Newspaper book editor Bill Thompson responds to No Room at the Inn for Indies. The original post began:
Mainstream newspapers – even struggling, mid-sized papers – seem to look at Indie authors the way the hot girls in high school looked at the manager of the football team. You’re nice, but you really don’t expect me to date you, do you?
The post drew more than 50 comments in less than 24 hours, mostly from those who feel mainstream newspapers unfairly dismiss independent authors. Rosie Cochran, for instance, wrote, “Change worries people. They like the status quo. No Room at the Inn for Indies does well to show that self-publishing has taken off, causing changes that traditional publishers, and obviously the newspaper world, are not ready for.”
Thompson’s unedited response follows:
So many of you who are so smug about the irrelevancy of the modern newspaper and the “cluelessness” of book review editors in the face of the new publishing models clearly don’t have all the facts.
You do not know the skeleton-staff newsroom as it exists today. It is all about WORKLOAD. An insupportable workload, usually. You can not do it all, no matter how experienced and efficient and energetic and forward-thinking. You would have a book review editor (who typically wears many other hats) read and consider every book that comes across his or her desk, every book pitched in the 100-plus book-related e-mails we get every day of the week. Impossible. Yet you claim we are “not doing the job.”
You would have us invest time we do not have dealing with writers unskilled in crafting professional publicity releases and who are too often unable to provide the necessary high-resolution photography that must accompany author profiles and articles. Most self-published authors are inexperienced, ill-advised by the companies they paid, and approach us months to YEARS after a book has been on the market. Newspapers write about books that are brand new, just out, and usually in advance of their publication date.
Also, most of us are overwhelmed by an ocean of writers in our own communities, much less trying to deal with the rest of the country.
You also do not distinguish between small independent (variously defined) publishers, whose books we review all the time, and self-publishing firms, some (though certainly not all) of whom are little better than charlatans making extravagant promises to clients they can not possibly fulfill. Save some of your distaste and rancor for them.
Most of you have ignored the comment Steve was fair enough to add about our reviewers: they are unpaid VOLUNTEERS. A book review editor may decide what to order (large and small mainstrean publishers supply catalogs months in advance of publication, and this lead time is critical), but it is the reviewer who decides what he or she wishes to review. Unlike the NY Times, most papers do not have staffs to whom they assign reviews.
You seem to think we enjoy exercising a form of arrogant, petty power in saying “no,” when in fact many of us dislike doing so but have no choice. I do understand the frustration of trying to get a book published against a stacked deck. It is exceedingly difficult to break through. Yet people do: 310,000 books published each year by “legit” U.S. publishers alone. Yet it is no more the job of a newspaper to act as their marketing and publicity agent as it is for is to market those who publish using the new models. Policies are put in place for a REASON, and are re-evaluated more often than you might think.
As for us supposedly disparaging or ignoring the alleged mass readership clamoring for self-published books, what do you admire more: an intelligent, well-made movie that respects its audience and strives for excellence, or a mindless blockbuster or witless comedy that draws huge audiences but is utterly lacking in value? Empty bestsellers or serious fiction and nonfiction? You have no idea just how many mainstream potboilers we reject.
The mass audience has never been a good barometer of quality; usually it’s the reverse. And for all the talk about the appeal of the democratizion of publishing, there is nothing “democratic” about art except the opportunity to produce it. Art can not be democratized. Works of art — and artists — are not invariably equal.
That said, and while I don’t want to be insensitive, I do not believe the mass readership so many of you tout even exists. I never hear from readers of self-published books wondering why we do not review them. I hear only from their authors, trying to get coverage (as an afterthought, typically) and usually ignorant of the process their publisher should have coached them on, but did not.
Would you have us dispense with standards of any kind? For my money, better a small audience of genuinely demanding and discerning readers than a mass audience representing mass tastes. If that’s elitist, so be it. I will happily retire from the business as someone who tried to uphold widely accepted standards of literary excellence, but also as a reporter and editor who did his level best to give as many authors a chance as he could.
Has Thompson changed your mind? Please weigh in.