When my Dot Dead came out, I did the usual thing: tour with bookstore signings and radio and TV interviews. My expectations were low and at times those low expectations were met; at a Portland stop, two people showed up. But even for the highlights of the tour, 70 people at Kepler’s or a live interview on public radio in Seattle, it’s difficult to say the effect on sales overall. There might be a blip, but that’s it. What good is it to build a better mousetrap – or write a book people will enjoy – if no one knows about it?
I hate to say it, but the best and most cost-effective way to let people know about a good book is – drumroll – a newspaper review. When a review ran in the San Jose Mercury, Dot Dead leapt up the Amazon bestseller list. When Lora Robert’s Palo Alto Weekly review ran, local stores ran out of copies. There’s only one problem – reviews are harder to get than Norah Jones’s new album on eight-track.
Before publication, the PR people and I sent out around three dozen ARC’s (advance reader copies) to newspapers across the country. Except for the local papers mentioned, scarcely anything. (Exception: The Royse City Herald Banner, but then, they requested a copy.) Part of the problem certainly was that Midnight Ink has not been around for long and that it publishes in trade paper format, not hardback. Also, there’s the problem with me: Dot Dead was a first book and I wasn't known as an author. A reporter friend at the Wall Street Journal explained the dilemma to me: We will only give you coverage if you don’t need it.
But there’s a bigger macro issue at play here. Print newspapers are dying. Employment at U.S. papers is down by a third since 1990. As the papers cut back, the book review section is often first hit. Authors are fighting this trend but I fear they are, like Canute, ordering the tide not to come in. The National Books Critics Circle has started a campaign to save book reviews. The Circle reports book coverage has been cut back or eliminated recently at, among others, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Dallas Morning News, the Sun Sentinel, the New Mexican, the Village Voice, Boston Phoenix, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. As for the last-named, the New York Times reports that 120 authors have signed a petition to save the job of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s book editor.
Michael Connelly wrote a piece for his alma mater, the LA Times, that ran during the Book Festival last weekend. He attributes the success of his Harry Bosch series to reviews of his first book, The Black Echo. Michael then goes on to say, “I can't help but wonder, though, how long Harry would have lasted had he been born in today's newspaper environment.” Michael goes on to ask whether publishers and editors are being short-sighted as they practice a scorched earth policy on book review sections.
“In the past, newspaper executives understood the symbiotic relationship between their product and books. People who read books also read newspapers. From that basic tenet came a philosophy: If you foster books, you foster reading. If you foster reading, you foster newspapers. That loss-leader ends up helping you build and keep your base. What I fear is that this philosophy is disappearing from the boardrooms of our newspapers; that efforts to cut costs now will damage both books and newspapers in the future. Short-term gains will become long-term losses.”
Now Ed Champion offers a somewhat contrarian point of view, arguing that reviews will come increasingly from bloggers, podcasters, and other online participants. Who can argue with that? I’m a blogger myself and read 10 or 20 more every week. Pat Holt, the former editor of the Chronicle book reviewer who did some editing work on Dot Dead, wants to do something different, to take action: “Let's get out there and pound some tables about books; let's put our hearts and souls on the line, not to pander to base tastes but to start a true critical discourse with audiences and make book reviews in all their forms as riveting to read as they are essential.”
Still as a mystery writer who publishes in a format not much changed since Gutenberg, I can’t help but lament being caught in the sea change that’s going on. The blogosphere and online worlds do not have the wide reach of traditional newspapers, at least not yet. And the book review sections of those same papers, if not the papers themselves, are – like the Wicked Witch – melting away.