Not too long ago 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 didn’t usually review books on the Kindle. There’s a reason for that, of course, and that reason—at least in theory—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 (Advance 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 for two reasons: One, it serves as a PSA to let readers know that a book by an author they follow is or will be available and two, 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 format that can be read on most ebook readers, but it can be read just as easily—sometimes more so—on a desktop, and thus importing the ARC into the ebook reader is an extra step that’s not always worth the bother (see above). That’s not the point anyway. The point is that this lead time is considered necessary, because if a print book doesn’t sell well on 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 print books, they do not have a shelf life. Period. If I or most other writers, traditionally published or not, put out an ebook release tomorrow, no reviewer for any of the magazines will look at it. First of all because it’s (icky, poo) self-published, but also because, under the current mindset, it is already published, and thus it is too late to review it even if they wanted to do so. 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? Most print book editions will have maxed out their 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.
The old way of thinking about a book release simply doesn’t apply in this scenario, 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, but that part is changing. Yet even so, once traditional publishers switch to the ebook paradigm for their main lines, and simultaneous or ebook-first releases become the norm, then there will still be scheduling, and lead times, and arcs, even if part of the original rationale for the reviewing schedule no longer holds. Only ebooks from mainline or established small press 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, and more 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 obvious fact that at least 90% of Indie and self-published ebooks are crap. Sturgeon’s Law still holds. And before you say we’ve been through all this before, only then it was called Print-on-Demand(POD), there I’ll have to disagree. This isn’t like before. That’s what I thought for a long time, but I was wrong. Yes, there’s a lot of garbage being published, no surprise, but there’s an awful lot that isn’t garbage, and online sampling makes it a lot easier for a reader to tell good books from bad before they’ve wasted their money. The cream really will rise, and in the ebook model, more so than the POD model, it has the twin luxuries of accessibility and time. Reviewing plays a very important part in the print world and helps said cream to be recognized before it curdles. In the new paradigm, cream doesn’t curdle. Ever. A conventional review, timely or otherwise, simply isn’t going to matter to the majority of readers. From what I’m seeing, readers who use an ebook device as their main reading option pay far more attention to peer reviews from other readers, regardless of the original source of the book, than to conventional reviews. In essence, the gatekeeping duties are being crowdsourced. Which is a good thing, considering the reality that most mainline reviewing venues completely ignore the bulk of what’s being published today as a matter of policy. I don’t see that trend changing any time soon. Maybe never, so if it does work out that the traditional reviewers render themselves irrelevant they’ll have no one to blame but themselves.
I don’t claim any gift of prophecy, so your guess is as good as mine as to how this is going to play out, but in this one aspect of the field, the future really does look different from the past. I’ve got skin in the game on both sides, so to me it’s not just an academic question. I have career decisions riding on which way to jump, but I have to base those decisions on what I see happening now, not on the way things have always been done before. Either way–interesting times.