A few weeks ago, I spent a Saturday afternoon at the Children's Literary Cafe at the New York Public Library's new Children's Room. Pam Coughlan, Elizabeth Burns, Susan Thomsen and Anne Boles Levy (co-founder and director of The Cybils, who is unfortunately no longer blogging) led a fascinating panel on the Kidlitosphere and The Cybils. Moderated by SLJ blogger extraordinaire Elizabeth Bird, the four blogging powerhouses talked about everything from the creation of the Cybils to FTC limitations on advertisements in blogs.
Now, I'm always interested in thinking about how power shifts and influence is asserted, so when we began to discuss how bloggers have changed not only the book review process but the whole of the publishing process, I was intrigued. Fifteen years ago, the ladies said, publishers would have sent Advanced Reader's Copies (ARCs) of an upcoming title to all the known review sources (The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and so on and so forth), just as they do today. But, for the most part, that would have been it; a whole world of active bloggers didn't yet exist.
These days, bloggers have asserted themselves in a big way, and publicity departments take bloggers who review books more than seriously. The big-name review sources are great for reaching wide general audiences and especially for appealing to librarians. Nonetheless, really good bloggers often have their own groups of hundreds if not thousands of dedicated readers, and no publisher wants to miss the opportunity to reach that book-hungry crowd.
So bloggers can find themselves practically swimming in free review copies (major bonus), and publishers can benefit from the sort of word-of-mouth publicity that turns great books into major hits. The catch for publishers? Reviewers get to say whatever they want.
And so they have, to great effect. What I love about the power bloggers now wield in the book industry is that they can do far more than just trash a book; they can question it. And when enough bloggers question, somebody has to answer.
It was bloggers who first started questioning the review copies of Justine Larbalestier's Liar, wondering why the cover featured a white girl when the main character was clearly African-American. When Justine admitted that she was unhappy with the cover but that the house had refused to change it, posting her own powerful objection to the white-washing of titles in what is still, in many ways, an unequal industry, the battle took off.
Publishers and readers alike began to look for how race was addressed in the books they read. Cheryl Klein of Scholastic's Arthur A. Levine Books immediately posted her encouragement to writers dealing with issues of race, and updated her submission guidelines to encourage racially diverse submissions. Justine suggested that readers show the industry just how well covers featuring minority groups can sell by making an effort to buy at least one book featuring a person of color on its cover, and readers delivered. And everyone in the industry was reminded that book publishing no longer happens in some hidden room filled with the smells of ink and rust and paper where editors lurk and marketers plot their dastardly marketing plans (interns, of course, lurk in an even darker and more hidden room).
Justine's plea for readers to buy books featuring characters of color plays off of the power of the consumer, which is a strong force indeed. But the power of bloggers may even exceed it. Publishers are spending more money and more time attempting to appeal to reviewers -- a look at the flashy covers attached to review copies now but never present twenty years ago can show you that -- and they're looking to early reviewers to do more than generate blurbs. Because they see books before they even hit the market, bloggers can provide feedback that incites change in a book before it's ever released.
The best Justine might have hoped for, after her book's release, would have been a paperback reissue with a different cover. But bloggers saw the book before anyone else and made their opinions known; in response, Bloomsbury changed the cover of Liar.
My guess is that the power of bloggers will only grow as social media and e-publishing become more prominent in the industry. As bloggers test the limits of their power, publishers are beginning to realize that they have no choice but to be up-front about their practices. And the more we talk about what's going on behind publishing-house doors, the more the industry has to take our opinions into account.
So you can consider this an invitation, a wake-up call or a mission statement. What's bothering you right now? Is it the dearth of minority characters in fiction? Is it the infuriating absence of female writers on the Publisher's Weekly Top 10 Books of 2009 list? The antifeminist trend of glorified, disempowered female protagonists? Or perhaps the questionable motives of large publishers experimenting with new divisions and sources of income?
Whether you agree or disagree with those conflicts -- in fact, whatever issue gets you fired up, I hope you're being very vocal about it. What's more, I hope you're being vocal in a way that encourages discussion, sharing and, most of all, change. Because you have more power than you may know.