Yesterday I was listening to a podcast where the guest was a well-known critic/reviewer in the sf and fantasy field. I was especially struck by an exchange during the interview where the reviewer mentioned owning a Kindle and how much he was enjoying it. So the host asked him how owning the ebook reader had affected his reviewing habits. To which the reviewer replied that it hadn’t affected them at all, because he never reviewed books on the Kindle. There’s a reason for that, of course, and it—at least not yet—has nothing to do with being prejudiced against ebooks. The way reviewing has almost always worked where print books are concerned is that the publisher sends out ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies) about six months before a book is due to be released. This is because of the lead times necessary to get the review into print at or before the release date of the book. This is considered especially important because reviews, in theory, boost an author’s sales, but not if the book isn’t immediately available to take advantage of the good press. And before you saying anything, yes, I know that a lot of ARCs these days are in pdf or another electronic format that can be read on ebook readers. That’s not the point. The point is that this lead time is considered necessary, because if a print book doesn’t sell well after its initial release, it’s a dud. Failure. New print releases have a very limited shelf life in this publishing model and if they aren’t moving enough copies they’ll be shoved aside to make room for the next (they hope) hot release.
You’re probably way ahead of me at this point. Yes, there is a problem, implied but not stated above. This is the way traditional publishers, reviewers, and booksellers think, but ebooks simply do not fit this model. As Dean Wesley Smith has pointed out, ebooks “are not produce.” Unlike produce and print books, they do not have a shelf life. Period. If I put out an ebook release tomorrow, no reviewer for any of the magazines will look at it, even if they knew about it and wanted to, because under the current mindset it is already published, and thus it is already too late to review it. To which the only reasonable response is—Why? The book will still be there in three months, six months, six years even. Quite often there would be time to get a review out during the year of publication if they were worried about timeliness, but so what? A print book edition will have maxed out its audience in a year or two from release. An ebook, if it’s any good, can keep finding new readers for generations, even if it sold poorly in the early days of its release. Or to put it another way, for an ebook the past is not destiny.
The old way of thinking about a book release simply doesn’t apply any more, but that doesn’t mean there’s a chance of that paradigm shifting any time soon. Right now the ebook edition of a print book is published after the “real” publication, so they don’t count for reviewing. Once traditional publishers switch to the ebook paradigm for their main lines, then there will still be scheduling, and lead times, and arcs, even if the original rationale for the reviewing schedule no longer holds. Only ebooks from mainline publishers will be reviewed, or in contention for awards or critical discussion. I wonder how long this attitude will be able to hold out, as more and more authors who write well by any standard but don’t sell well enough to be commercial find a new life by publishing their own books. Or best sellers like J.K. Rowling realize that all they need to sell books is a working web site.
No, I am not overlooking the fact that 90% of Indie and self-published ebooks are crap, but neither am I overlooking Sturgeon’s Law—“90% of everything is crap.” The cream will rise, and in the ebook model, it has the luxury of time, which print books simply do not have. Your guess is as good as mine as to how this is going to play out, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now—interesting times.
I suppose part of the inertia in this paradigm is the desperate “need” in publications to always be first and ahead of the game, so they never want to be seen to be reviewing anything that might seem old. It’s the same mindset that has news being trailed in advance (“X will say in a speech today…”), or how music that isn’t doing something completely new is considered unworthy of attention. It’s completely absurd, and it doesn’t serve customers. It’s a bit like Alice in Wonderland, having to run to just stand still.