Print media used to be the friend of the bookseller.

Newspapers and bookshops used to get on very well. Book reviews, news items and other features used to send tons of people into their local bookshop to find a specific book or more information inspired by what they had read in that day’s newspaper. But things have started to go sour. Many recent news stories have been highlighting the negative aspects of our industry. Rather than promoting the health and vibrancy of independent bookselling and book publishing we have all been tarnished by the often hysterical and nearly always misinformed open market/book pricing debate. There is not an article written about books now that doesn’t mention the threat to bookshops from overseas online retailers (except this one!) always followed by the obligatory name dropping of the companies and ridiculous price comparisons. It has been the best PR for them that money can’t buy. But it’s not just the way our industry is reported in the news. Something has gone wrong in the book review sections too.

For years we have kept on file at the shop The Spectrum from Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald and The Review section from The Weekend Australian. Our staff meticulously goes through every review to make sure we have the books in stock. We used to do this because we knew these were the books people would be looking for, not just over the weekend but in the following week. If we were out of stock of a reviewed book we made sure we ordered it first thing Monday morning. But the reaction to the Saturday newspaper reviews is now almost non-existent.

This may be in part due to the migration of newspaper readers online. Even though all the same articles are online, the serendipitous nature of reading the actual newspaper is lost (and so are the book reviews) when you go to somewhere like www.smh.com.au . Online may also play a part in the decline of people in-store as people who are reading the book reviews might use Google for instant gratification. But there are some fundamental flaws to the Book Review sections which I think are the real reason people’s reactions to the weekend reviews have dropped off.

One of the major issues is timing. A book review that is too early is more often than not a wasted opportunity. The earliest I think a review can be published in a newspaper and still be effective is one week (online can be different because it is always there waiting to be found). Any earlier and the review will be forgotten. Even when we offer pre-orders by the time the book arrives most people forget why they pre-ordered it in the first place.

Reviewing too late is just as disastrous. I think there is at least one book reviewed in each major newspaper every weekend that is more than three months old, often more. The problem with a 3 month+ old review is that stock can often be exhausted at the supplier after three months as well as at the book shop. Or even more frustrating a bookshop may have returned the book because it has not sold in its first three months (usually due to lack of publicity). Timing is crucial. If a reader comes into a bookshop to get the book that has been reviewed and discover the book isn’t available they will either stop reading those reviews or shop elsewhere (or both).

This issue was exasperated over the weekend (March 19-20) when both The Weekend Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald reviewed books and then actively promoted the fact that they could be purchased overseas. Stephen Matchett in The Weekend Australian reviewed Guy Rundle’s new book/essay The Shellacking as an Amazon Kindle edition with no reference to the print version that many independent bookshops are stocking.

Bruce Elder reviewed Festival Places edited by Chris Gibson and John Connell, an obscure book at the best of times, and pointed readers to an overseas online retailer I like to refer to as Voldermort (thou who shall not be named)  as they already get far too much play in the media as it is. Elder mentions in his review that there is no Australian distributor but a quick search on Global Books-in-Print shows me that Central Book Services are the local distributor. But the real question is the relevance of reviewing Festival Places in the first place? It is a research book on how festivals contribute to tourism in rural Australia.

And here is the other issue with book reviews in newspapers at the moment, the audience. While a book review section covering just the Top 20 bestsellers is something I do not want to see let alone read, Bruce Elder’s review is at the opposite end of this spectrum (pardon the pun). I’m pretty sure the audience for Festival Places is going to find out about the book through their professional network and not the book review section of The Spectrum.

[CORRECTION: The review of Festival Places was in the Traveller section of the SMH not the book review section so was targeted at a travelling audience not a book review audience]

I sometimes wonder if some reviewers actually set foot in bookshops, not just to see what is on the shelves, but to see what the book buying public looks like and what they are browsing. I rarely see a book review where the entertainment value is taken into account. Part of the problem is that many reviewers are authors not readers (you can be both though) and are often highly critical and unforgiving. The general reader is quite discerning but if they like the story they can forgive the writing, some reviewers seem unable or unwilling to do this.

