Friday, June 6, 2008

Homegrown Critics

by guest blogger Thomas Maltman
author of The Night Birds

Last year newspapers crowed when the Atlanta Journal Constitution, one of the nation’s biggest newspapers, laid off their longtime book critic. It was just the beginning of bad times for the professional critics. The LA Times folded their separate Sunday book section into the back pages of “Entertainment” and other newspaper slimmed down articles and reviews on books or did away with them all together.

What was happening? Was this all part of another dire trend in declining literacy? Did this have something to do with statistics showing less and less people read novels every year? Was this foreshadowing the end of books all together, some alarmists wondered, as books were replaced by video games, DVDs, and other forms of cheap and easy entertainment?

No. While it’s true that are less readers out there today, with over a quarter of Americans not having cracked open a single book last year, the truth is book sales are up. The humble book is here to stay. Ask any passionate reader out there if a movie can match the experience of a good novel. Books transport us to far world, take us into the minds of fascinating people, and conjure adventures for our ordinary lives. Books are irreplaceable.

What it does signal is a diminished role of the professional critic. If newspapers are cutting back, how does an author get the word out there about the book they just spent three years writing? How do readers find out information about books before they shell out their dollars for the latest hardcover?

Fellow readers of Bev’s blog, I submit the future of networking for booklovers. There are three major sites online that connect likeminded readers and provide insightful commentary about the latest publication. Each of these sites brings us information about books while also allowing the viewer to peruse the shelves of strangers. You get a peek into what other people are reading and their innermost thoughts about the books of their lives.

Let’s start with

This is my favorite of the online review sites. It’s often called “Facebook” for booklovers. It’s a way to find out what normal muggles are reading out there, the very best in books. The format is visually appealing and very easy to use.

Library thing advertises 27 million books catalogued by its readers. Purists favor this site, but I find it a little snooty for my own tastes. Professional librarians tend to use this site, since it provides excellent organizational and cataloguing tools.

Lastly, there’s

Shelfari is cool and hip, but has far less users than Goodreads and Librarything. What it has that the others don’t is a visual flair and a snazzy format. It’s a good site, but not the preferred choice by book bloggers.

Please don’t get me wrong. None of these sites can ever fully replace a professional critic. None of these sites can replace the wicked delight of opening The New York Times to read the latest acid-tinged book review from Michiko Kakutani. (I hope never to be on the receiving end of one of these reviews!) Authors need book critics. It’s one of the best ways we earn our street cred! Had The Night Birds not been reviewed in places like The Boston Globe or Denver Post it’s likely it would never have won any of the national awards it did. That newspapers are cutting back coverage of books should concern us. (See a recent article in Salon about this subject: What I’m saying here is don’t be alarmed. Even in an age of vanishing professional critics the books will survive. Blogging and sites like the above give the power where the power should rest—to the reader.

Or, you could always ask Bev! She knows her readers and can always find a book to help you wile away the dog days of summer. One the best resources to find out about books is right on New York Avenue at a place called LaDeDa. Stop in for an iced chai and chat about books with a person in the know!

That's all from The Night Birds!

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