Critical Mass

The Future of Book Reviewing

By Karen Long

This year, the conversation was mellower.

Participants in the National Book Critics Circle panel on the future of book reviews chatted about e-galleys, the elegance of deckle-edged pages and the perils of e-blast publicity in a BookExpo America session that registered fewer sparks than the one in 2009.

John Reed, book editor of The Brooklyn Rail, moderated both panels, and recruited a vociferous Ed Nawotka from last year’s audience to the podium this May.

“There’s a lot less angst out there than there has been in the last several years,” Nawotka said of the booksellers gathered at the Jacob Javitz Center, an observation that doubled for the book reviewing session. “People are coming to terms with the digital question and finding answers to fit their publications.

“The whole feeling that publishing was going to fall into some kind of sinkhole, disappear and not be recovered has finally notcome to pass,” said Nawotka, a Texan who is the founder and editor of “People are finally realizing that digital is not a sinkhole but more of a portal.”

The movement through the portal, though, is partial, and the landscape of book reviewing, as Reed put it, “is muddled.”

“We are in flux as readers,” said panelist Carolyn Kellogg, who writes about books for the Los Angeles Times.  “Just as reading is a very intimate experience, and we are reading so much electronically, we’re in transition about what we want to read, in what way.”

The old model of a “great mind/great brain” delivering verdicts from on high in old media is shifting into a new format for thinking about books.  It is animated by the proliferating enthusiasms of book bloggers, many of whom are novices.

“There’s been such an explosion on-line,” Kellogg said. “The conversation is much bigger.”

Kate Travers, a marketing strategist, added “It’s bigger, but more granular at the same time.”  She said that authors and publishers still seek the general audience, and reader, that old media used to aggregate.

Nawotka wondered aloud how often the blogosphere runs a negative review.  He mentioned that he published a recent on-line critique of “War” by Sebastian Junger from a reviewer who had been a soldier in Afghanistan.  

Headlined “Sebastian Junger, War Tourist,” the review described the book’s portrait of soldiers as “superficial and unsophisticated.” Nawotka said the great aspect of this piece was that its comment feed became four times longer than the review.

Travers and others panelists were enthusiastic about book commentary breaking out of its closed system — one in which readers were forced to endure the glacial wait for letters-to-the editor to hear a rebuttal.  And Nawotka noted that New York Magazine’s recent smack down of Christopher Buckley’s rave in the New York Times Book Reviewfor the novel “The Imperfectionists” quickly provoked a range of on-line responses to both the magazine critique and the original review.

After Reed and Kellogg enthused over the possibilities for rich interactivity in ebooks, Travers added a cautionary note. “It all depends on the writer,” she said.  “I’m supposed to be — boo-yah — for digital books.  But think how bad the DVD extras are on so many movies.”

 In such a fluid reviewing environment, Reed asked about the “delineation between content and advertising.  Is it Armageddon? Can anyone retain their integrity? Or maybe establish a new integrity?” 

As a rule, Nawotka asserted, is not going to be circulating negative reviews.  And authors are increasingly popping up in on-line book conversation.  Kellogg put it succinctly: “Is it pimping or is it journalism?”

Panelist Denise Oswald, editorial director of Soft Skull Press, stressed that word-of-mouth remains a powerful force in the book universe. 

“My favorite story of the year so far is the ‘Tinkers’ story,” Knopf publicity vice president Nicholas Latimer said of the Pulitzer winner for fiction from the tiny Bellevue Literary Press. “Before anything else, it got raves from NPR and the New Yorker. What brought this independent book to the fore was an independent sales rep who brought it to an independent seller.”

Those who help find, publish and hold up the extraordinary book continue to matter. “But if books and publishing are reinventing themselves,” asked Nawotka, “how is reviewing reinventing itself?”

Jane Ciabattari, president of the National Book Critics Circle, promised that this conversation would go on.