A craft in review

A panel previews what it will discuss at the Jerusalem International Book Fair

Studying man woman library 300 (photo credit: Stockbyte)
Studying man woman library 300
(photo credit: Stockbyte)
The manner in which we’re reading books isn’t the only thing changing rapidly in the world of book publishing – so is the way we’re hearing about books. Gone are the days when authors and publishers would wait with bated breath for the New York Times Review of Books to bestow its blessing upon a new release, thus ensuring a trickle-down outpouring of similar reviews from the other established journals and a clean-up day at the cash register.
Those conventional forms of literary criticism may still be the yardstick by which new books are judged, but today, authors – who are increasingly bypassing the traditional agent-publisher model – are just as intent on having their work become part of an online discussion among bloggers, tweeters and other social media outlets.
Websites focusing on blogs, critiques and interviews with authors like The New Inquiry and Full Stop now stand alongside the established big boys of literary criticism, while writers/bloggers such as Maud Newton, or Mark Sarvas and his literary blog The Elegant Variation, have become ensconced in the blogosphere as tastemakers with their recommendations and mentions.
“I’m passionate about the writers, and I’m always looking for new stuff. But I’m not really concerned with fitting into an existing conversation, and more with charting my own course,” said Newton last week from her home in Brooklyn.
The 41-year-old Newton started blogging in May 2002 with the aim of finding others as obsessed with books and culture as she was. Since then, her site has been praised, criticized, and quoted everywhere from the New York Times Review of Books to USA Today.
Today, she rarely blogs, preferring to drop items of interest into her Twitter or Tumblr accounts, to which thousands of readers subscribe.
Newton fell in love with the written word as a child, growing up in Florida in a fundamentalist Christian home. Despite a passion for writing, she attended law school and attempted to follow the career path her parents had set out for her, but at some point rebelled, professionally and theologically.
Calling herself a “fervent agnostic,” Newton has published short stories and personal essays, and is at work on her first novel, while holding down a “day job” as an editor and writer for the legal publishing division of Thomson Reuters.
“Starting a blog helped to focus my interests and helped me feel confident that I can and should write about things that interest me, even if there [is a] kind of strange element of preoccupation in it,” said Newton.
“For instance, I’ve always been interested in evangelical culture since I grew up in an extremely fundamentalist household, so I often write about that.
“It’s not an obvious selection of interests that I have, and I think blogging enabled me to feel that ‘yeah, I should focus on what I’m passionate about.’ I shouldn’t feel bad about not reviewing a new novel that I don’t have any feelings about one way or another.”
THE GRADUAL leveling of the playing field within cultural criticism is part and parcel of the ongoing shift in book publishing and reading to the digital world. The US book market declined 2.5 percent in 2011 (from $27.9 billion to $27.2b.) as sales of ebooks, which are lower priced than printed works, more than doubled within the category that includes fiction and nonfiction, according to Book- Stats, an annual report produced by the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group.
Online retail grew 35% to $5.04b. and revenue for publishers selling directly to consumers through websites almost doubled to $1.11b., according to the report. And according to Newton, publishers have shifted their own model of marketing books, sometimes in a clumsy manner, to reflect that new reality.
“I get probably 700 messages a week from random publishers who have no idea who I am, and treat me as if I’m the functional equivalent of The New York Times, with form letters that say ‘Dear blogger’ or something like that,” said Newton.
“But it is a friendlier relationship than it was in the past as publishers have become a little more savvy and aware that there’s a readership out there who would conceivably write about their book. I know that many publishers have hired people to work specifically on Internet publicity and some of them are very good.”
Newton, along with Sarvas, British novelist Naomi Alderman and Israeli blogger, DJ and cultural maven Boaz Cohen will be holding an open discussion about cultural criticism on the Web in an event titled “Literary Criticism.com” as part of the 26th Jerusalem International Book Fair taking place from February 10 to 15 at the International Convention Center. Their session will be held on February 12 at 5:30 p.m.
ACCORDING TO Cohen, cultural criticism is about wanting to share his favorite books and music with the world on his blog London Calling.
“I write in a personal, intimate way about the things I love the most and want other people to be made aware of,” he said, adding that it’s not drastically different from the conventional book or music review column in newspapers and magazines.
“Readers still need to find that voice that speaks to them, who recommends things that they’ll like. Most of us don’t listen to every critic but instead find those whose taste we connect to.”
Like Newton, Cohen said that he’s sent review copies of books and will occasionally mention one in his blog if he thinks it’s especially noteworthy.
Sometimes, a particularly from-the-heart post will have unexpected ramifications.
