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.