Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, June 12, 2001



    'We Were Mortified'
    Hello PODs; Goodbye Traditional Review Pages
    Enter the New Technology
    The Knee Jerks
    A Not-So-Hidden Secret
    The Big Shift
    Reviewer Credibility
    The Selection Process
    The Knee Unjerks



I have to admit to an unfavorable (all right, knee-jerk) reaction when I first heard the term "paid book reviews" coming from the reputable ForeWord magazine.

But once again it seems the Internet may be opening a door that has been cemented shut (for all the best reasons! give it that!) for centuries.

ForeWord started in 1998, when Victoria Sutherland, who would become its publisher, and Mardi Link (editor) realized that independent publishers and university presses "were underrepresented in the review media," as Sutherland explained in a recent interview.

That's a nice way of saying that at many book review sections, the "big" books of any kind - commerical, literary - get the big reviews, while other books (genres, midlist, first novels) are measured against the big ones and given lesser status.

This approach, instead of seeking out many different books representing many different ideas and writing styles, tends to create a hierarchy of sameness that relegates the unpredictable and scholarly to the bottom tiers. Over and over again, books from independent and university presses rarely get reviewed at all.

So Sutherland and Link created ForeWord as an advance-review medium somewhat like Publishers Weekly but aimed toward outside-the-mainstream books that librarians and bookstore buyers might never have heard of but could want on their shelves.

These reviews, plus articles about authors and their publishers, established ForeWord as a valued magazine for both the book trade and the general reader. Better yet for the publishers, ForeWord's licensing agreements opened up further distribution of the reviews to Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Bowker, Powells.com, BookSite, at least one chain bookstore and other channels.

'We Were Mortified'

"But after three years of putting out a magazine of 100 pages or fewer," says Sutherland, "and seeing a steady increase in the number of books for submission coming to our office, we were mortified about the little bit that we could do to provide access to these presses.

"Ninety percent of the books submitted to us for review were being rejected not on the basis of quality but because we didn't have the paper product to put them in," she says.

"So we looked at ourselves and asked: 'How can ForeWord continue to provide access to these books for the bookseller and librarian, using the track record we've built with the magazine?' "

Hello PODs; Goodbye Traditional Review Pages

"Along the way another thing happened," says Eugene Schwartz, ForeWord's editor-at-large. "On-demand publishing made short-run printing so inexpensive and fast that out-of-print books were being republished while even more new books appeared on the scene.

"So aside from the traditional paucity of reviews and the narrow gateway for reviewing independent presses," Schwartz adds, "we were seeing a huge explosion in the marketplace of credible authoring.

"These weren't fly-by-night operations but publishing ventures with complete editorial development and marketing attention of the kind we could call serious publishing. The emergence of PODs, plus the increasing phenomenon of electronic books, added to our sense of something out there not being taken care of."

Then more recently came another, previously unthinkable phenomenon, the dramatic shrinkage of book review pages in traditional newspaper media. Articles about the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times, Boston Globe and the San Jose Mercury News - to mention a few - have described hacked-back book pages and dumped stand-alone sections as though book reviewing were a passing fad. (More about this awful phenomenon in a future column.)

And once again, books from independent presses - almost always the last to be reviewed in traditional outlets - got stuck on the back burner, now even more often than before.

Enter The New Technology

Meanwhile, ForeWord watched book review submissions increase by 25-30% every year. "We were getting 6-700 titles a month at the beginning," says Victoria. "This has now doubled to 1400, yet we still review only 50 or 60 titles in each issue."

So what's the problem? you may ask. In the Age of the Internet, if you run out of space on paper, just put the overload on a website, hot-link to everything in sight and let readers click on over.

That would be fine, except how would a publication like ForeWord pay for doubling or tripling - or one day increasing tenfold or a hundredfold - the number of books it reviews? The magazine's reviewers may be professionals - many are librarians and university professors, Sutherland says - who apparently review for the joy of it, but the minimal fee of $50 per review will certainly add up, as will expenses for a new website operation.

"We decided, then, to create a new company - ForeWordreviews.com - and take on a new partner (OverDrive) to set up the technology," says Sutherland. "We decided, too, to make it a fee-based service, charging publishers $295 per book that we would review."

The Knee Jerks

That's when the old knee jerked. Paid reviews? Why, that's so anathema you might as well put the reviewers on the publishers' payroll!

