Observing Change

In Sunday's Observer it was announced that the long serving literary editor, Robert McCrum, was to stand down. He talks about how publishing has changed, how the clubby atmosphere of yesteryear has given way to the blazing lights of the corporate future. In ten "chapters" he gives us some of the big changes and events of the past decade, from the emergence of writers like Zadie Smith to the increasing importance of the literary festival. Of McCrum's ten great changes three are connected to the internet: Amazon, the growth of blogging and the Kindle. Each represents a separate strand of the multiple connections between publishing and the web, but each succinctly emphasizes how fully entwined they have become.

Upon reading the piece Sara sent the following dispatch from her holiday:

"Overall this is a very thought-provoking and thorough overview, but I think his observations on the digital side of things are shallow - and plain wrong in places.

For example - the bit about authors finding their voices but not an audience. It misses the point entirely that the Web can transform and accelerate the word-of-mouth phenomenon. And that the web enables users to 'vote' what becomes popular - not just through organised schemes like Amazon's but generally - because of search engine algorithms and because of email forwarding and because of social networking etc etc.

Also I can't believe anyone is still talking about an iPod moment for books and I don't know who informed his statement that this is widely expected this autumn. Goes back to your hyping thing, Michael.

Basically he seems to say that digital is significant but then not say why. The big thing is marketing opportunities not downloads - and the fact that it this is no longer just a corporate push environment. That publishers need to engage where the conversation is going on between authors and readers. Do I sound like a stuck record?"

Which pretty much sums it up (and don't worry Sara, its not a stuck record situation!)

One thing that got me was McCrum's resurrection of the whole blogging debate. I always find it riles me when people bring up the whole "blogs vs. reviewing" thing. It just seems churlish, the last whine from an old monopoly worried that the fig leaf of "special insight" is about to drop away. "My view is that the Common Reader generates more heat than light" he writes. Book bloggers are aware of how they fit into an ecosystem of literary comment, but the literary pages seem to disdain any "amateur" effort.

However what makes a professional book reviewer? What qualities would fundamentally distinguish them from the amateur? Ok so there maybe distinctions and there are many fine book reviewers, but ultimately literary journalism is, I think, less objective and rigorously policed than it pretends in the blog debate. As someone who has experienced both blogging and the literary pages of a newspaper I would say there is space for both, without the mutual denigration and suspicion.