre, then that simplified the job of the sales and marketing department. But now there are thousands of voices out there, so which one do you beg for a review? Whom can you rely on to have the impact you need to meet your sales quotas? Moreover, most (all?) professional literary critics won’t touch an indie book, which means these critics act as another key gatekeeper of the industry, alongside the publishers, agents, and retail outlets.

Indie reviewing, much like indie publishing, is bypassing the gatekeepers, and it sounds like it’s pissing them off.

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8 thoughts on “Indie reviewers and the “loss” of cultural authority”

  1. Yes, we writers do have tender egos–but what’s marvelous about self-publishing is that usually it’s the positive people who want to get the word out–at least on Amazon where one tends to get the most reviews. And frankly, I’m sure I’m not so full of self-doubt, that I curiously delighted in one Goodreads reviewer who answered the question, “Who would you recommend this book to?” with the one word, “Nobody.” That made the positive reviews seem credible.

  2. The democratization of the publishing industry has to be upsetting to the people who enjoyed privileged status as the arbiters of what constituted “good” literature. When I was growing up science fiction and fantasy were beneath consideration in the literary world. Yet they gave us some of the best, most creative writing of the 20th century – works that are still read today while many best sellers of the past are deservedly forgotten.

    The bottom line is that authors today have a choice – either rely on the publishing industry to create an audience for them or learn how to create their own audience with all the required work and potential monetary and other rewards that implies.

    It’s no surprise to me that more and more writers are willing to self-publish, then learn how to market their works using the increasing number of tools available. The fact that you can have a much closer relationship with your readers AND make a living is a pretty attractive proposition.

  3. I’m probably–no, strike that, I AM in the minority, as a person who usually only pays attention to reviews AFTER I’ve read a book. To me, reviews are less a means of discovering something new as they are a means of finding out what other people thought about something I enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy, in some cases). I remember reading, long enough ago that I have no idea who said it, that a good review is like a key; it unlocks a part of the work that you hadn’t previously appreciated. So to me the value of a good reviewer is still there, unchanged, because I never saw reviews as being a part of marketing, but rather a means to further (and share!) the enjoyment of books I’d read. And it doesn’t really matter if the reviewer is trained in literary criticism or journalism or whatever, or whether or not they have years of experience under their belt, just that they have something interesting to say.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, my daughter is attempting to eat my ukulele and I should probably intervene.

  4. I think we hold on to it forever, insecure creatures that we are.

    When Baby Jane received its first 5-star review, I was on cloud nine for days. And while I know the day will come when someone will lambaste the novel — you can’t please everyone — and I’m mentally prepared for that, I’m still dreading it.

  5. I actually do work in the film industry, but I guess I look at it from a writer’s perspective whereby reviews actually mean something to us emotionally. We need the affirmation, as sad as that sounds. And I also come to it from an academic’s perspective, having studied literature and the arts at university. Art might be nothing more than a commodity to those who sell it, but it’s more than that for those of us who create it. So while perhaps reviews are only a means to an end for the majority of those in the industry, I would disagree that “no one in the industry gives a crap…”. We writers do.

  6. M. A. Demers,

    If you had worked in the entertainment industry as long as I have – almost 30 years now – you would not be surprised. Reviews are and have always been nothing but a means to an end – selling a product, whether it is a movie, a CD, a video game or a book.

    Publishers and their editors – as well as musicians, filmmakers ,game developers etc. – do not care about the “literary value” of a reviewer. No one in the industry gives a crap about it, really. Never has.

    It is only the public, looking from the outside in who has this ideal that there is all the glitz going on and that the creators of these products feel so very special about it. Sorry to disappoint, but that fuzzy feeling usually comes only from the fans.

    No one I know in the movie or games industry, and no one I know in the traditionally published book world, has the kind of notion. To these people it is a product – not all that much different from a piece of bread in the store. It is being created for mass consumption and typically forgotten the moment it goes out the door.

    Creative people have a tendency to hold on a little longer, because these products define their careers, but overall, even to them it is nothing more than one product in a long string of products and reviews serve only one purpose. To sell it to the masses.

  7. I think what bothers me the most is that I have respect for many professional literary critics (though I abhor the pompous types that are so busy displaying their knowledge of culture they forget to tell me why I should or should not read a particular book) and I mourn their loss not from a marketing perspective but from a cultural one. So to read that these reviews are little more than a means to an end for an editor, it just saddens me. I get that they want and need the marketing push that a review generates, but I still want to believe a review also has some literary value for the author and publisher. Chinksi’s comments make me feel foolish for ever having believed that in the first place.

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