There’s a very interesting post on the Vulpes Libris blog (Feature: Fox in the City) which explores the difference between professional book critics (reviewers for print publications) and bloggers. I believe that the arguments presented in the piece are universal, that they apply to all niches in which bloggers have ‘muscled’ their way into a traditionally elite turf. In addition to books, I can think of examples in technology blogs/podcasts, project studio blogs/podcasts and more.
I like the post because it’s balanced. I also like it because it shows the true colours of the two camps — and their value systems. Both sides can learn a lot from each other.
The culture of community has changed how people make their decisions. For most people the root of purchase decisions is, and almost always has been, recommendations from friends. The spaces in that culture have been filled by print publications that offer reviews. In recent years, the Internet has extended the ability of people to connect with similarly keen followers of books and, in many cases, this ability to share has supplanted a lot of newspapers and magazines. More importantly, print publications have a limited amount of review space — and on a specific schedule — which means the number of books reviewed and the frequency at which those reviews are made available does not cater to the desires of the community. There is also a perception that the book selections are driven by advertising revenue and other kick-back mechanisms.
It’s important to note that professional critics are subject to scrutiny from staff editors, something that some bloggers could use. Many bloggers write in a personal and stream-of-conciousness style that many journalists dismiss as cute and cheeky. However, there are a great number of bloggers (and podcasters) who take their production very seriously and invest a lot of time organizing and articulating their thoughts and take great care to ensure correct spelling and grammar (note: this post does not fall in that category). While more formal writing may be worth noting, the personal voice is similarly important and in many cases is a worthy opponent for institutional and academic critique of a book. In fact, I sometimes wonder what qualifies some professional critics as worthy of special status. Consider that their reviews are no less a personal opinion than a blogger’s. I’d also like to add that many serious bloggers produce regular content on self-imposed deadlines that may be more aggressive than the review schedule of a newspaper or magazine.
One argument raised by the professionals that is definitely worth exploring is the charge of bloggers being unpaid cheerleaders. Indeed, the blogosphere is well represented by those who have a policy of only publishing positive reviews. That decision may be in part because bloggers want to have strong and positive relationship with authors, editors, publishers, etc… I believe it is also a recognition of the need to have more positive discussions about something the community is passionate about; that it’s far more productive to tell people about the book you’re excited about rather than the book that you wasted your time reading. This is one area that book bloggers (and all review bloggers) need to work on if they’re concerned about credibility among mainstream media — the need to produce balanced reviews and offer up the odd disappointment.
For all of their complaints, professional critics are well shielded from one of blogging’s greatest challenges: accessibility. Particularly in the book business, one which places a lot of the PR onus on authors (and illustrators) and for which there is a lot of personal investment in the final work (more so than a piece of technology, for example), bloggers are often (I’ll say) actively pursued by independent authors and small publishing houses for the opportunity to be reviewed. This poses a significant challenge if the book provided is not consistent with the niche of the blog/podcast and when the book doesn’t appeal to the blogger/podcaster who won’t review books they don’t like (and the author is relentlessly pursuing a review). Book blogs and podcasts have a primary goal to be champions of good literature; newspapers and magazines have a primary goal to sell advertising space and publications.
I suspect that the most vocal critics of book bloggers are the professional book reviewers that feel the most threatened by the competition. Web 2.0 has changed the way many established cultural institutions have to think about their role in the Age of Collaboration; I think its fair that they are expressing their concerns, however confusing they may be for some.