Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Why I review books every week for free…and usually pay for them myself

The Happy Hooker and friends at a reading
to sell books at the Museum of Sex in Manhattan.
Many books are sold outside of bookstores.

We want to believe that good books rise to the surface, that good books will find the readership they deserve. Yet I know that’s asking a lot of books these days.

Consider the following (culled this morning from the Web):

o About 300,000 books are published each year in the United States. Approximately half this number includes textbooks and other non-consumer books.

o Publishers Weekly, a go-to publication in the industry that reviews books about 3 months before they come out, reviews about 7,000 titles a year or less than .04% of new consumer books.

o A handful of large publishing companies account for nearly 80% of all U.S. book sales. A successful fiction book sells 5,000 copies; nonfiction 7,500 copies. The “average” book sells 500 copies.

o About half of the books meant for retail sales are sold in bookstores. Less than a quarter of new books are sold online, though this number does not include e-books.

o A typical Barnes and Noble store stocks about 150,000–200,000. Only half (or fewer) books aimed at consumers get into bookstores. And even if the bookstore carries a new book, it probably won’t stay on the shelf for long.

Note: I didn’t fact check though I used figures I found cited in a number of sources. I also noted that Web users quote from each other. One number, reported authoritatively, can wind up in untold number of documents. Further, I looked at postings from 2008 on. As you know, what’s listed above is changing as we speak. I’ve read this week that Amazon/Kindle claims great strides in e-book sales and further declines in “real” book sales. On the other hand, some in the industry claim that Amazon’s figures are misleading. FYI: Re. paid books available at Amazon: For every 10 books Amazon sells, it sells 6 Kindle editions.

Yet I point to these numbers for the statement they make, generally, about getting a new book into readers’ hands.

What the numbers suggest is that most books get very little attention from “traditional” print media sources — magazines and newspapers. And a large number of new books never make it into bookstores. Despite the realities, most authors are sorely disappointed when they realize no one is going to review their book and they can’t even find their book listed on Amazon, much less sitting smartly on a B&N bookshelf.

Authors need help getting the word out. Even the local papers, as desperate as they are for readers, refuse to publish book reviews. This lack of advocacy for the written word perplexes me. Shouldn’t newspapers and magazines be in the business of celebrating books and writers? Isn’t a book reader more likely to be newspaper reader?

I once interviewed a bookstore proprietor in New England. In the course of our discussion, I mentioned that a new book by a writer just down the street from her store had just been published. She had no idea.

True, the author could have stopped by but this conversation made an enormous impact on me. Publishing a book is way too much like that proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it.

An author spends years of his/her life writing a book. An editor takes it over and spends a good many months on the review and editing process. Other experts — marketers and booksellers and graphic artists — are called in to further the publication process. Trees are cut down, ink is poured into press reservoirs and books are printed, packaged, shipped and …. sold??? A book is perhaps one of the most undervalued products in our degraded economy.

Why are newspapers and magazines important to authors? There are plenty of arguments that say social media is the way to get the word out these days. Yes, it probably helps, especially if you’re savvy in these ways and more so if your audience is tweeting and posting to Facebook regularly.

But printed book reviews are still very important because many book readers still read newspapers and magazines. Did you know that as many as 80% of families did not buy a book this year? The pool from which authors draw readers is already ridiculously shallow. Authors need a hand from the obvious places, places where readers already turn.

Since that discussion with the independent bookstore owner, I’ve made it my mission to review books by local and regional authors. For years I received a stipend for my weekly reviews but that has since changed. I work for a different, larger newspaper chain now and I no longer ask for compensation for my reviews because I am afraid my weekly column will no longer appear if the newspaper editor is expected to pay for it from her dwindling budget. Further, because of cost cutting at book publishers everywhere, getting review copies is much more difficult. I end up buying most of the books I review for free!

Next time

I’d like to write my next column about what goes into producing these weekly gratis book reviews. I’ll do so if I’m not distracted by something else that requires blogging.

If you have something to say about book reviews, by all means, please post a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

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