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Do newspapers still contribute meaningfully to book reviewing and marketing?

28 August 2017

Two recent developments highlight what's happening to book reviewing. The New York Times' celebrated and influential bestseller lists have been the focus of controversy this week, with accusations that an author has been trying to get her book to the top of the lists. In the UK crowdingfunding publisher Unbound has become so concerned about the lack of newspaper reviews that it is launching its own literary magazine.

The bare bones of the New York Times scandal are clear, although it is not so obvious what exactly happened. Lani Sarem's Handbook for Mortals shot to the top of the bestseller list, was investigated by the paper and removed from the list. The list relies on book sales and the allegation is that Sarem ‘gamed' the system by bulk purchases of her book. Since the New York Times list is so influential in promoting sales, getting to the top of the list can become in a sense a self-fulfilling prophecy because of the huge sales surge it creates.

Thu-Huong Ha's article in Quartz concluded that:

‘This skirmish over the Times' list reveals how little we know about book sales; how flawed the book rankings are; how opaque the Times' list is; how a book without genuine national interest can top one of the most widely known bestseller lists; and how, with enough insider information, the entire system could indeed be gamed.'

Meanwhile in the UK the crowdfunding website Unbound has announced that it will be launching an editorially independent literary magazine dedicated to long-form writing and is urging publishers to send books for review.

Over the years the review pages of the print press in the UK and US, as well as elsewhere, have been decimated by the cuts the papers have made to the amount of space book reviews are given, and this has led to big cuts in book review commissioning and in many cases the removal of the role of literary editor. The Press Association has axed half of its book review output and many women's magazines have scrapped their literary editors' role.

Perhaps there is an online model which can address the gap caused by this. Certainly costs can be much lower, but it is still not clear how the business model will work, as online subscriptions are hard to come by.

Coincidentally, The White Review literary journal has just launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund a move towards publishing reviews in reaction to the "current paucity of space for serious-minded literary and arts criticism" in the UK.

Book reviews are essential for writers and for the book business, a vital part of publicising books to readers.



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