trojan war.jpegWhen you have 1 million books to choose among, how do you choose which to buy and read? Even when the number was just 10,000 (last seen probably in the late 18th century), the task was daunting. But there was a process that worked — perhaps not with the greatest efficiency — until the rise of ebooks and print on demand (POD).

Admittedly, the process let any number of worthy books fall through the cracks. I have no doubt that among the lost were another Philip Roth or Ray Bradbury or Elizabeth Peters. No matter the method, none is perfect. But the process, in its original incarnation, nurtured writing and enabled the discovery of literature (see eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round I for a discussion of literature).

In the early days, every author was self-published. But as the numbers of publications grew and the cost of publishing grew, self-publishing became publishing companies looking to make a profit. Along with the profit motive came a gatekeeper role (for an earlier discussion of ebooks and gatekeeping see The eBook Wars: The Gatekeeper Role). Publishers both created and reacted to the reading market.

As gatekeepers, publishers separated author manuscripts according to house criteria. Two of many criteria were likelihood of sales and literature value. Publishers separated the haves from the have nots. I grant that the process didn’t stop there and that further culling of the haves occurred. After all, this was a business. But this initial culling made the universe of manuscripts signficantly smaller and thus made it possible for a consensus to be built about the literary merits of particular books.

Book reviews continued the process even after publication. Nearly every newspaper had a book reviewer and reputations for quality reviews were built. A cadre of professional book reviewers came into being, reviewers who were supposed to look past popularity and look for literature. A favorable book review from a recognized reviewer was important to the success of a new book.

Also important was book club acceptance. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, organizations like the Book-of-the-Month Club wielded enormous clout. Consequently, a book that reviewers deemed literature got that extra shove and was pushed on a broader population. Book clubs and reviewers acted as consensus builders and when publishers, book clubs, reviewers, and readers all came together on a book, the book was closer to literature status than ever.

eBooks and POD have come about in an era when book clubs barely exist and wield little to no power and when reviewers with broad reputations are scarce. Whereas every newspaper once had a book review section, now only a handful do and those are declining.

But I can hear the clamor now: There are thousands of book reviewers on the Internet! First, I ask you to compare. Compare a review in the New York Review of Books with a review from your usual book review site on the Internet. The difference in quality should be obvious in most instances. Second, what do you know about your Internet book reviewer? What makes him or her qualified to review a book other than that they may have read it? A well-written book review, like a well-written book, is much more than a rehash of the plot and a thumbs up or down. The review itself is worthy reading.

Compare these reviews of Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War: a “professional” reviewer’s review from the New York Review of Books, customer reviews at, and reader reviews from It isn’t that the latter two sources aren’t useful, it is that the NYRB review is worthy writing itself.

The credibility of the reviewer is also important. It isn’t that customer reviews aren’t worth considering, especially for a book’s readability; but what about subject matter knowledge? Isn’t that an important component of a review? What about having read prior works on the same topic and comparing past books with the new effort? Isn’t that an important review component?

With the demise of the traditional publishing system and the overtaxing of readers by numbers of books published, it is increasingly difficult to create a consensus as to whether or not a book is literature. Where previously dilution was minimal (relatively speaking), with the addition of self-published ebooks and POD books dilution is extensive.

Of the 1 million books published in 2009, how many did you read? Not just buy, but actually read? How many do you think any reader read? How can we build consensus when we read so few of so many?

eBooks and POD will be the downfall of literature because it will become ever more impossible for a sufficient number of readers to come to agreement on whether or not a book deserves the accolade of literature. This is not to say that controls to limit the number of books published should be imposed; rather, it is to say that there needs to be some method for separating dreck from literature.

The debate continues in round III…

Editor’s Note: Rich Adin is an editor and owner of Freelance Editorial Services, a provider of editorial and production services to publishers and authors. This is reprinted, with permission, from his An American Editor blog. PB


  1. So now we have book reviews as literature… I agree that a great book review can be worth reading for its own sake, which is good since many such reviews have little value in helping the average reader determine whether a book is actually worth their time.

    Consider the following, professional book reviews are often written by authors who tend to themselves write books in the same genre as the book they are reviewing. Down the road, there is a good chance that their books might be reviewed by the very same person whose book they are currently reviewing.

    Now, the question should be, what is the purpose of a professional book review. Is the purpose to help readers find new books to read, or is it to start a discussion about the book, or the subject the book covers? If it is the latter, in my mind, it is vastly more useful than the former. To find out whether a book is worth reading, the Amazon reviews are frankly more useful; even better are voracious readers of the same sorts of material as I like. Odds are if they liked a book, I will like it too.

    How many books get professional reviews a year? A few thousand, maybe? How much time does the average person have to read reviews?

