Critical Mass

Six Questions for Bethanne Patrick, Editor of The Book Studio

By Scott McLemee

NBCC member Bethanne Patrick has, in her time, been an editor for PAGES magazine, a contributing editor at Publishers Weekly, and the book blogger for the AOL Books channel, back when AOL did that sort of thing. Today she is managing editor and host of The Book Studio. A literary website hosted by Washington, DC–area public television and radio station WETA, the Studio offers a combination of reviews, blog posts, interviews with authors (via audio and video webcasts), listings for local literary events, and the occasional cross-promotion of book-related PBS programming.

The site launched in April. Asked which Book Studio production stand out as exemplary, Patrick points to conversations with Richard Russo, Ruth Reichl, and Joseph O'Neill, as well as the roundtable she conducted with three novelists during the Romance Writers of America convention, held in Washington this past summer.

But for all her engagement with the myriad aspects of this new- and multi-media enterprise, Bethanne Patrick does not sound, in person, like a digital visionary heralding the advent of a post-print utopia. My first impression of her when we met at an NBCC Good Reads event in Washington almost two years ago was that Bethanne Patrick is, at heart, a somewhat old-fashioned literary journalist — one who has somehow made herself at home in an environment where change is now the norm. I recently interviewed her by email about her work. The exchange follows.

Q: How did The Book Studio come into being? And how is it doing?

A: The Book Studio grew out of a relationship I formed with WETA-PBS and its wonderful program Reading Rockets while I was still at AOL. Once I'd left that company, WETA was serendipitously starting to develop its own digital media programming, and asked me if I'd be interested in seeing where author interviews might fit as things grew.

At first we tried a “vlog” called Author, Author! — but all of us, from host to producer, soon saw that we'd need to develop a more robust site around books. We began to plan The Book Studio in the fall of 2008 and launched our new site in April 2009. Traffic was low to begin with, of course, but as time has passed and promotion has grown, we've developed some respectable numbers (respectable enough that we've been approached by a number of possible advertisers and partners based on those numbers alone). 


There's a real tension between location and editorial decision for The Book Studio: We're not in New York City, and we must contend with author schedules and travel as we book our interviews. However, we're seeing that more and more publishers regard our show as a destination for authors coming to DC, and are more and more willing to send an author here just to tape our show, since the experience is so often a good one for the author. We've had accolades like “best interview I've ever had” as well as “best interview I've ever given” from authors like Chris Bohjalian, Alan Furst, and Brad Meltzer. 

At the moment, when it comes to review coverage, The Book Studio has a great deal of flexibility. We don't need to worry about an ad schedule yet, but we do try to keep current. We're busy assembling a stable of freelance critics and are trying to make sure most of those are NBCC members and that each of them has some kind of specialty/niche (some of those overlap, which is fine).

Q: You made the transition to digital TV at a point when many book critics were barely getting used to blogging. How did this come to pass? Was it intentional? Accidental? The force of circumstances?

A: When producer Jess Oppenheimer decided that Lucille Ball would make a terrific TV personality, he had to fight all sorts of radio-to-TV battles. Fighting the broadcast-to-Web battles has been quite similar. I've had to struggle against misconceptions. For example, we are all used to considering “broadcast” as scheduled television or radio programming. Well, the Web allows us to broadcast content, too, without time constraints. That's terrifying to many people.

I started blogging regularly in 2004 at AOL, and most people in the book/publishing world had no idea what a blog was, let alone how to write one, although my colleagues like Maud Newton, Ron Hogan, and Mark Sarvas were way ahead of me. I mention when I started to help explain why I came to make the transition to video so quickly. A short stint at AOL is almost like a master's degree in new media. By the time I left that company in 2007, I'd done enough audio and video work that I knew the future lay in that direction, rather than in duplicating print content on a digital screen. When WETA-PBS approached me about starting a “vlog,” I jumped at the chance, even though all of the pieces weren't perfect yet. Two years later, we're in a very good place and poised to make the next leap…(even if I knew what it was, I might not tell you!).

Q:  Is the existing menu of options (blogging, video, audio, social networking, etc.) now cohering into something more or less stable? Or are you trying to prepare yourself for some brand-new brand-named application that will change everything?

A: I wish I could tell you. Why didn't I invent Shelfari?

