Over on the January Magazine blog, editor Linda Richards recently shared her reaction to the recent 2009 National Book Critics Circle Awards nominations: awards like the NBCC are not designed to incite true passion in readers, she notes, so much as to reinforce people’s self-definitions of erudition. Where, she asks, is the place where the passion of readers and the choices of critics can come together? What must we do to invent it?
I think that place already exists, and most of the book business is either failing to notice or failing to grasp the implications. I also think that’s unfortunate for everyone involved.
There are places all over the net where passionate readers share their views with people beyond their own circles of friends: where opinions become tastemaking, where reviews become discussions and participants don’t have to be part of the mysterious Book Business Elite to have their opinions matter. These days, most of the really active public conversations about books take place on blogs.
Blogger/reviewers are becoming increasingly important sources for readers trying to find the next book to read. In many cases, they’re also becoming hosts for impromptu salons on the books they review. The vast majority of blogger/reviewers are “ordinary” readers (whatever that means) who are sufficiently passionate about the books they read that they want to share their opinions and discuss the books. And the traffic on some of these blogs would astonish Book Business Insiders.
Another important place for book conversations is the social-reading sites–GoodReads, LibraryThing, etc.–as well as the newer sort of social reading that’s just beginning at places like BookGlutton, where readers can log in to actually discuss the texts chapter by chapter. The playing field is remarkably level in those places, and (smart) authors rub elbows with readers in a sort of unselfconsicous camaraderie that stands in stark contrast to the usual “you stay on your side of the signing table and I’ll stay on mine” sensibility that permeates most author-reader interactions.
As with all industries, opinion-making in the book business is becoming increasingly decentralized, as the consumers/readers/participants become the reviewers. Even some of the awards (notably the David Gemmell for Fantasy) are increasingly open to input from readers: not just readers who are already a part of the publishing elite, but any reader sufficiently motivated to sign in and participate. I think those of us in the business should embrace this rather than try to pretend only the traditional outlets for book news have merit, not least because these smaller-scale tastemakers are truly authentic in their approach, and the people who follow their opinions know it.
Readers don’t want to be told what to read in order to have someone else think they’re erudite. (Well, except for a few hundred people. They know who they are.) Readers want to know where to find something that will take them on an unforgettable journey and engage them in ways nothing else can. People have always gotten their best book recommendations from people like themselves whose tastes they know and trust. Social media are finally making it possible for readers to reach beyond the people with whom they share geographic proximity to people with whom they share common taste.
Linda’s right: the nominees for awards like the NBCC are of no relevance to most readers. That doesn’t trouble me, because I know where readers are getting their book recommendations these days: from one another, in venues whose credibility is determined by the community rather than the insiders. It seems to me that’s exactly the way it should be.