    Now lets consider the flip side. View literature professors would argue that there is such a thing as an authoritative interpretation of a text. Yet, if you use a professional book review to determine whether a book is worth reading, are you not letting that reviewer’s interpretation become authoritative?

  2. Bill, one of the things I particularly like about the New York Revie of Books is that the reviews do help me decide whether a book is worth buying and it is not unusual for a reviewer to write that the book under review is OK but an earlier book by XYZ is much better and still the classic on the subject. In a recent review in the NYRB, the reviewer point blank said the book under review was not very good and listed the reasons why.

    And this is why I rarely read the New York Times Book Review. I can never tell whether the reviewer liked or didn’t like the book or the reasons why. I have also found that certain authors always get positive reviews in the NYTBR, even when the book is at best mediocre. Again, this is not true in my experience with the NYRB (I’ve been a subscriber for years and just renewed through 2015).

    As to your question about whether I am letting the reviewer’s view become authoritative, to an extent I am. One of the things I want to know — and which I do get usually from NYRB reviews — is how the book under review stacks up against past books on the topic and whether the book author has conveniently omitted important topics. If the review says that earlier books are better, I try to find the earlier books but I also will look at the current book at the bookstore. The review is merely one step in a process for me.

  3. Rich,
    I believe in the role of the publisher–both to mine out nuggets and to nurture authors and refine those nuggets into pure gold. Like you, I’m discouraged by the decline in book sections in major newspapers (and by the decline in major newspapers). I don’t think, though, that eBooks have a lot to do with either.

    You mentioned the role of powerful book clubs, but that role vanished decades ago–long before eBooks. Newspapers, too, have been in decline for a long time–I was there for the end of the Washington Star and the Dallas Times Herald. No one person can read a million books (although this number is inflated by re-release of thousands of public domain books), but no one person can read ten thousand books a year, either. It’s been a century or more before anyone could expect to read even a considerable portion of the books being published.

    eBooks are a democratizing influence. They do reduce the cost of entry. They’ve allowed the blossoming of new genres (who believes the traditional gatekeepers would ever have been open to the erotica market?). They also mean bad writers can publish their own dreck. But readers who don’t want to read that can still turn to traditional publishers to give them a small degree of protection.

    A generation ago, we all watched the three networks. Today, there are hundreds of video choices–do we want to go back? For me, the value of a History Channel, channels showing bicycle racing (a guilty pleasure of mine), or science channels outweighs the lower production values for some shows–and outweighs the lack of this topic of conversation around the water cooler. Aren’t books the same?

    Rob Preece

  4. This sounds like a non-solution in search of a non-problem. If a sufficiently large number of people read, and enjoy, and review a book for me to _notice_ the book, it may interest me. If they happen to overlap with people who have steered me right in the past, I’ll give the book a try. If I don’t like it, I’ll move on. It’s not like I can read everything that catches my eye even today. ‘Great Literature’ isn’t required in the process.

    If some books become sufficiently notorious that a large fraction of the reading public find them worthy of recommendation after decades or generations of time have passed, so be it. Inclusion in the canon is not a problem for any one individual. It’s an emergent property of a concensus.

    If no future books ever achieve this status, and the current ones decay to non-great-literature, so long as there is enough interesting stuff to read, I don’t see a problem. My one incomplete attempt to read “The Catcher in the Rye”, for example, resulted in my wishing Holden Caulfield a messy, slow, and painful death … soon.

    Accept as read various and sundry literati taking me to task for ‘impoverishment of future generations by my disrespectful attitude towards Great Literature’.

    Jack Tingle

  5. Count me among those who don’t see the problem. Gee, there are so many books out there it’s hard to choose. Is anyone seriously proposing that we’d be better off with only a few books available each year, each one carefully vetted by “gatekeepers?” Thanks anyway, I’ll make the effort to pick and choose myself.

    As to “literature,” those of you who think it’s so important can worry about it. I read To Kill a Mockingbird and enjoyed it, but I never had an urge to genuflect, and I’m sorry I wasted any part of my life on Catcher in the Rye. It would certainly go in my own personal dreck pile.

    How about if those who care let gatekeepers rule their reading and leave the rest of us to choose our own 100 or so non-gatekept books a year? One of the things I’ve always been pretty certain of is that if one of the hoity-toity books reviews recommended a book, I’d hate it. Last time I looked this is still a free enough country I can read what someone else thinks is dreck if I want to, and I don’t want my non-literature preferred reading gatekept out of existence.

  6. A big part of the problem, as I see it, is that people don’t read books anymore (at least not in neo-3rd-world America). One of the traditional filtering mechanisms for finding good new books was word of mouth.

    Private book clubs (not those selling books, but the ones comprised of readers) and libraries also do a good job of filtering and getting the word out.

    In the end, I foresee a world where more people write novels than read them.

    — asotir

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