- The Washington Times - Friday, August 10, 2007

Bibliophiles have grown alarmed over the past few months as newspapers across the country, including the Los Angeles Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, cut their book coverage. Much of the hand-wringing has taken place on the many literary blogs that follow publishing news along with the latest releases.

So when Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda took a swipe at bloggers in a recent post on Critical Mass, the National Book Critics Circle’s blog, it set off something of a firestorm.

“If you were an author,” Mr. Dirda wrote, “would you want your book reviewed in The Washington Post and The New York Review of Books — or on a website written by someone who uses the moniker NovelGobbler or Biografiend?”

But had the eminent critic set up a false dichotomy? After all, some authors wouldn’t have received a review in a big paper at all if it hadn’t been for the attentions of the literary bloggers at whom Mr. Dirda pokes fun.

Scarlett Thomas’ “The End of Mr. Y” is one title that might have flown under the radar of the major print book review sections. London’s Daily Telegraph noted that when released in America late last year, the British novel “caused something of a sensation, particularly among internet critics.”

Gregory Henry, a publicist with Harcourt, remembered that Miss Thomas’ first book with the house got rave reviews in the blogosphere. The problem was how to get people to read her second. “Fiction is always more difficult to get reviews for than nonfiction,” Mr. Henry says.

“As the pub date for ‘The End of Mr. Y’ came and went in October 2006, I decided with the approval of the publicity director here to send an e-mail blast about the book to our list of blogger reviewers,” Mr. Henry recalls. “My thinking was that, since Scarlett’s book was somewhat unusual — with its references to Derrida, mouse gods, time travel, and alternate realities — the Internet universe might really respond to it.”

They did. Reviews appeared immediately on many of the bigger blogs, followed by more mainstream venues. Those include the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer — but not The Washington Post.

The Inquirer review was written by Mark Sarvas, who runs the influential lit blog the Elegant Variation. He mentions other titles that first hit it big online. “ ’Home Land’ by Sam Lipsyte was probably the first case of a book really going viral among the blogs, and in an organic way — there was no concerted effort to focus on it,” he says. “Blogs were also early enthusiasts for Joshua Ferris’ debut novel ‘Then We Came to the End,’ which subsequently received a front page review in the New York Times Book Review.”

Mr. Sarvas emphasizes that literary bloggers are a diverse bunch, with different tastes and interests. But what many share in common is a desire to take up books ignored by the mainstream media. That’s why he helped found the Litblog Co-Op, which offers “Read This!” titles four times a year. He and about 20 other bloggers pick an overlooked contemporary literary novel each season — summer’s is Nicola Griffith’s “Always” — and discuss it on the Web site along with its author.

He’s thought just as seriously about what he wants to accomplish as any newspaper book editor.

“You’ve got to keep that book in the public eye,” he says. The titles that get into the coveted “Recommended” sidebar on his Web site are not books he merely likes, but those he loves. Once there, “it stays up for a long time and begins to impress itself on repeat visitors,” Mr. Sarvas explains. He will soon dedicate an entire week of posts to a single book for the same purpose.

Blogs don’t replace newspapers, he believes, but can offer something different.

“Most blogs aren’t dealing with restrictions of space or a requirement to be timely, so we’ve got more flexibility to follow our nose and champion the titles that really grab us,” Mr. Sarvas says. “Or we can go back and appreciate a title we may have missed the first time around.”

Literary bloggers aren’t just sitting around their basements in their pajamas — as author Richard Ford implied recently in the New York Times. Some do original reporting.

Edward Champion, who runs the popular Return of the Reluctant blog and writes for various newspapers, is a good example. Active in the Litblog Co-Op project, he also produces the Bat Segundo Show literary podcasts, which have featured interviews with authors such as John Updike, Francine Prose and Martin Amis, as well as lesser-known names. Mr. Champion is also not afraid to pick up the phone once in a while.

“When I heard a horrible rumor that Octavia Butler — a pioneering African-American science fiction author — had died, I was the person to call the Kings County Medical Examiner’s office and confirm her death, which nobody had thought to do,” he says.

He agrees that litblogs can move books. “When ‘Firmin’ was selected as the Litblog Co-Op Read This! choice, Coffee House Press had such confidence in us that the book entered into a second printing,” he recalls.

Litblogs can have such an impact because those reading them care passionately about books. Not every reader of the Los Angeles Times reads its book section, let alone regularly buys novels. But every reader of the Elegant Variation and the Return of the Reluctant does.

“Book publicists and marketers have come to realize that blogs represent an opportunity to introduce their wares to highly targeted audiences,” notes Ron Hogan, who is co-editor of the hub for industry news, Mediabistro’s GalleyCat.

“There are plenty of authors from J.K. Rowling to John Updike who are guaranteed ample reviews and press, whereas the publicist of a smaller title or unknown author … is more likely to find a receptive audience in blogs,” Mr. Sarvas says. “And as our influence continues to grow, publicists and authors will increasingly see the value in talking directly to their readers.”

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