Critics in the Cloud

I’m taking the liberty of repeating parts of a post I did several months ago about favourite reading related sites. The reason – I just saw that the Miami Book Fair is offering a panel session called Critics in the Cloud: The State of Literary Criticism in the Age of the Internet.

Participants of the panel: Maddie Crum of Huffington Post, Jessa Crispin of Bookslut, Stephen Elliott of The Rumpus, Ron Hogan of Beatrice, William Johnson of Lambda Literary, Laura Miller of Salon, Bob Minzesheimer a book reviewer and reporter, Adam Plunkett of New Republic, Jenn Risko of Shelf-Awareness, Michael Slosek of Poetry Foundation, and Sarah Weinman of Publisher’s Lunch. The panel will be moderator by Doree Sharfrir of Buzzfeed. And the stated intent is to discuss the current state of book culture in the context of the collapse of local newspapers.

Interestingly, none of Buzzfeed, Publisher’s Lunch, Poetry Foundation, Salon, Lambda Literary, or Beatrice were mentioned in the list of favourite blogs and websites used by readers looking for book discussion and recommendations. Of the others, only Shelf Awareness had more than 4 votes as a favourite site by over 2400 readers. The Rumpus was mentioned once, Bookslut twice, and Huffington Post four times.

We might be justified in asking a question about the authority of these panel members. As well as a question about the phrase literary criticism. Is this an exalted calling accessible to only a few individuals? Is literary the more important word or criticism? Has anyone asked readers what they wish to see in book critiques? (I did.)

In the middle of February, I reported on favourite reading oriented sites. And in mid-March, I posted a list of sites by category: reading sites, social media, retailers, blogs dedicated to historical fiction, genre sites, general book review blogs, author sites, industry sites and so on. The variety of this ‘reading ecosystem’ is phenomenal.

