Juliet Cook reads with the TypewriterGirls Poetry Cabaret (downtown Pittsburgh), June 25, 2010
Continued thoughts from yesterday's post on small press reading series: What if a city's lit scene hosted a book blog specifically dedicated to reviewing the books of authors coming into town for upcoming readings?
Let me back up. There's two factors that lead me to this idea:
1.) Yesterday I wrote some do's and don'ts of running (or participating in) a reading. I talked about some things that reading series hosts can do to maximize the positive experience of visiting writers (see #2 on this list). Since we can try our best to cultivate a growing audience for our reading series, but can't ultimately control how many people show up or what event is competing with the reading that particular night, I talked about other things we can do to ensure that the out-of-town author gets to meet other cool writers, or gets publicity or feedback for their new book. I mean, you don't want there to be an unusually low turnout that night and then have a dud audience be the visiting writer's entire memory of both your city and your reading series, right?
2.) I am currently engaged in booking readings and hustling reviews for an author I just published. I'm really excited about the book, but it's the poet's debut collection and no one's heard of him. Every pitch I make is an uphill battle, a competition for someone's time, a bookstore's shelf space, a reading series' slots, and the dwindling column inches dedicated to newspapers' book reviews. After booking the author a reading in Baltimore, I wrote to one colleague in that city to ask for suggestions of local reviewers and book bloggers. He wrote me back with a list of people to try, but gave a familiar warning: Most book reviewers are backed up on such requests.
We've all been reading, of course, about book review sections getting cut or drastically reduced from newspapers and magazines. But even with all the talk about print books turning into e-books, and bookstores large and small having serious struggles, the fact remains that more titles are being published each year. So the demand for book reviews should being rising, not diminishing.
So, I'm proposing the following in my current city of Pittsburgh, and suggesting that other cities consider such a model:
A book blog that would be dedicated to publicizing upcoming readings, especially to reviewing the new books by out-of-town authors slated to read in Pittsburgh soon. So that no one person would be taxed for time, I would be interested in setting up such a blog only after I gathered a critical mass of volunteers. Say, 15 or 20 people whom I thought were solid reviewers, who could be called on to review the next writer, with a rotation insuring that no one had to write a review too often. These reviews would be unpaid, which is too bad. Traditionally, newspapers and magazines have paid for book reviews, and I hate to replace a paid writing gig with an unpaid one. Frankly, I think the amount of unpaid work that goes into the small press is a bit shameful. Sure, we love what we do, but it does take enormous amounts of time and labor, and meanwhile, the rent marches on. If anyone has a suggestion of how to generate a fund to pay reviewers even a token amount, please use the comment section.
Further, the reviews would be positive. The idea would be to generate an audience for writers coming to town, so the reviewers should answer the question (among others): Who would like this book? Who is the intended audience for this book? If the reviewer didn't like the assigned book, s/he would have the option to interview the writer instead, or to not review the book. I wouldn't advocate lying or turning into a sycophant just for the blog, but rather trying to generate an audience and letting the audience decide for themselves what they thought of the writer. (Some writers, of course, give a great show but read very differently on the page.)
When time allowed, interviews could run in addition to reviews. Authors would be asked for JPEGs of their book covers and author photos.
Would local authors be reviewed or interviewed? Maybe. I don't mean to prioritize out-of-town authors over Pittsburgh writers, but I would want to avoid reviewers hyping their friends, over-taxing the volunteer reviewers, constant requests from local writers, and the inevitable scenario of disappointing people often. It might be best to just leave out all those scenarios by confining the blog to reviewing writers coming from outside of Pittsburgh. Or, perhaps a compromise could be running interviews with local writers, with questions asked by other local writers.
I think that interaction and dialogue between writers from different cities is crucial to the health of any one city's literary scene: Scenes that get too provincial, without new blood or fresh air, are in danger of becoming stagnant. A blog like this could add to such a dialogue. Maybe in a perfect scenario, Pittsburgh writers could be reviewed or interviewed by out-of-town writers instead of local-on-local. But that aspect would involve a significant addition of work and organization, so it might be better to start with a more simple formula.
What do you think?