Yesterday 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.