As more and more people start publishing their own books, using print-on-demand models and simple e-book creation techniques, sometimes I worry that finding the good books is going to be a struggle in the future. Of course, like many of the fears I’ve admitted to in these columns, the prospect of not finding good books in a sea of mediocrity is likely not something to worry about, because not every self-published book is going to make its way into more than a few hands. As a writer, and someone who supports emerging writers, I wonder how people are going to hear about self-published books if the books aren’t going through a publishing house with a marketing team. It seems that this is where book reviewers should step in and help the world pan for literary gold in the dregs of the publishing arena—but as I learned in talking with professional book critics, that’s just not going to happen.
With the wealth of self-published content churning out of the keyboard-flailing masses comes a dearth of space, funding, and time from book reviewers. “Our editorial resources are so limited, budgets stretched like everyone else…I hate to devote those resources to not-very-good material, especially if hardly anyone knows about it anyway. And if they’re emerging writers or presses, maybe they’re just not ready for prime time yet—like a new restaurant that’s not quite ready for a full-scale restaurant critic,” says Susannah Schouweiler, editor of mnartists.org and formerly editor of the Ruminator Review of Books.
Melissa Wray, one of the brains behind Hazel & Wren’s online open mic and the recent Words at WAM event, agrees, noting that “[self published books] do need that feedback, but…the book review isn’t necessarily the place for that.”
The Star Tribune doesn’t review self-published books. Books editor Laurie Hertzel understands that the world of books is changing, and publications might possibly need to make room for DIY books in their review pages, but even then, there may only be room for proven authors looking to strike out on their own. “I’m looking at 1,000 books a month from publishers who believed enough in the book to put up the money to pay for publication and to pay the author something. That says something to me. There is no slush pile with self-publishing. You get the whole dang slush pile. If there’s something that tells me this book is worthwhile, then maybe. But, I even hesitate telling you that,” said Hertzel.
Regardless of the types of books reviewed in the future, it seems that the reviews won’t just up and disappear. People will continue to talk about books formally and informally far into that final sunset. Eric Lorberer, editor and co-founder of the Rain Taxi Review of Books, believes that when it comes to the future of the book review “there will be more opportunity to join the conversation at all levels, and that’s generally a good thing, but it will therefore be increasingly important that review sources indicate their increasingly inevitable entanglements. We don’t need more blurbs. Honesty is hard-won in an increasingly professionalized field, but it’s both desirable and achievable.”
Wray believes that conversation will grow quicker, and louder. “I think we will get a lot more of the shorter reviews,” she says. “So many of the reviews now are on these little blogs or these little tiny reviewers who are only found mostly online and they’re great people to reach out to, like Patrick Nathan, he’s just online with his reviews but he has a voice and people listen to him and listen to what he thinks.” She also notes that they’ll likely become “more opinionated” and “very brutally honest, because that’s kind of just the culture right now, especially with the Internet.”
At the end of this adventure in interviewing I am in some ways back where I started—reviewing books in a way that works for me and for my publication seems to be A-OK, and I’m glad. I, and many others of my online ilk, can rest well knowing that we are headed into the future one blog post at a time, bringing glimpses of the world to people who care to have it brought to them. It feels comforting to know that everyone I spoke with realizes the importance of book reviews, and seems to believe that the world at large won’t ever let them disappear. Thus we shall, as a community, continue to be made civilized by our conversations about books, except for when they spill into anger-fuelled commenting on posts.