A year ago, Paul Martone and I began Late Night Library‘s podcast to talk about debut fiction and poetry. By founding an online community specifically focused on conversations about first books, Late Night Library wanted to counter a system that sidelines writers with little name recognition and few promotional resources, in many cases without even reading what they’ve published.
We soon found that seeking out debut authors presented a special challenge—even for the rare reader who is looking for them. After watching the shelf space devoted to poetry in bookstores diminish year after year, I thought the Internet had made hard-to-find titles more available to the average book buyer. Turns out that’s only if you already know what you want. I like Timothy Donnelly and Matthew Dickman, but I wasn’t going to select anybody in the New Yorker for a podcast about books that deserve more attention, no matter how many times they showed up under “You might also like” on Amazon. I began to wonder how much authentic choice I really had as a reader, when all I had to choose from were books selected for me by an algorithm.
Around the same time, I was reading Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed. Rushkoff suggests that if we don’t learn to program software, we risk allowing those who do to make critical choices that influence the ideas we come across. I’m not suggesting that all writers learn to write algorithms for Amazon, but I do believe that the most important question writers should be asking ourselves now is who we want in charge of literary curation.
Bookstores and the people who run them continue to serve an invaluable function in helping readers discover new books. But plenty of readers don’t buy books in person anymore, at least not exclusively. We all remember the outcry a few months ago when Amazon offered a discount to readers who scanned UPC codes using its Price Check App, and then bought the book from Amazon instead of their local store. What emerged for me in that debate was the heavy lifting brick-and-mortar stores have traditionally done to market books to readers and to create a shared culture around reading. I’m not suggesting that all writers open bookstores, either, but when brick-and-mortar stores close, readers must increasingly look for online replacements not only to buy books, but more importantly, for the sense of literary community they used to represent.
I asked Jane Friedman, a former publishing and media executive who writes about e-media on her blog, Being Human at Electric Speed, where she thought literary communities were located now. I suggested the publishing centers of New York (where I live) or MFA programs (where I studied). “A community that surrounds writers? It’s definitely not connected to New York publishing or universities, that’s for sure,” she said. “The communities that I see growing in a meaningful way and that deserve the moniker ‘community’ are predominantly online and usually have a niche or genre focus.”
Book reviews have also had to migrate online as mainstream print media devote less space to content or offer it on a subscription-only basis. “Blogs and literary websites have made reviewing more democratic and widespread,” the writer Jim Shepard told me. “[This has been] a saving thing, as the amount of space that newspapers and magazines have devoted to literary reviewing has radically diminished.”
By and large, readers seem to be unfazed by seeing the usual gatekeeping institutions go. Friedman has noted that power-blogger reviews and user-generated reviews (e.g., on Amazon or Goodreads) can be more influential than the traditional media review. As with all things democratic, this is both inspiring and worrisome. “Opening up the world of book talk to a larger group of readers than ever before is a big bonus,” said Los Angeles Review of Books editor Tom Lutz. “The downside is the enormous amount of flotsam and jetsam interfering with a good swim.”
Late Night Library makes the case that writers should serve as gatekeepers—or rather, gate openers—by taking an active role in creating an audience for books, and not only their own. Each podcast is guest hosted by other writers, whether they are just starting out or have already cultivated a wide audience. The first book we read for Late Night Library‘s podcast was Taste of Cherry by the poet Kara Candito. (Stay tuned: Kara will also host a podcast for Late Night Library in 2012.) “I appreciate that technology has decentralized publishing and destabilized literary hierarchies,” she told me. “We have more discourse than ever on poetry. Most [poets] know at least five people who have started or are in the process of starting an online journal.”
Writers serving as public-facing readers and avid book promoters have the potential to be the latest points on a continuum begun with the century-old arts-and-crafts movement. But right now literary reviews, blogs, and podcasts produced by writers mostly operate in silos; there does not seem to be anything resembling a cohesive shift in thinking about the writer-as-literary-advocate. When I asked Stephanie Sauer of Copilot Press what she would like to see, she suggested: “Greater collaboration among writers, small presses, and independent venues. Historically speaking, these alliances have provided some of the most fertile ground for cultural production. They allow us to reach readers we might not have access to otherwise.”
Benjamin Samuel, Electric Literature‘s online editor, reinforced my thinking on the importance of creating visibility for authors that we feel are saying something original and valuable. “Discoverability is becoming a major issue for publishers and writers, and curation is becoming more important to readers. It seems like we’re all focusing more on establishing brands, reputations, and direct relationships.” He added, “New platforms can help you reach readers wherever or however they want to read. However, it’s not just about being available; first you have to get noticed and then you have to deliver. People notice innovation, but they’ll continue to pay attention if they believe in what you’re selling.”
Creating a strong brand and using new platforms to reach consumers are tried-and-true marketing strategies for any product that should be used in the service of books. Another (perhaps more transformative) strategy that could be employed in tandem by writers: be the audience you want to see. If the imperative for writers to support other writers became embedded in our way of thinking and talking about books, it’s possible that new institutions would emerge to offset the mainstream culture that marginalizes literature.
Online media is an easily accessible tool to be used in this service. The beauty of podcasting in particular is that it creates a space for literal conversations about books. According to TNB founding editor Brad Listi, host of the author interview podcast Other People, “My goal with the show is to make the conversations as candid and intimate and immediate as possible. I’m interested in who these authors are professionally, but I’m more interested in who they are as people. What makes them tick. What they’ve overcome. What they hope for. What they fear. All that stuff. That’s what the show is about.”
Almost every aspect of book sales and promotion has either moved or is in the process of moving to the Internet. So has the community that surrounds and supports literature. If writers believe that our opinions about books carry weight—as opposed to Amazon’s algorithm or the diminishing amount of space for reviews in print—then the Internet is our ticket to get worthy titles in front of more readers. When I asked the writer Steve Almond how he thought writers could best support other writers, he suggested: “Reading and advocating reading. Stop talking about movies and TV shows. Talk about books. Talk about characters. Talk about sentences.” I would add: “Do it in person. Do it online.” Getting potential readers to pick up a book by an unfamiliar author has always been difficult, and is harder still in a crowded environment laced with non-literary distractions. But writers also have powerful new tools to be advocates for each other’s books, if we choose to use them.