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.

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ERIN HOOVER is a volunteer for VIDA, the national nonprofit organization founded to celebrate and encourage the critical reception of women's writing, and the former co-director of Late Night Library. She is also a poet living in Tallahassee, Florida, where she is a Ph.D. student in Florida State University's Creative Writing Program.

12 responses to “Recording on Two Tracks”

  1. Good post about a topic I am recently absorbed with myself (http://briancastner.com/2012/03/13/curators-abound/). I count myself lucky: I got a book deal, and the considerable weight of a publisher’s publicity department behind me. But as a new author, my first inclination was to go to my local indie bookstore, make friends with the “curators,” start to network, meet other authors in the area, attend their sparse readings, and be the kind of literary supporter I wish more other people were. If I’m not going to do it, who is?

  2. Erin Hoover says:

    Hi Brian, thanks for the link. I’m especially interested in what you have to say here: “If Google is Amazon, in our book industry analogy, then the independent bookstore is every speciality site that you choose to trust instead. Contrary to indies, though, each of those speciality sites is launching a splashy IPO, making money off of average people doing the footwork. We are all curators now.”

    I agree that indie bookstores play a tremendous role in getting good books into people’s hands. But I also believe that we’re all waiting for online curation/recommendation institutions to emerge to do that work as well. I am not talking about the for-profit specialty site, but an entity that is not-for-profit, carefully produced and with an eye towards quality of opinion. For me, this would look like a combination of the literary review and a smart social media site (so, like Goodreads, but not). It would be an entity founded and driven by writers and not venture capitalists. Late Night Library isn’t exactly that — we are closer to a writer-run publicity engine — but we’d certainly be on board with it.

    • Thanks for commenting back – I could talk about stuff like this for hours. Its the meta view of a life of writing, the fringe social component of an otherwise solitary activity.

      A combination of smart social media and quality literary review? I’m afraid the two may be diametrically opposed. Social media is about democracy, access, and letting everyone have their say. Sharp, witty lit critique is not as prevelant as we all wish, perhaps. It must (at some level) be plucked individually from the vast sea of book reviews out there, and in that way, becomes a gatekeeper like any other (NYT, NPR Books, PW, any lit journal big or small that makes choices about what to pub). I struggle with the tension between traditional media and new social media a lot, and despite being relatively young (old Gen Y-er), find myself going back to the traditional sources I thought I’d shun. For example, I’m a huge hockey fan, and like to follow Twitter during Sabres games to get a faux play-by-play. Do I follow the old media beat hockey writers, or new fan-based bloggy folks and the cheering section in the 300’s? Except for one or two new bloggers, I find more insight from the old guard, which is the opposite of the promise of a democratic social media “we’re all reporters now” revolution.

      How does that get back to the books? There are a lot of gatekeepers, new and old media, in the continuum from Goodreads to Paris Review. I agree that one doesn’t seem to quite exist as you’d like, but how do you create it?

  3. […] “Recording on Two Tracks” at The Nervous Breakdown. This article by Erin Hoover asks a provocative and important question: Who do writers want in charge of literary curation? Click here to read. About Jane FriedmanJane Friedman is a full-time assistant professor of e-media at the University of Cincinnati, and the former publisher of Writer's Digest. She has spoken on writing, publishing, and the future of media at more than 200 events since 2001, including South by Southwest, BookExpo America, and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Jane's expertise has been featured widely, by sources such as NPR, PBS, Publishers Weekly, The Huffington Post, and GalleyCat. She also consults with a range of nonprofits, businesses, and creative professionals, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Creative Work Fund, and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. This entry was posted in New Media by Jane Friedman. Bookmark the permalink. /* […]

  4. I’d sure love to get a buzz going about my new memoir BRONTOSAURUS–about rape, but more about facing down trauma with in-your-face (in its face) humor and nakedness. Getting some good reviews, but I can barely hear the buzz. Kind of like a bee in a bush–four houses away.

  5. […] Serendipity strikes! Who better than writers to bring deserving writers to the attention of readers? This is the kind of article that encourages me when I’m chewing over the multiple complications of starting a book review site. Recording on Two Tracks […]

  6. I’m not certain (Jane can correct me if I’m wrong on this) but I am probably one of those “power-blogger review” sources – running a new site just for children’s digital book app reviews, Digital-Storytime.com. I loved the points made in this article, particularly about the role of new gatekeepers for literary works. When I began my site, given that my background is primarily in education, my hope was to simply provide a bit of ‘adult supervision’ for an app book market that seemed a bit too ‘wild west’ for my tastes … simply as a mom reading digital picture books to her child.

    Now that our site is growing so quickly, I realize it is filling a need that is not unique to my family. I would encourage writers, illustrators and anyone involved in creative storybook content for children to consider blogging or reviewing as part of their contribution to this market. The number of prominent sources for reviews of digital media, especially books & book apps, isn’t sufficient to provide reviews & promotion for every title, even every great title. As it gets easier to publish, we need more (and better) curation. Period.

    Readers are dying for authentic voices to recommend things in this marketplace and those that take up the task will have a great deal of influence. I grew up in a family of very talented visual artists, writers and creative types myself and find the opportunity to highlight great content from small, and often unknown sources, to be one of the great perks of running a popular review site. Authors & illustrators should definitely check our some of the new ‘curators’ … many of us come from obscure backgrounds ourselves but have loved literature from the sidelines before this … a whole world is opening for not just the writers/illustrators, but for the readers and a whole new generation of ‘influencers’.

    My advice is simple. Be part of it – any part. Just don’t wait to jump in …

  7. […] some argue a potential downside. Erin Hoover, over at The Nervous Breakdown, mentions a book called Program or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff taking from it that, […]

  8. Great article, Erin. The book, Program or Be Programmed, sounds interesting. The bit you extracted above, about authors and readers needing to understand that algorithms play a role in curating is really important. I wrote a bit about it (thanks to a prompt by your article) here.

    I ask in that article, rather rhetorically, but since I have this comment space here I’ll ask it: Don’t readers influence the algorithms that influence the readers? Program or Be Programmed may address this question. If so, let me know. The books sounds great.

    • ^Sorry for the above HTML mishap. Would the mods mind correcting?

    • Erin Hoover says:

      Caleb: thanks for raising this point. Program or Be Programmed is more about the way the Internet is changing social interactions than Amazon and its algorithms, but it also looks at some of the assumptions built into new media, down to the fact that digital technology is based on the binary choice between 1’s and 0’s. While it may be helpful to know what books people with like buying tendencies purchase, that doesn’t mean those are the books I’m looking for right now. More disturbing: when the algorithm will only recommend what’s already popular, books that have already sold sell more, and others get left behind. Just because someone buys a book doesn’t mean it’s a good book — you know? My goal with Late Night Library is to start a conversation about debut books that I think are good, even if they’re not necessarily the winners in that game. I want curation that accommodates nuance.

      I liked what you had to say here: “We must no longer align ourselves to either a culture of literary consumption or literary creation. Instead, we must meld the two and embrace literary community.” I think we’re making a similar point. Do you write? Then talk about books. If we’re not having these conversations ourselves, we can’t really complain that literature is marginalized. Thanks for making it.

  9. Titus says:

    Truly, these online method machines can be a smart way to learn the game
    and earn it.

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