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Jan. 18, 2012

Vol. 112, No. 6


The new tastemakers

Few newspapers review books these days. So who does?

By Christopher Shea ’91
Published in the January 18, 2012, issue

Fortunately, Mustich and A Common Reader had an influential fan and longtime acquaintance, the then-CEO of Barnes & Noble, Steve Riggio, who recruited Mustich to start an online review. Mustich says that his marching orders were refreshingly non-bottom-line-oriented: “Create a space,” Riggio told him, “where you or I would go to find something interesting.” It debuted in 2007.

N. Heller McAlpin ’77, a longtime book reviewer who has watched with trepidation as the places she writes for slashed staff and space, says the Review’s appearance was most welcome. “When word got out, it was every critic’s dream to have a site for such intelligent reviews,” she says. Critics can write reasonably long (1,000 words or so), and there are features like “Five Books” on a theme, interviews, and a roundup of literary events on that day’s date in history.

Mustich won’t discuss traffic or sales figures, but says that when the Review sends out its weekly emails highlighting new reviews, sales for even noncommercial books routinely leap into the top 50 on “It’s clear that people are treating the emails like they used to treat the Sunday book-review section, circling books and deciding what to buy,” he says.

Some observers think that so-called “crowdsourcing” will replace the traditional review. Are not the opinions of hundreds of readers, on or, at least as valuable as the squib of a critic in your local newspaper or favorite magazine? Michael Luca, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, has studied online reviews of restaurants and books, and he has some doubts about that hypothesis. Restaurant reviews do, in fact, seem to bring fresh efficiency to a confusing market, his research suggests: Good restaurants get discovered earlier and bad ones close more quickly. “But people generally agree which restaurants are good, at least within a category,” Luca says. Preliminary work he has done on book reviews finds that books that win literary prizes — to take one example — tend to get lower ratings from ordinary readers than from professional critics. Crowdsourcing may identify the most broadly popular works, but it’s less likely to identify works of great merit that puzzle or turn off a significant minority.

Goodreads attacks that problem in part by encouraging people to share book recommendations online, not just with their friends, but also with strangers who share similar literary tastes. The average user has 140 books on his or her ­virtual shelf, which can be organized by category, and there are 145 million book ratings overall. The approach is popular, but in September, the company also rolled out a book-recommendation algorithm, partly modeled on Netflix’s formula for movies, to provide suggestions based on a user’s tastes. It’s for people who want recommendations right now, “without doing a lot of work,” says Kyusik Chung, Goodreads’ vice president of business development.

Goodreads is for-profit — “Our main business model is connecting people with books and getting the marketing dollars in the middle,” Chung says. Nonprofit book-review sources offer another alternative, but they, too, are affected by the money woes facing traditional media. NPR’s attempt to pick up the slack in book coverage has only one-and-a-half positions devoted to books, although reporters and editors from on-air shows also contribute. Matazzoni, the senior producer, acknowledges “a continuing sticky economic situation.” The Los Angeles Review of Books relies on the Univer­sity of California, Riverside for office space — Tom Lutz, a ­creative writing professor there, is editor-in-chief — and is seeking donors in order to reach its goal of publishing a print version in early 2012. It aspires to be a West-Coast-inflected variation on The New York Review of Books, with a mix of reviews and essays.

“In a perfect world, we would be ‘extra,’ in the way people read The New York Times Book Review and then read a longer or more academic or more critical take in The New York Review of Books,” says Evan Kindley, The Los Angeles Review’s managing editor and a graduate student in Prince­ton’s English department. “But the thing that is up in the air is whether newspapers are even going to be a part of it.”

Talk about periodicals and online book reviews omits one important way that people get introduced to new books: bookstores themselves. “Bookstores are a very underappreciated mechanism of book discovery,” says Michael Norris, a senior analyst with Simba Information, a consultant to media and publishing companies. In a recent survey of 100-plus independent stores, Norris says, 40 percent reported that former customers of theirs return to browse “often” or “very often” but leave to buy online. “It goes beyond independent bookstores stomping their feet in disgust,” he says. “It’s a pending crisis in the publishing industry because you have the entities who are paying for the showrooms not getting a piece of the action when the sale is made.”

Independent stores are fighting back, partnering with Google, for example, which gives them a percentage of e-book online sales, and deploying print-on-demand machines, which give instant access to some back titles. They also are playing up a role they’ve always served: providing personalized recommendations. Politics and Prose, in Washington, D.C., goes so far as to sell a “concierge” service, through which subscribers each month get a book that has been handpicked by a staff member. But Lissa Muscatine, co-owner of the store and a former top aide to Hillary Clinton, cautions against making too much of that special offering. “Bookstores themselves are a concierge service,” she says.

Though he now runs an online book-review site, Mustich says there always will be a place for the serendipitous discovery that physical bookstores enable. “Bookstores are a place where people go not just to find a new book, or an old book, but to have a fundamental conversation with themselves about who they are and who they aspire to be,” he says.

If you’re looking for a less existential way to find a good read, however, Mustich will be providing yet another option soon: He’s working on a book, due out in 2013, titled 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.

Christopher Shea ’91 writes The Wall Street Journal’s Ideas Market blog and Week in Ideas column.

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CURRENT ISSUE: Jan. 18, 2012