I thought back on how much effort and time every book editor invests in keeping book publishers distant from the reviewing process. For example, you have to make sure your reviewer doesn't know the author or have a relationship with the publisher; you have to make sure nobody loves an editor or marketing director or literary agent or local sales rep so much that a book is chosen to be reviewed for all the wrong reasons. You have to do all this because of the trickle-down factor: At any time a bias could set in - invisibly, silently but inevitably, and if you don't notice it, your audience will.

Now maybe reviewers can be kept apart from financial considerations of the magazine and its relationship with book publishers. But when book editors themselves give up the very process of selecting books that are worthy for review, and the book publisher makes the decision for them simply by writing a check, the whole idea of an independent critical process is compromised.

A Not-So-Hidden Secret

At the same time, let's be honest about the realities of book reviewing: Book publishers almost always pay for book review space, of course, and usually we try to be discreet about it by charging them not for reviews but for advertising space ALONGSIDE reviews. In that way they get access to the same audience, while at the same time, the audience knows there's a difference between a paid ad and an independently written review.

The not-so-hidden secret in today's book reviewing circles, however, is that book publishers big and small HATE to advertise in traditional print sections and have increasingly resisted attempts to convince them that ads in book review sections work. Cable TV ads or radio commercials or Time/Life magazine packages seem a lot more sexy than plugging in the same title-and-blurb, title-and-blurb ads they've been placing in the same review sections for years.

You can see I'm a bit sensitive about this because on the one week of each year that I used to put on my advertising sales hat and visit marketing managers, I would say, "Look, our book review section is out there 52 weeks a year cultivating an audience that buys a ton of books all year long. Many of them are the kind of books you have no advertising budget to support. You can't say that about radio or TV, certainly not a People/Time/Business Week package or anything but a weekly Book Review."

I'll tellya these beleaguered ad managers and marketing directors all know this, and they appreciate it. But publishing runs in cycles, and if you're the ad manager in a house that's opting for 15-second spots on linked radio stations across six counties, you better find a famous wrestler or sitcom star to read the voiceover for your ads or you're out of the loop.

Okay, so that's a silly example (taken from real life), but the point is that it's extremely frustrating - and, given shrinking book review pages, fruitless - to depend on publisher ads to keep a book review going. Sutherland and Link at ForeWord found that out and are seeking a different (nobody said better) way.

The Big Shift

Given that, let's look at the profound shift that Sutherland and Link have undertaken in asking publishers to pay for reviews.

First, in traditional book reviewing there is no question why we review books - we do it as a service to the reader. Period. This frees us from thinking we "owe" anything to the author or to the publisher when we expose each book to critical scrutiny.

But at ForeWordreviews.com, the whole premise has changed. Here books are reviewed as a service to BOTH the publisher and the reader, with emphasis on the former. Listen to Sutherland speak about the process, for example, and ask yourself who it is she feels most responsible to:

"If the POD phenomenon hadn't happened, we'd do this anyway," she says. "Independent presses are ready to rock and roll in a much bigger fashion than they've been allowed to. They've been held back by the traditional walls created by New York houses and the traditional approach of book reviewing.

"We're trying to help these independent publishers break out of all that. Basically we're saying if you've got a good book, you can get it to readers. We're going to make it easier for you, because so far booksellers and librarians are still using reviews to get your books on their shelves. I think that's going to change one day, but right now, editorially, there needs to be a filtering system, and the review mechanism is the one that works."

The idea of taking the point of view of the book publisher - rather than the reader - used to be an absolute no-no in book reviewing circles. But that was when we were fighting the idea that a Hidden Bias could sneak in and contaminate an otherwise independent reviewing process.

Reviewer Credibility

When, however, the bias is open and advertised - we WANT publishers to pay for their own reviews, Sutherland says - the matter of credibility becomes even more important.

I have no doubt that reviewers at ForeWord, who have proven themselves to be meticulous about literary standards, can make the transition to ForeWordreviews.com. Most professionals who review books tend to seek that rarefied and protected space that celebrates the critical process and its effect on literature at every level.

What concerns me is the profound difference in the way books will be selected for review at ForeWordreviews.com, though Sutherland and Link suggest there is an Old Way and a New Way, both legit.

