Return of the book review, Part I: What's a book?

For many people, it's whatever they want it to be. Photo: composite by author

WASHINGTON, February 25, 2012 – As occasionally happens with online columns, our book review section has gone quiet lately, not, we suspect, due to lack of interest but due to two very different factors instead. 

First and most obvious, book reviewing can be quite a slog for a writer. Not only do you have to read a book. You have to read it critically, and, whether you like it or not, you have to explain why in a reasonably rational manner. After all, someone might buy this book at your recommendation. What if it was a dog? A reviewer can very quickly lose traction by not paying attention to the details a reader will care about. So, reading the book, writing the review, and backing up your opinion takes a lot of time, and there are other things to do. Which is why reviewers burn out.

Second, and simultaneously more obvious and more subtle, is the fact that increasingly, no one really knows what a “book” is. Is it something originally issued in hardcover? Can it be originally issued in paperback and still be legit? Or, what if what someone calls a book never appears in a paper copy at all? What if it’s an e-book? Making matters worse, is it any kind of book at all if it’s not published in some way, shape, or form by a “recognized” generally New York-based publisher like Random House (which we’ve just heard was sold to a Euro-conglomerate anyway)? What if it’s—gasp—self-published? We’re not supposed to take those seriously, right, because they used to be called “vanity” books. Or were they, or are they? 

It’s all a mess, and it’s no wonder that increasing numbers of the once-flourishing tribe of book reviews have vanished over the past decade. Even the newspapers don’t cover books the way they once did, and those publications remaining that actually do review books usually vet them on the basis, hidden or not, of their right-wing or left-wing politics. 

We hope there’s a better way to approach the now very protean industry of book publishing, so we’ll trot it out here. We’re going to invite a variety of reader-writers to post reviews here not only to get things going but to make sure that we don’t take on one or two columnists who promptly burn out with the work overload. We’re also going to open things up within reason, by reviewing long books, short books, hardcovers, softcovers, e-books, and self-published books—although this latter category we’ll be a bit more choosy about.

Self-publishing has had a bad reputation over the years except for the occasionally self-published scientific monograph which often can never find a commercial publisher, given the minute, specialized area of some research disciplines. It’s usually been assumed that self-published books are published that way because no commercial publisher is interested in them. That may have been and may still be true, but it also doesn’t mean that a self-published book is a bad one. 

The commercial publishing business’ Achilles heel in the 21st century is quite simply its inability to match its publishing speed to the speed of current events. Commercial publishers typically take anywhere from one two three years, sometimes more, between manuscript submission and publication. Any book based on contemporary science or contemporary politics, say, will have lost its entire potential readership during that time. 

An additional problem with the commercial route has also become its commercial enslavement to best sellerdom. Increasingly, it’s pointless for a new or even a moderately well-known writer to submit to these commercial publishers. After making a prospective author wait for one or two years for a response—which may never actually be forthcoming—the new book is likely to get rejected anyway, most likely because the author didn’t have friends on staff. It’s a ridiculous way to run a business but there it goes. 

We could go on, but what’s the point? Most self-published books today—particularly in the category of novels and poetry—are, in fact, vanity publications and a waste of time for both reading and reviewing. However, increasing numbers of nonfiction books that have significant merit at least start out as self-published, gradually attracting more and more attention as more readers discover them. We’d like to selectively take a look at promising e-books and see if we can find the ones worth looking at. 

Finally, somewhat in synch with the world of books, the world of magazines is undergoing a similar fate of creative destruction. Readers are no doubt already familiar with the decline and fall of Newsweek. But other popular titles fell before it, and others will follow—among them, Time, we predict. Concurrently, however, e-magazines and what are or used to be called blogs are ascendant. Containing varying qualities of content, these frequently up-to-the-minute e-publications are increasingly what people are reading for daily and in-depth information, ranging from politics to recipes that were once the province of cookbooks alone.

In short, when it comes to “The Written Word,” our old but perhaps accidentally misleading column title, there are a lot more things to review these days than just books. And we’re going to need some help—i.e., some writers to help us do this. We expect to find a goodly number of volunteers among our regular WTC columnists, nearly all of whom are voracious readers to begin with. But we suspect there are good potential reviewers among our readers, too, and we’d like to find a few of them to work with us as well. 

NEXT: The art of reviewing and what we’d like to see.


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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