Book Expo and the “Crisis” in Book Reviewing

This year I went to Book Expo for the second time. The first time was a few years ago. I attended as a blogger and, back then, the conference was much more blogger friendly. There was even a Blogger Con held on the first day. This year, the difference was palpable. I found this especially true of one of the panels I attended. To be fair, I didn’t attend any panels last time that were not part of Blogger Con. But this was the first panel I attended this year, and it was hella cringey. It was called “The Crisis in Book Reviewing.”

Book Expo and the "Crisis" in book reviewing

As a book blogger who regularly reviews books, I was a little surprised. I  hadn’t realized there was a crisis! But then, when the moderator announced the panelists and I had a look at them, I realized what we were really talking about here (and I mean they also beat us over the head about it a lot). We were talking about “serious” reviews about “serious” books written by “serious” reviewers.

The panelists were four middle/upper class older white people angry that things aren’t like “the old days.” Some of their concerns were valid–like, people should be paid for the work they do. But mostly, they were mad about the changing landscape of book reviewing.

Wages weren’t going up, and people could not live off their salary as solely a book reviewer. Honestly, until this panel, I didn’t know there were people who expected to live off the wages of book reviewing.

Apparently, these reviewers at one time got paid $800 for a 600 word review? And that’s not enough? Because they are soooo smart and worldly and they are so seeeerious.

They also complained about the lack of space for book reviews in today’s landscape. They were largely talking about print media (because, of course, they were all old. Median age 60 at least I’d say). Because I know there are tons of book reviews online. I write them. I read them.

When pressed, one panelist–the editor of the book section in a print publication–said that only 5% of their readership engage with their content. Five percent! They’re so mad that things can’t stay the same when on 5% of readers are even reading them? Does that not tell them that maybe they way they are doing things is becoming irrelevant?

Sure, there is an audience for more academic reviews of “serious” titles. But not all readers are interested in those. Apparently, most people aren’t.

So we have these out of touch, old, elitist, highbrow white people complaining about how they are irrelevant without making any movement toward actually becoming relevant. They don’t like the internet. They hate Goodreads (that’s not art!). They don’t like crowd-sourcing (how dare the plebs have an opinion!).  They refuse to see that the “landscape of book reviewing” is growing and that it’s not a bad thing.

One thing that made me sigh aloud was a comment made by a panelist about the need for diversity and more voices. But… I just… Have you seen the panel you’re sitting on? Sure, two out of four were women. Kudos. But there was no one under fifty and no people of colour.

Do they not see that the kind of book reviews they are talking about are generally very elitist? They require certain levels of education to write surely, but also even to read. As they’ve stated, they also require these highly educated people to also have another means of income–like one panelist stated, she could write reviews for a living because her husband has “a real job.” So, that’s awesome.

They are ignoring the work that so many amazing people are doing online. They, like the publishing industry, refuse to take their audience into account. They’re stuck in the 70s. Which, honestly, was definitely not the best for marginalized groups. It’s certainly not the best now, but we’re progressing.

Now, you don’t need to have seven degrees to share your thoughts on books. You don’t need to be the “right” kind of person writing the “right” kind of reviews. We can write what we think on the internet, and like-minded people can read our reviews and possibly find them helpful and not a treatise on why some highbrow (probably white, straight, cis, het, male) author artistically uses some device. I had enough of that shit while I was privileged enough to attend university. Now when I look to a book review, I want to know if I’m going to enjoy it.

Everyone reads for different reasons, and everyone deserves to find reviews that meet their needs if they want one. With the rise of book blogging, Goodreads, and other online reviewing, readers are able to find a community; a place they can go and find reviews that will be helpful to them. And that’s awesome. And because of the nature of the internet, the conversation doesn’t have to end at the review. Readers can engage with the review and the reviewer in a way that wasn’t possible in the same way before.

There are more books out there than capital “L” Literature and more people with valid opinions than Ivy League graduates. I’m infinitely grateful that the landscape of book reviewing and discussion has progressed to this–it’s enabled me to find an amazing community online.    

Want more Book Expo goodness? Check out my BEA 2018 Book Haul!

Beth is the founder and editor of Fuelled by Fiction. She is a twenty-something east coast Canadian girl who loves writing about books and feminism.