The Selection Process

In the old way, if you were to give a traditional book editor like me, say, 100 books to review, I would immediately look for the titles that are so good I would HAVE to assign them, as well as books that are so bad you couldn't pay me to get 'em reviewed. This would begin a critical whittling-down process that would result, ideally, in the perfect mix of books on the page for "my" readership.

In the new way, the paid way at ForeWordreviews.com, I would have to assign every single one of those 100 books, using the same standard for each. Even if, say, 30 of them are just terrible - remember, once the publisher pays the $295, a review is going to be written and posted; there's no backing out - it still means review after review after review will demonstrate just how terrible each book is.

In the Old Way, that would be a killer in a traditional book review section, where too many negative reviews of lousy books would drive readers away in droves.

But under the New Way at ForeWordreviews.com, who cares? Nobody's going to see the reviews on the page. Rather, readers will look up a title they want to see on their screen, pierce through vast universes of information that float in cyberspace until they find it, and pull it away from the others to read.

So at the same time I think the selection process really is contaminated by the notion of paid reviews, it also seems to me that technology solves that problem because with room in cyberspace for all reviews ever written, there is no selection process any longer - it's unnecessary and irrelevant to the merits of each review.

The Knee Unjerks

All of this to say that I find the idea of paid reviews listed on the Internet far more intriguing than threatening to the critical process in general.

In fact I think Sutherland and Link's idea is timely, bold, and important: Their charge is to prove to us that ForeWordreviews.com can uphold the high standards they've established in ForeWord magazine, and since We the Readers are the final arbiters, we must keep watch on ForeWordreviews.com to see just how high those standards remain.

So will the bookstore buyers and acquisition librarians whose own needs are far more explicit than the general reader's.

Further, I'd like to follow the lead of my own reviewers of long ago who refused to listen to rumors about whether the Book Review made literary decisions on the basis of financial support.

Word around the convention floor at BookExpo this year was that ForeWord magazine, which has decreased frequency of publication and may be struggling financially, came up with the idea of paid reviews to cover outstanding bills.

This is nonsense, say Sutherland and Schwartz: "ForeWordreviews.com was conceived as a separate company with its own financial risks and gains," says Sutherland. "Once it begins to make money, ForeWord magazine will share in the distribution of profit, but that's at least a year away, hardly something that would help us 'cover outstanding bills' right now."



Well, unlike industry commentator Michael Cader (see yesterday's Publishers Lunch), I read Sunday's New York Times Magazine on Thomas Middelhoff, CEO of Bertelsmann, with dawning horror.

Here we learn that a number of music corporations have sued the Internet's music-sharing demon, Napster, to protect copyright, but Middelhoff wants to go the other way.

He believes Napster's peer-to-peer file-sharing approach is the hot new thing in cyberspace, something to be celebrated for its founder's independence and "genius" -- and, of course, bought up, reconfigured and exploited for its money-producing potential.

The reason Middelhoff paid $60 million to Napster last October was not only to "convert [Napster's] free music-sharing network into a fee-collecting subscription service," reporter David Kirkpatrick reports.

He also hoped "that Bertelsmann would find a way to apply [Napster's] file-sharing model to every form of media imaginable," Kirkpatrick writes, "from family photos to video games, digital films and television, even electronic books. Consumers would share everything that could be browsed or disseminated, probably by paying a monthly subscription fee to participate."

That sounds awfully predatory but not so surprising - Bertelsmann is hardly the only corporation with plans to charge Napster and Internet users for growing our own hair. But in Middelhoff's case, the target appears to be access to consumers' privacy, and in a big way.

"In exchange for a loan, Bertelsmann received the right to buy a majority stake in Napster later. This would secure a foothold on every user's hard drive," Kirkpatrick writes. It would also utilize Napster's "direct line to the consumer, through which a company could observe habits and pitch products."

Heavens, "observe habits"? Makes a person feel like a migrating pelican. "Observed shopping, driving, nail-biting, vote-getting, opinion-forming" - all habits needing direction and re-education, without the specimen knowing it's being observed, of course.

"That intimate connection is the Holy Grail of the media business," Kirkpatrick continues, "driving Time Warner's merger with AOL, Universal's sale to the French company Vivendi and Rupert Murdoch's pursuit of the digital satellite television company DirecTV."

