Alternatives to Criticism and Reviewing

Publishing? As far as I’m concerned, is on the way out. ‘Publishing’ as we know it, that is. Yes, I sincerely believe that the movement that created a publishing industry in the 18th century has ground to a halt, and despite trying to find a new purpose in life, is about to fade away. It’s […]

Alternatives to Criticism and Reviewing

Publishing? As far as I’m concerned, is on the way out. ‘Publishing’ as we know it, that is. Yes, I sincerely believe that the movement that created a publishing industry in the 18th century has ground to a halt, and despite trying to find a new purpose in life, is about to fade away. It’s had a good run: the business we call ‘publishing’ grew up when the novel was invented, after 1720. It would be ironic if it collapsed on the three hundredth anniversary, but that seems increasingly likely.

What might seem less obvious, as a further consequence of the rise of the internet, is that all the ancillary trades will disappear too. By that I don’t just mean the roles of Literary Agent, publicist and roadie – but these are almost certainly doomed – and I don’t mean the roles of manuscript editor and book cover designer, which may continue. I specifically refer to the ‘jobs’ of reviewer and critic. Perhaps publishing would never have been taken seriously as a profession if it hadn’t managed to seduce the realms of academia and the general media, but they did, involving journalists and Professors in the new business of mass-produced books. These days, dozens of careers rest on the simple tasks of writing about new books, commenting and expressing personal opinions. Who’d have guessed that people who spent all day spouting their own narrow and opinionated views would be paid for it, and even lauded. Well, they’d better beware: their days are numbered too.

The basic problem is that they aren’t – and never have been – needed. In the merry dance of creating new literature, there are two – and only two – main players: the writer and the reader. Everyone else is a hanger-on, a sponge or a leech, (even if they are richly rewarded). The problem is that readers don’t trust themselves, and have given away their power – up to now. Rather than accept the fact that they, and only they, can decide for themselves whether or not they like a book, most have been happy to hand over this responsibility to others. How strange. It works this way: you ask a reader, ‘What about this book – do you like it?’ and they reply, ‘Well, let’s see what everyone else thinks’. It’s lazy. It’s an abdication of a duty. And even if it’s been common for the last few generations, that doesn’t make it right, or even sensible.

Readers get round this betrayal by pretending it doesn’t exist. ‘I don’t accept other’s opinions,’ they’ll tell you, ‘I just read what other people think, then make up my own mind’. Oh, yeah? Pull the other one. The fact is, as Amazon are happy to tell you, that a book with a number of positive reviews coming in will start to sell well, and a book with a growing number of negative reviews will start selling even more badly. Now, if it’s not YOU that reads these reviews and simply copies their opinions and do what they suggest – either buy or not buy – then who is it that follows the orders, like mindless sheep? Or are these merely a few unthinking people, a minority? Wake up, readers. It’s you! It’s all you.

The most tragic aspect of this laughable position, is that publishers have, for many years, exploited it. They seek to gain favourable reviews by any means necessary, (usually stopping short of actual currency in a brown envelope passed under the table ). They’ll try anything. It’s not just about sending preview copies to newspapers and magazines – for ‘preview’ read ‘FREE’, which is a nice incentive, when some of these new hard-backs are retailing for twenty pounds or more. (Strange how so many of them end up on eBay, and other places.) There’s also the free lunches – which is fine, of course, because reviewers are often journalists, first and foremost, so they can justify spending lunchtime with the boys and girls of the publishing industry. It’s ‘research’, after all, finding out about new plans, new books, new series, new authors. Great, but who picks up the bill? Isn’t that a give-away! There’s also the invitations to literary events, festivals and conferences, plus the offer of ‘exclusive access’ to the author. Ever been to an event and noticed how the author is hurried off stage at the end, surrounded by a bevy of the ‘chosen few’? It’s a small coterie selected with great care by their publisher. The aim? Maximum publicity.

Internet authors, struggling to even get noticed, have, in recent years, resorted to some of these underhand tactics. Deprived of the massive budgets of the international publishers, they have nonetheless tried paying for reviews from the small ‘electronic assistants’ websites. What happens? Publishers call ‘foul’! What, for copying them? The fact is that all reviews are ‘paid for’, one way or another, and the fact that publishers have managed to corral off the things they do and call them legitimate, while labelling everything the little guys do as unfair, is just the latest example of the stranglehold that the publishing industry has had on writing and books for the last three hundred years. Thank the Lord the whole sorry mess is finally coming to an end.

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