Here’s a repeat of that post – have a look at the category I refer to as Traditional which includes sites like The Guardian, NY Times, London Review of Books, New Yorker magazine. 29 traditional sites were mentioned by 68 people. In other words, traditional sites are no longer drawing an audience.

~~~~~

With my friend Excel at my side, I’ve gone through all named sites (696 in total) and classified them. Admittedly, this is my own classification scheme but I think it has merit.

As you can see in the All blogs category, blogs are a favourite vehicle to share book reviews and other book related information. Count refers to the number of different sites mentioned while Impact is the total mentions for that category. For example, a blog like Reading the Past is only counted once in the Count column, but given that 47 people included it as a favourite, 47 is added into the Impact total.

Note added, Nov 10, 2014: adding the first three categories together with genre blogs gives a total of 536 sites and an impact of 1418. Reading sites like Goodreads and Shelfari have an impact of 1054. The next biggest impact comes from social media at 714.

Favourite reading sites (1)

In the next group, we can see the role retailers play. Amazon accounts for 306 of the 419 Impact total.

Favourite sites (2)

A final group includes social media and reading sites like Goodreads. If we group reading sites with social media, the total impact score is 1768.

Favourite sites (3)

After cleansing the data as much as I could, 696 different sites remained of which 500 were mentioned by only one person. In 106 cases, the survey participant was insufficiently specific for me to categorize his or her entry.

What’s of most interest to me is YOUR thoughts on what all this means for readers and writers. 

6 thoughts on “Critics in the Cloud”

  1. I think that bloggers and the publishing industry are moving in parallel universes, which is surprising, considering that any publicity department worth its salt pays strict attention to opinion leaders in the blogosphere. Maybe it’s that print publishers have been taking a beating because of the Internet, and they’ve been understandably reluctant to acknowledge its influence. Even the most casual readers, not to mention serious ones who prowl (or manage) these blogs, will be the poorer, if print publications continue to shrink in number. For writers, it’s not even a question.

    That said, as a longtime member of, and believer in, the print publishing industry, I’ve become very disillusioned by what has happened to book publishing and reviewing. The purpose should be to find and maintain an audience, but it’s slipping away, and all but certain types of books get pushed to the margins–or never see the light of day. And yet an astronomical number of books get published, probably too many.

    As for me, I’ve finally got the message. I’m done with the traditional route, which isn’t easy for me to say. I’ve had about as many literary agents as Elizabeth Taylor had husbands (each one more difficult to deal with than the last), and none ever wanted to represent my fiction or even read it. A familiar story, no doubt.

  2. One of the major impacts of the blogosphere has been the democratization of the book review process. Nowadays, anyone with a laptop or an ipad can become a book critic with a following, and we’re better off for it. But not everybody feels that way.

    Major media outlets like the NY Times, USA Today, and the WSJ have lost so much print business, that they’ve had to make major cutbacks to staff, including laying off book reviewers. They know all their jobs are on the line! The internet has so disrupted their business model that they teeter on the brink of extinction, or if they manage to survive, they will be much scaled down.

    Is it scary? Yes. Sad? Yes. Inevitable? Yes. Right now the industry is in a state of flux, and once-safe jobs are on the chopping block. But if a teenage girl in Peoria, Illinois says a certain book “sucks”, who’s going to argue with her? Her word may carry more weight nowadays than the New York Times Review of Books. And publishers know this.

  3. Absolutely. Print media and publishing has taken a beating, but I would be careful about jumping to conclusions. Some qualifiers:
    Some of those sites you mention (eg Salon) don’t often review historical fiction, so there’s no real reason histfic readers would gravitate to them, and therefore they won’t appear in your survey results – that doesn’t mean they don’t have an impact on readers generally.
    Some of those sites are among the most popular in the world – it’s a stretch to claim they are no longer drawing an audience.

    I love the growth in reader-to-reader recommendation sites like Goodreads. Word of mouth has always been one of the most powerful reasons for book buying, and online communities make it even more widespread and powerful. But the power of the literary review doesn’t need to be diminished by social media – in fact it can be strengthened, and I reckon that’s what’s happening.

    Book reviews from media sites are distributed far and wide via social media by individuals and this is one of those most powerful and widespread recommendation tools – so that people feel they get their recommendations from facebook or Twitter, but they are often sourced from a media site and shared around. Which is great – it’s like the best of all worlds. A considered review (whether it’s sourced from The Guardian, a specialist blog, or Goodreads) shared by word of mouth (or word of keyboard).

    Quotes from authoritative reviews are picked up by publishers and incorporated into book descriptions on all the big platforms and book sellers – worldwide and instantaneously. Again, they are reaching millions more people than ever read the review at its original site.

    So all of that is hopeful news – for readers and writers and even publishers and the media.

    Cheers.

    1. Many thanks for this perspective, Kelly. And a good challenge with the notion that social media propagates reviews from sources such as Salon. Lambda Literary and others. You’ve given me lots to think about as well as a new definition of ‘word of mouth’.

  4. “We might be justified in asking a question about the authority of these panel members. As well as a question about the phrase literary criticism. Is this an exalted calling accessible to only a few individuals?”

    Fair questions! As to the former, I’m reluctant to make any extended claims about my “authority” because that can either come off as defensive or grandiose, but in addition to using the Internet (and not just Beatrice) to talk about books and writers for the last two decades, I’ve also given a great deal of thought to the latter question and others connected to it. These two Beatrice posts are the first that come to mind:

    http://beatrice.com/wordpress/2012/09/05/being-book-critic-nothing-special/

    http://beatrice.com/wordpress/2012/09/06/letter-to-a-young-book-blogger/

    I’m hoping the Miami Book Fair panel will be an opportunity to talk about many different things, some of which might include: the reasons book blogs successfully challenged mainstream media’s coverage of “literary matters”; the way mainstream media assimilated that challenge and reasserted its hegemony; the difficulties in sustaining independent “literary criticism” (whatever that is) over the long haul; the anxieties authors have over the changes in the “literary landscape”; how an emerging community bonded together by common interests deals with the emergence of genuinely toxic actors; how you can possibly find trustworthy resources when you’re faced with such an overwhelming array of choices.

    And I’m very interested in what many of the other people who’ve been invited on the panel have to say about these topics, or similar ones I haven’t thought of yet!

    1. Many thanks for your thoughtful comments, Ron and for the links. The topics you mention for the Miami Book Fair are fascinating – I hope you and other panel members will report on them. You might be interested in the broader survey results I published on my blog – you can find the main report at https://awriterofhistory.com/2013-historical-fiction-survey/ where one of the questions asked was ‘What’s important to you in a book review’. Although the survey attracted many readers of historical fiction (and there’s a whole section on the topic), many other questions, including those related to blogs and book reviews, pertained to reading in general.

      From your post on Being a Book Critic is Nothing Special, I extracted this bit: “Instead of saying “This and only this is how fiction should be done!” we can say “This is a way of doing fiction that works for me,” and if we can work past that level to “And here’s what I’ve figured out about why it works for me,” even better.” Definitely an appealing thought, and one which I’ve inadvertently been taking on in my exploration of historical fiction.

      Thanks also for introducing me to your blog 🙂

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