With more and more book reviews and commentary migrating online, we need to be conscious of what we’re gaining and what we’re losing. This is harder than it seems, since the gains and losses are often deeply entwined. For instance, one of the most liberating aspects of blogging is the release from the strictures of conventional commercial publications. You want to be opinionated? Be opinionated! You want to write in the first person? You can! You want to post pictures of your chickens? Why, go ahead! Blogging seems like writing at year zero. Everything is possible, nothing is forbidden.
Naturally, there’s much to reject from the world of commercial journalism. Most obviously, your book blog isn’t owned by Rupert Murdoch, and you don’t have the same financial pressures breathing down your neck. If you want to devote your time exclusively to, say, reviewing regency romances, there’s no-one to suggest that the advertisers would prefer something broader.
That being said, the difficulty with working in year zero is that you are just as likely to lose the best aspects of the old world as the worst. The culture of newspaper book reviewing has been established over many years and, alongside all kinds of malign influences, it also reflects progressive pressures from writers and readers. The list below contains a few aspects of that culture that need more discussion.
This is obvious but still needs to be said. If you review for a newspaper, you get paid. If you review online, by and large, you don’t — or at least not very well. The shift from print to digital media is being used to carry out a massive pay cut throughout the industry, with the difference between freelancing for a newspaper and for their online equivalents involving a drop of about two-thirds. Most bloggers, of course, get paid nothing. None of this is good.
2. Quality control.
A book review for the print version of Overland goes through an elaborate process of fact-checking, structural and copy editing, proofing and so on. Most of what appears on this blog is more-or-less stream of consciousness. We don’t have the time nor the staff for anything much else.
Most bloggers review as a hobby (see point one above). For that reason, there’s none of the infrastructure that supported old-style newspaper reviewing (few blogs have copy editors).
3. Relationships with the industry.
Over the years, newspaper book reviewers have had to establish protocols for their dealings with the publishing industry. These have never been perfect but nonetheless they exist. At the most basic level, the fact that a newspaper is a major organisation provides some distance between the publisher and the book reviewer. When publicists start sending books out to bloggers, it’s a much more fraught relationship. In part, it goes back to the first point — if people are not paid at all, the provision of free review copies becomes much more significant. The Age doesn’t have to worry about falling off the publicity list after writing a bad review; a small-time blogger does.
Which is not to say that bloggers get bribed, just that they don’t have the infrastructure to insulate them from these inevitable conflict. What’s more, most book bloggers also write fiction, which adds another pressure to their relationship with publishers.
4. Relationships with individuals.
On the Overland blog, I’ve posted a number of references to Kalinda Ashton’s new novel, as well as to my own book. I’d never be able to do that in a newspaper — or, at least, not in the same kind of way. Again, professional reviewers have various protocols to govern how they deal with books by people they know. In the blogosphere, that’s all much more murky. Literary circles are very small. Almost by definition, if you are writing a books blog, you are going to festivals, attending launches and so on. It’s very, very difficult to prevent these kinds of relationships impacting on your reviewing.
None of these things are insurmountable — or any less insurmountable than in old media forms — but IMO they need to be talked out more, as the landscape of book reviewing changes.