Well, it's reassuring to see that the power behind this hidden portal is portrayed not as a capitalist stalker or even Big Brother but as an affable, omniscient Dad figure whom everybody can laugh at and to whom everyone will naturally defer one day.

It's not only Middelhoff's "toothy guffaw" and "courtly demeanor" that makes him so appealing, according to the article, but the fact that he likes Gummi Bears and "cultivates the image of a kind of goofy Superman."

What a guy, and let's not forget how Middelhoff introduced Bertelsmann to the German company's New York employees last summer when he rented Radio City Music Hall and threw "his sport coat into the audience like a pop star.

" . . . 'Do you have passion?' he implored. 'I love Bertelsmann. I would die for this company,' " Kirkpatrick quotes him.

But here's where the distinct chill began: A few months ago, Middelhoff "struck a deal that he now calls a crucial victory" by forming a partnership with other music publishers (AOL Time Warner, the EMI Group, ReaLNetworks) to "pool their music catalogs and develop a common format for digital music."

If this is the breakthrough Middelhoff has been seeking, the news is not good for consumers. It could empower Bertelsmann, already the largest English-language publisher in the world, to increase the ranks of fee-demanding Internet companies, all using software that "tracks usage" and "observes habits" of customers.

The odd thing is that Middelhoff seems as sweet and malleable as a Gummi Bear himself compared to the world domination that Rupert Murdoch has in store for us. More about this next time.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re your story about General Electric CEO Jack Welsh at BookExpo: I hope you track net sales of "Jack: Straight From the Gut" over time in comparison with some of the from-out-of-nowhere bestsellers that you mentioned. One of the funniest things I've read (in PW Daily, I believe) was the push to get this book into the international market in big numbers, where Jack Welch is known by virtually nobody. In fact, I can't remember ever having heard anybody in this country say, "Gee, when's Jack Welch coming out with a book? I can't wait for that!" So, yeah, the publisher can spend a lot of money promoting the book and they can make deals for huge co-op payouts to get the book prominently displayed in chain stores across the country, but it's like hugely promoted movies - just because someone spends a bunch of money, it doesn't mean that anybody's going to be interested in the final product.

Steve Adelson

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thanks for your piece on That Book Sense Lunch, a wonderfully positive report on BookExpoAmerica most everyone who labored nine hours a day on the floor there needed to read. What we saw was different. Too often we saw many gigantic booth spaces without any books, powerful marketing machines selling covers with blurbs, TV celebrities attracting excited crowds. We read about one of the last famous American independent publishers passing on to a media colossus, and we compared the fees charged for attending panels. We saw fewer blue badges than last year and talked with many more reps for advertising, paper, printing, and shipping. If it weren't for the one and two booth exhibitors we saw, the farm teams, we'd wonder why we were there at all.

Bob Paul
Marketing Consultant

Dear Holt Uncensored:

If you're searching for a good soundbite about that "lovefest" (Book Sense Lunch), didn't Lemony Snicket refer to independent booksellers as part of the "underground railroad of culture and taste"?

Sarah Pishko

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your column about the BEA luncheon (it will always be ABA to me) brought me to tears. I am so happy for those many independent booksellers who have hung in there year after year to bring the "best" to their customers. And they have survived despite some publishers who too often withdrew their reps from small bookstores because the booksellers couldn't place large orders, and in spite of Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com and Crown. Celebrate your victory, independents. You have made a miracle!

Even though I don't own a bookstore anymore, I still do Literary Lunches and use my friendly independent booksellers.

Maryjane Dunstan
Former owner, Artist's Proof Books
Larkspur, California

Dear Holt Uncensored:

There's interesting info on what Random House knows about their contracts, at http://www.zdnet.com/zdnn/stories/comment/0,5859,2770556,00.html

It's written by Michael Mellin, who "founded Random House Electronic Publishing in 1990 and served as Publisher of Random House Reference and Electronic Publishing until 1993. One of the first tasks I undertook at Random House was an exhaustive survey of publishing contracts in order to determine what electronic rights corporate Random House actually controlled."

Paul Stratton

Holt responds: My, this is an intriguing article written for ZDnet.com. Among other things, Mellin contends: "Today, Random House's lawyers are trying to stretch the definition of the word 'book' in order to justify a grab of author's rights."

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

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