But seriously: I think what's emerging is the idea of my beloved and overused word “curation.” Readers can have their say in ways that they never could before, but they're still asking “What should I read? What's new? What's important?” They can blog and tape and record and post as much as they like, but they still need experts. Just because I know how to can and sew doesn't mean I don't prefer buying Sarabeth's preserves and getting my pants hemmed at the tailor shop. We are in an era of much-too-muchness, and I think book critics need to start thinking about developing voices and niches. 

In other words, don't make yourself all things to all men and women. Make yourself a trusted voice in a specific space or genre, and realize that things are only going to get messier. The old rules of not having contact with authors, publicists, etc., may not be wrong or irrelevant, but they're going to be tested.

Q:  The line between the book review and the press release is getting awfully porous. Maybe it was always like that, but somehow it seems a lot worse lately. I doubt one publicist in twenty really grasps the distinction, and that confusion may not be limited to publicists. Or is this overstated?

A: This is something that worries me very much, especially with quite a few hobbyist book bloggers saying “I am required to write a review because Publisher X sent me a review copy.” Real reviewers make up their own minds about whether or not to review a book; the galleys/ARCs/finished copies do not figure into it.

This is ironic, because when I started blogging, it was the unpaid bloggers (Maud, Mark, Jessa Crispin) who were regarded as legitimate. Some people worried that those of us who blogged for Internet companies were mere corporate shills (and, as I've said before, I fought against that). Now it seems the “paid blogger” category includes many a full-time critic/journalist; the unpaid bloggers are more often “amateurs.” 


I don't mean to cast too wide a net of aspersions. There are lots of serious bloggers who don't make any money at all. However, you said “It seems like the line between the book review and the press release is getting awfully porous.” I've seen too many “reviews” on blogs that consist of a plot summary, a few sentences about how much the reader loved the book, and an enthusiastic recommendation. 

If publishers want to have active relationships with avid readers who like free books, then let's call it Amazon Vine or what have you, but let's not call it book criticism.

Q: How can the distinction be enforced, when the new-media norm seems to push so hard against it? How do you draw that line in the decisions you make as reviewer and website editor?

A: The new-media norm makes it easy for anyone to slap together a few hundred words (or less!) and call it a book review. I don't think too many book bloggers are that lazy, but the ease and cheapness of putting together a blog combined with the power of social-media sites like Twitter have changed the playing field.

As a reviewer, I am conscious that everybody needs an editor. Just because I can publish any review I want any time I want on The Book Studio and have the imprimatur of a large PBS affiliate on it does not mean that I can relax my standards; I try to write reviews that I would be proud to turn in to any book review editor. I also try to keep finding outlets (AARP, B&N Review, etc.) where I do have editors carefully checking my work. I learn from their edits, and I hope I improve, too.


As a website editor, I am trying to set things up within a new-media environment by old-media standards. I don't think this is impossible, and I don't think it's easy. It might be easiest for a reviewer to request her own copy of an assigned title, but that would violate the standard (a good one, in my opinion) by which a publisher does not know who is reviewing a given book. I don't want any of my reviewers to ever get pressure from a publicist even in the form of a friendly nudge. I want those reviewers to feel completely free to tell the truth about the books they read.


Q: When you try to think about the future, how do you understand the role of a project like The Book Studio? Is public funding a necessary part of keeping the infrastructure of book criticism going? Are we just in a holding pattern until some revitalized market for print-based commentary takes shape on the other side of the economic crisis?


A: When I think about the future, I think about readers and reading — and stories. My hope for book criticism lies in the “call of stories,” as psychologist Robert Coles terms the innate human psychological need to make sense of existence. As long as we tell and listen to stories, we'll need people who can interpret them for us. The great literature upon which our modern criticism is based was oral, not print. Reviewers are teachers of a sort. We aren't paid (or not paid, as the case may be) to give book reports. We're paid/compensated by adding to the public discourse.


The role of The Book Studio is not to act as a placemarker for a revitalized print-based market; it's part of the way forward. While it's wonderful that we have public funding, we don't use much of it — we're a very scrappy team! The public funding we do get from being part of WETA is much less important than the fact that WETA-PBS has chosen to develop a production focused on books and authors. That's the news — WETA-PBS is a media brand that has credibility and integrity, and it wants to pay attention to things that matter to readers.