Radio remains the most powerful tool in spreading the word about a great book while social media like blogs, twitter and facebook are having more influence every day. If newspapers want to remain relevant in the face of the digital revolution then their content needs to remain relevant. There are some fantastic book reviewers in both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian who continue to write fantastic book reviews. But for book reviews to remain relevant what is being reviewed must reflect the kind of books that are being read and the way they are being read (I’m not talking about formats). For a bookshop to remain relevant we need to stock the books that people are looking for. Currently there is a large gap between what is being reviewed and what is being stocked and this damages both the book review section and the bookshop alike. We need to rebuild this vital and important bridge.

5 thoughts on “Print media used to be the friend of the bookseller.

  1. Excellent analysis, Jon.

    I think just about everyone knows where to find Voldemort and co by now, hardly seems necessary to keep promoting them does it!

    The online “book” presence the major papers fail to provide baffles me. Much of the content that appears in the print edition (shrinking as it is) doesn’t appear in the online edition.

    Ok, fair enough, if they want to preserve their print runs, but they could then “value add” and advertise the goodies to be had via a dynamic online portal, offering other tidbits, that would encourage me to believe that what was on offer in print must be pretty bloody good. Blogs can be updated quickly easily, with short pieces, with reader interactions, yet they are not being used.

    Compare the absolute flurry of online activity at a blog like Andrew Bolt on the Herald Sun with the somnolent state of book blogging in the major dailies and it makes you want to weep.

    It’s not that hard to establish an online presence and keep it up to date and active. Case in point, the Indigenous Literary Festival at NSW Writers Centre this past weekend received very little in the way of pre-publicity in the major dailies. With a bunch of writers in town who don’t get much press a bit of coverage, online or in print wouldn’t have hurt. Some blog interviews, with links etc.

    The choice of what to review and how it is reviewed is certainly contentious, and you’re crazy brave (in a good way) to bring it up. Again, with a more vibrant online presence the coverage could be broader, deeper and interactive.

    Do you also track the reviews in places like the NYT (for non-Oz authors) and stock accordingly? Do you find people are coming in and asking about those books on the basis of other review sources?

    1. We don’t get much of a reaction from the NYT but we do from The Guardian, The Spectator and The Economist. Timing can be an issue with those titles as the UK rlease dates can be differnt but people’s attitude is differnt. Because they read the review in an overseas publication they’re more open to having to order the book. If the review is local though they expect it to be stocked locally too.

  2. Well said, Jon. On occasion book reviewers seem to be talking to a narrow group of friends,and what is written is not of much interest to the typical newspaper reader, so they turn off from opening the book review pages.

  3. This is the problem with bloggers. They are not only frighteningly inaccurate but they never bother to check their facts. Just for the record the following are the facts about my review of Festival Places:
    (1) I wrote to the English publisher of the book and they advised me as follows “The book is available now and is priced £29.95 for the paperback. You can order from our website http://www.channelviewpublications.com or from the Book Depository which offers free postage to Australia.” All you had to do was ask and I would have provided that small piece of information.
    (2) The review of Festival Places did not appear in Spectrum but in the Traveller section of the paper. It was specifically addressed to people interested in travel books.
    (3) the book is edited by two Australian academics and is about festivals in Australia. It therefore, logically, will be of interest to the thousands and thousands of people involved in festivals, both as organisers and participants, throughout the country. Are you seriously suggesting that book reviews should only be for general readers?
    (4) Festival Places provides massive amounts of useful information about festivals in Australia and anyone involved in the festival business. I never knew, and find it fascinating, that the Elvis Presley Festival in Parkes brings $3 million each year into the local economy. That is not PR information. That is the result of research by academics working in the field.
    If I was planning on trying to generate tourism income in my local area by setting up a festival I would find the book essential.

    1. For what it is worth our book Festival Places is about 12 Australian festivals, from Gympie to Garma, and from Brigadoon to ChillOut – covering a range of economic , environmental and social issues, and written by a diverse group of Australian academics. We were pretty certain it was exactly what would work in the Australian market. It seems we were wrong – it was rejected by several publishers – but finally taken up by a British one, and we are thankful for that. We would love it to have been stocked in Australian bookstores – for obvious economic (and social) reasons – since, like Bruce Elder, we think it would do well. We are still twisting the arms of the publishers to do that – but at this stage we hold out no great hopes. We still like the book, and we are grateful to Bruce for alerting at least some of the Australian public to its – sadly – distant presence.

      Chris Gibson and John Connell

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