With the recent announcement that Kirkus Reviews is shutting down, the prophets of doom in the book industry have had a field day. Once again we hear that the book industry is dying. The causes are several, the condition terminal. People don’t read any more; ebooks (assuming people will read them) will kill print books and with them, the industry; the economics are terrible; copyright is oh-so-old paradigm; the competition from other media is overwhelming; and why read if you can find a friend on Facebook or Twitter? Never mind that sluggishness in the book business mostly parallels the greatest economic slowdown in almost 30 years or that for all the challenges that the Internet poses to book publishers, what most people do most of the time on the Web is read and write. Indeed, never before have as many people been more deeply engaged with text; and that this engagement occurs on a screen instead of a finely printed book is of small consequence. Excuse me, but could somebody please make room for an optimist?
To be an optimist does not mean being a Pollyanna. (The term “Pollyanna” to refer to an irrepressible enthusiast comes from the novel of the same name by Eleanor Porter, which was published in 1913. The books in this series are still in print today. Is the world better off today than in 1913? Yes!) There are some unpleasant trends in the contemporary business, of course, which, if not redirected, could indeed make it harder for good books to find their appropriate readership. The loss of an organ of book media such as Kirkus is terrible. And Kirkus is not alone; it is not so long ago that the Washington Post closed down its book review, and many newspapers and magazines have scaled back or eliminated their book coverage. The New York Times Book Review, still the most prestigious of all reviews outside the world of specialist publications, has been dieted down to a small number of pages, and its troubled parent company has done little to reinvent it for a new life on the Internet. If books are to be published successfully, how are readers to become aware of them?
What’s fascinating about recent developments in the industry is that some of the very same forces that are undermining the traditional means of bringing books to readers’ attention are now creating new venues for books. The loss of the Washington Post Book World and Kirkus will be hard to shake off, but seemingly every day brings forth a new online service dedicated to books. We may be witnessing the early stages of an enormous renaissance in book publishing, though many of the new titles will be unfamiliar to traditionalists as to format (more “e” and less “p”), the means of marketing (social networks as opposed to authoritatively written reviews), and the place of purchase (the new “local” bookshop is now a logical identifier on the Internet).
Perhaps the best known of these new services is Shelfari—and best known for the very good reason that the company was acquired by Amazon a few years back. Like many other services, Shelfari aims to facilitate “conversation” among readers, literalizing the concept of word-of-mouth marketing by having people type in book lists and recommendations for others to see and comment upon. Shelfari does not have the field to itself by any means. FiledBy.com, which was founded by my good friends Mike Shatzkin and Peter Clifton and for which I serve as an advisor, has established something that has no real print-world equivalent, a growing database of author listings, which are accompanied by tools that enable an author to take charge of some aspects of the marketing of his or her books. This can be a neat service for any author, but perhaps especially the author of a book that was published some time ago and is in need of a little push to make it relevant again; or for the authors of specialized titles (I am thinking of academic books in particular) who have a stake in having their books receive recognition for professional reasons that go beyond the receipt of a royalty check. Or there is LibraryThing, which may be the world’s largest book club. LibraryThing encourages users to upload the titles of every book in their personal libraries. It is extraordinary to contemplate how much time and energy people put into this service—and the possessors of large libraries even pay a fee for the privilege. LibraryThing’s users can compare their libraries to others’, swap reading lists, gossip, do whatever it is that books inspire people to do. How many new book purchases has LibraryThing inspired, I wonder. Is the recommendation of an online “friend” better or worse for book sales than a searching essay in The New York Review of Books?
The list of the new online book services does not stop here. For example, we could add GoodReads, WeRead, and many others to it, and if we tap into the right Twitter feed, new services will be brought to our attention regularly. Nor does this include the uses of the Internet that the publishers themselves are now developing or the copious community tools of Amazon beyond Shelfari, which includes such things as user-generated reviews. Contemplating the loss of traditional coverage for books is a bit like playing Whac-a-Mole: for every one that gets knocked down, another—or several—spring up.
I confess to having been a bit doubtful about some of these new services, having grown up in the world of carefully edited, “fixed” content. But my own experience is encouraging for anyone who loves books. So, for example, I tentatively filled out a profile on one of these services, noting one of the books I was currently reading. The service immediately suggested that I connect with another user, who had listed 12 books he had read on his personal profile. I was astonished to find that out of the 12, I had read 9, with 1 more on my to-do list. LibraryThing (not the service I used for this example) says you will find people who are “eerily” similar to oneself, and I must say that this is true. The gentleman with the 12 books in the photo was a younger version of my intellectual self. How odd that I should have learned of him through the impersonal machine connections of the Internet, a relationship forged of bits, fiber optics, microprocessors, servers, and countless technical protocols expressed as unpronounceable abbreviations.
I will miss Kirkus if it is not reincarnated in some fashion, but it appears that a new marketing and communications infrastructure is being built for books and the people who love them. Looking backward is pointless and painful. Better by far to concentrate on the new ways to discover books and, yes, all the new ways to sell them. And I can’t resist closing with a quotation from Groucho Marx:
Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.