Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) no number quick update on blogs and books…

…which is the topic of tomorrows session at Science Online 2010, led by Rebecca Skloot, Brian Switek and your humble (sure about that?–ed.) blogger.

In the haste of getting to the hotel and then getting together with Rebecca and Brian to figure out what we really are going to talk about tomorrow, I haven’t found the time to write in detail what I had wanted to talk about today:  some thoughts on what the blogs can do — or even whether they should — to step into the void left by the collapse of the American book journalism at the mass media level.

So here’s a truncated version, which I will try to develop later with whatever insights come out of our conversatons tomorrow.

First:  there are tons of books being published — I’ve seen numbers in excess of 200,000 per year in the US.  I expect that number to both rise and fall in coming years:  rise through the opportunities to self publish that exist now in ways that no vanity publisher of an era gone by could have ever imagined; and fall in the category of books published by institutions attempting to reach large audiences through some kind of worked out distribution and publicity channels — “real” publishing as we’ve known it for a couple of centuries, at least.

Second:  whatever the precise balance between non-traditional and old fashioned publishing will turn out to be, the idea of national or broad conversations centered on books is mostly gone.  There are basically three remaining MSM outlets that can drive a book that does not already have its own media platform (Sarah Palin’s memoir, which was an industrial operation, not a literary one, for an obvious recent example).

Those three, in my guess as to order of importance, are The New York Times Sunday Book Review; NPR (which is not a unitary operation, of course) and, a rather distant third, The New Yorker. Some might through the NY Review of Books in there — and it is true that though its circulation is small, it is influential. Other radio and certain TV outlets are important as well, but these are the outlets that still make a claim to provide real literary journalism — to treat books as cultural events to be covered as news.*

(It’s different in the UK, where there is still a considerable literary news hole; but the mother country (literally, in my case is  have a different problem — an exceptionally rapid decline in their high street retail book trade.  But that’s for another post.)

This is not how it used to be.  Earlier in my career, even though I’ve never gotten much of a rise out of the Times, major newspapers around the country actually had reviewers, and devoted some real space to them, and I found I could hope for significant public discussion of my work in the LA Times, in the Chicago Papers, in the Washington Post…a bunch of places.

Now many of those places have stopped reviewing, picking up the AP review if there is one, or simply not bothering.  Meanwhile the Times has cut its reviewing hole, and now maybe checks out, in brief notices included, something between 1,000 and 2,000 books a year.  And there’s a vicious circle there too: book reviewing space in the NYT and in any other newspaper tracks advertising dollars spent to support such space.  As publishers consolidate and find their profit margins shrinking, they spend less on such ads.  As they do so, the book review hole declines…and the opportunity to sell more product goes with it…

and you know that tune.

So here’s the problem:  blogs and web attempts to create communities of writers, readers, and critics are popping up all the time.  They are important. They work — my post of a piece on Scalzi’s Whatever blog, as part of his Big Idea series drove Amazon sales and other blog interest.

But it’s a really big blog that gets 10,000 hits a day.  Only a small handful can hope to get 100,000.  A decent newspaper in a moderate metro area used to do that every day — in quite recent memory.

And of course, mere numbers only tell a part of the story.  Consider, for example the audience partitioning that goes on in the web is another impediment to permitting a book to find that part of its audience that doesn’t know yet that they might be interested in, say, a story about a scientist-cop whose detective career illuminates the birth of the modern idea of money. (If that describes you, here is the inevitable plug: you can find it at  AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound and  across the pond at Amazon.co.ukWaterstonesBlackwellsBorders, and John Smith & Son — not to mention electronically Amazon’s Kindle store.)

So the thought to consider, in all this doom and gloom, is what, if anything, can be done to make up for the gap left by the MSM abandonment of serious books as an essential beat in cultural journalism.

I have some ideas — as do my co-presenters…all to be discussed, I hope, in tomorrow’s session. From thence, to more bloggy meanderings.

*There is one type of venue that is new and that can do enormous good for a book: the non-book oriented avidly followed TV show.  The gold standard now for book publicity is a gig on The Daily Show, or Colbert, or — and happy indeed are the happy few who achieve this for non-fiction trade book — Oprah.  But we are talking a few dozen books at most in any given year, single digits of which would be science or history-of-science works.  So for purposes of this discussion, hope for the best, and prepare for an acceptable alternative.

Image:  Norman Rockwell, “Fact and Fiction,” 1917

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2 Comments on “Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) no number quick update on blogs and books…”

  1. Jim Bales Says:

    Tom,

    Much to think about here. A couple of data points.

    As of early 2000, the top 25 newspapers had paid circulations between 340,000 (Atlanta Constitution) and 1,800,000 (WSJ). Four were over 1,000,000 (WSJ, USA Today, LAT, NYT) and five had Sunday circulation over 1,000,000 (WSJ, USA Today, LAT, NYT, WaPo, Chi. Trib.).

    As of this month,the top 25 blogs all had average daily traffic between just under 10,000 and over 275,000 (I got daily by dividing the monthly visits by 30).

    Some comments:

    * Of the list of the top 25 papers, I recognized the names of 21.. Of the top 25 blogs, I recognized the names of nine.

    * I never subscribed to more than one paper at any time in my adult life. I routinely follow 7-15 blogs.

    * When I subscribed to a newspaper (that ended in 2004), I read only a small fraction of the paper. So, even if you *got* a review in my paper, the odds are reasonably high that I still would not have read it. In contrast, for the blogs I follow, I read essentially all posts. And, if the comment threads are typically short (i.e., less than 15-20 comments on average), I will read all of the comments.

    So, I would note that the blogs are (in some sense) a stronger, more concentrated, communication channel than papers.

    This is perhaps unsurprising, as blogs are selected because of interest, whereas geography plays a major role in selecting a newspaper. The “big blog” with 10,000 hits may be reaching the 10,000 who want to buy your book, as opposed to the paper with 1,000,000 readers, 99% of whom will never buy your book.

    The other question is what will “books” sell for in this new market? If a book is only published electronically would it cost to make? (You don’t need printers, but you still need authors, editors, copy-editors, and someone doing page layout.)

    If, for example, I found Levenson and (say) P Z Myers both extolling a particular e-book as a “must read”, I would drop $4-5 without any thought, $8-10 with a bit thought, but $15-20 would require significant consideration.

    So, one potential future has decent sales because the word gets out through highly directed channels to exactly to pool of potential customers you seek. Then, publishing continues and authors continue to make a shekel. What is lost is the ability to affect the broader public, outside of the subset that was already interested in the general topic of the work.

    May the panel be lively, thought-provoking, and exciting!
    Jim

  2. Jim Bales Says:

    Typos:

    1) WSJ has no sunday edition! The 5 with > 1,000,000 Sunday circulation were: USA Today, LAT, NYT, WaPo, Chi. Trib.

    2) “If a book is only published electronically would it cost to make?” should read “If a book is only published electronically, what would be the cost to produce it?”

    3) The closing paragraph should include lower cost to the consumer as a factor in maintaing (or even growing) book sales.

    best,
    Jim


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