“I wrote about the novel I [a 1957 postapocalyptic, end-of-the-world novel written by British-Australian author Nevil Shute]. It had been translated into Hebrew and published in Israel in the 1980s. But after I wrote about it on my blog, a publisher decided to have it translated again and reissue it,” said Cohen.
THE GUERRILLA approach to publicity is just one of the many manifestations of the changes the publishing world has been facing. For today’s authors, getting published is no longer the linear journey of acquiring an agent who gets you a book deal with an advance and plump budgeting for marketing and publicity. The advances have vanished as has much of the marketing support, leaving the writer to wear a number of hats simultaneously. That’s why the selfpublishing model has become such an attractive alternative to established and aspiring authors.
“No matter what channel an author takes to publish a book – via an agent and publishing company or self-publishing, almost all the marketing today falls on the author,” said American-born Israeli Ellis Shuman of Neveh Ilan, who has published two books on his own – 2003’s collection of short stories The Virtual Kibbutz and the brand-new suspense novel set in Bulgaria, Valley of Thracians.
“Agents and publishers are looking for authors who already have a following, whether via a popular blog or a big Twitter following. That’s why many prospective authors – who have already made that effort to gain a following – have decided that if they have to do the marketing on their own anyway, they might as well be in total control of the publishing process and the destiny of their book.”
Shuman published his first book via a self-publishing company, along the lines of those that proliferated in the previous decade by printing a limited quantity of books and distributing them to outlets such as Amazon and Barnes&Noble.
“Today, it’s totally different. You can still do it that way, but you can self-publish by preparing the manuscript, preparing the cover, and then one-step uploading, which makes it available for Kindle on Amazon and Barnes&Noble – it’s such an easy process and it’s instant.
The stigma about self-publishing has disappeared in the past five years.”
A panel at the book fair on the subject of “Selling Books in a Digital Age” – featuring publishers from Random House in Germany, Open Roads Media in the US and Total Boox in Israel – will be held at a 10 a.m. session on February 12.
IRONICALLY, NEWTON, whose writing has contributed to the whole DIY ethics of the new publishing order, said that she preferred to stick with the traditional agent-publishing house model for her novel-in-progress.
“I happened to really like and trust my agent, so I wouldn’t foresee a situation in which I would attempt to self-publish a book,” she said. “I don’t really know what will happen with the self-publishing Amazon model, my guess is that some publishers will adapt and reinvent themselves, but publishing companies will continue to exist.”
Regardless of how a book is published, Newton and Shuman agree that it’s then up to the author to ensure that potential readers hear about the book, and to do that a whole other set of skills comes into play.
“Writing and editing is easy compared to marketing. Millions of people have placed books on Kindle, but getting people to know about them is a much bigger challenge,” said Shuman, describing a cross-pollination process involving a network of blogs, sites and subjects.
“I write on blogs about books, blogs about writing and blogs about Bulgaria to make people aware of my book. And I’ll mention or write about other new books and those authors will mention me in their blogs. Lots of authors help each other out, it’s part of the long journey in this new publishing endeavor.”
Passing the book on to online cultural critics is playing an increasingly publicizing role, and Newton expressed bemusement at how what was essentially seen as a self-indulgent hobby of blogging has been transformed into a vital wing of the publishing business in a relatively short time.
“When I first started blogging, it was a very different Internet – we weren’t on a path that was necessarily going to lead anywhere, other than communication with other people who had blogs about books and culture,” she said.
“So I think it’s hard to see in hindsight that it wasn’t part of some marketing strategy – certainly not at the beginning – it was just a new way of communication. I had a day job, and when I had downtime it was a way of quickly tapping my mind.”
Today, that process has largely been overtaken by the social media sites like Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook, which according to Newton have “rendered the original form of the blog obsolete.”
“I’m sure that some professional critics who have been at it for a long time argue that this form of communication has been terrible for literary criticism, but I disagree. I think for someone who started out blogging because I was too anxious and insecure to submit my work and who now writes for The New York Times magazine and lots of great places, the blog enabled me to find my voice, and I suspect it’s true for the other people on the panel as well.”
The changing face of publishing and literary criticism will be major topics at this year’s book fair, which starts with the Jubilee Celebration and Jerusalem Prize Award being given to acclaimed Spanish writer Antonio Munoz Molina in the presence of President Shimon Peres, Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
Other sessions of note include the February 11 seminar on literary criticism with Leon Wieseltier from the New Republic and Florence Noiville from Le Monde and a February 13 session titled “Between Park Avenue, Warsaw and Tel Aviv,” in which authors Etgar Keret and Nathan Englander discuss translating each other’s work and working with professional translators. All of the sessions are free admission.
More information on the Jerusalem International Book Fair can be found at www.jerusalembookfair.com