A test, this is only a test

Several weeks ago, during all of the furor over Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur -- you remember: I will show you fear in a handful of blogs -- Jessa Crispin on Bookslut derisively asked, have you ever read a blogger who claimed that the internet is the future? I haven't, either.

Sometimes one can't tell -- is she kidding? Well, she has claimed she doesn't read them. Actually, if you put a number of terms into a Google search -- future, old media, internet, print, decline, terms like that -- you'll get thousands of hits on Websites and blogs, all of them claiming more or less precisely this: Newsprint (and TV and Marconi wireless) might as well be just mud daubs on walls. We are the future now.

Many of these exultant prognostications are old enough, they were posted before the dot.com bust, that inconvenient intrusion of financial reality. But if you track the dates, you'll notice the crowing that "tomorrow belongs to me" barely paused and continues to this day.

Which led book/daddy to wonder: How will we know the (supposed) future is here?

Some of us are a little dimmer than others, you know. We're too busy trying to buy an iPhone to notice that the culture has been overthrown. But a possible test (or more likely, an impractical test) suggested itself while reading Sven Birkerts' latest thoughts on the future influence of book blogs -- in which he believes book reviewers may be on the "teetering balance" between the Old World and the New.

One of the consistent arguments of Webheads and bloggers (and of Andrew Keen, too, although expressed more as horror than as defiant exultation) is that the Web represents the defeat of the "gatekeepers" -- a kind of anti-Arnoldian apocalypse in which hierarchies of excellence are brought down and we have a multitudinous yammering about Anything We Ignorant Slobs Happen to Like.

If all of this is true -- if everyone will have access to the means of production (through print-on-demand books), if everyone will have access to the e-books themselves and no one needs editors or agents or critics or publishers or newspapers -- then surely, before the influence of book pages dies off completely, one sign of the Approaching Inevitablity would be a measurable shift in book sales. Right?


Book blogs are proliferating like alien mushrooms and all of Amazon's crappy amateur blurbs are democratizing taste -- so shouldn't we see a discernible change in what's selling? Supposedly, all of those books that editors and agents and critics have conspired to suppress or that they simply ignored or couldn't get around to reading, all of those books would now have a conduit to their rightful readership. And the Teeming Millions would have the books they've always craved but were prevented by condescending elitists.

Sooo ... can anyone point to such a trend? Before anyone does, it's worth taking a look at a couple of recent bestseller lists to be reminded of just how hodge-podgy egalitarian the list already is. How many books about cute damn dogs does the public really want?

At any rate, can the commercial success of a book (or books) be attributed to the influence of book blogs? Certainly, Amazon sales have helped perpetuate Amazon sales -- it has long been a phenomenon in bestsellerdom that big sales spark bigger sales. We know that some readers hop on to a bandwagon because everyone else is talking about it, ergo it must be important. Similarly, plenty of books about the internet have become big sellers. But that's probaby because, again, everyone wants to learn about this fearful new opportunity that all the smarties have been gabbing about -- rather than being proof that a real technorati readership has come to the fore.

And while we're at it: There have also been fairly nerdy books that have jumped out of their nerd-niches into relative mainstream attention (The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, How to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion). But can that be attributed to blogs or to the general geekification of public discussion? One could plausibly suggest, for instance, the rise of Comic Book Culture is a result of the Web, yet the success of major Hollywood movies in the '90s (and the economic dominance of baby boomer interests) could be the likelier culprits.

How, then, could we definitively establish this causal link between blogs and sales? Have a bunch of influential bloggers all tout a title chosen at random and see if there's any notable uptick? With the exception of The New York Times,, of course, not even print reviewers have been able to do that. If bloggers could, it would certainly demonstrate a major shift in clout -- if not literary judgment.

On this point, if someone has incontrovertible proof, book/daddy is perfectly happy to admit that the teetering balance has already teetered into the future, leaving him behind. I didn't notice because I was busy in the kitchen washing the cat.

Darn those stubborn coffee stains.

July 31, 2007 12:06 PM | | Comments (3)



On my site, a book is chosen for discussion each month. I have links up for visitors to buy it from Amazon and Abebooks, which usually turns into direct sales of 4-5 copies.

For some real blog & book data, you could try Kevin Smokler, who used to organize virtual book tours.

Excellent! Our first report from the field -- although with somewhat inconclusive results. Now, the rest of you need to get back to your bunsen burners, flow charts and daily reports. More empirical evidence!

Actually, the most powerful force to sell anything -- books, movie tickets, theater seats -- is word of mouth. The most any critic could hope for -- in the way of affecting box office -- is kickstarting interest in something that doesn't already have $80 million in corporate advertising pushing it on its opening weekend.

"Have a bunch of influential bloggers all tout a title chosen at random and see if there's any notable uptick?"

That is, in essence, what the mission of the Litblog Co-op is. I was only a member for a couple of rounds but my understanding is that the attention they gave Sam Savage's FIRMIN allowed Coffee House Press to reprint the book (and might well have led to it finaling for a major "emerging writers" type award given by Barnes & Noble, plus extra co-op at Borders, etc.) Sam Lipsyte's HOME LAND also had something of a grassroots blogger campaign, though it was reviewed in the mainstream media so the blog effect can't be quantified as well.

One book, however, that *was* attributed to blog clout when it clearly was not was Diane Setterfield's THE THIRTEENTH TALE. Being picked as B&N's first nationwide store pick will trump bloggers any day and every day.


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Reviewing the state of reviewing


9/11 as a novel: Why?


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The disappearing book pages:  

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Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why



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