Thursday, August 27, 2009

Digital reviewing

We had a call this morning from a publisher who is thinking about supplying reviewers with f&gs of picture books in digital form and wanted to know if Horn Book could work with that/those.

I demurred. Electronic galleys for fiction, maybe. Although my Kindle gathers dust (too hard to hold; I hate the buttons and typeface; the "page" is too gray), my iPod Touch is perfect for reading on the subway or in the dark and can hold hundreds of books. Lots of editors and agents are already using Kindles or Sony readers to manage otherwise innumerable reams of manuscript pages. (It is unfortunate that there is nothing about digital technology that will reward people for writing shorter books.) But picture books demand to be held, and the page-turn and your fingers are part of the story. Less ethereally, picture-book reviewers will often hold them at a distance to see how an image might carry across a story hour, or they will want to try one out with an individual child or group. I remember Chris Van Allsburg musing about the unlikelihood of families gathering around the cozy glow of the computer screen to "read" the cd-rom version of The Polar Express.

I understand the publisher's desire to keep down costs, and, theoretically, electronic galleys would allow reviewers to post their reviews earlier, which is to everyone's advantage. But I wonder if the distance between what is seen by the reviewer and read by the consumer is too great. Are film reviewers allowed to watch the movie on TV?

30 comments:

Jennifer Schultz said...

Don't know about reviewers, but I'm pretty sure members of the Academy receive DVDs come Oscar voting time.

(However, some big stars might have screening rooms that are better than the local cineplex!)

Anonymous said...

Sometimes film reviewers receive "screeners"--but most see movies in real theaters before the general public. In my experience, they usually send screeners to help you prepare for an interview with the director or actors, not to review.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of opening another conversation, part of the Monday morning quarterbacking on how Saving Private Ryan lost Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love concerned the idea that Academy members were watching/rewatching both movies at home on DVD, and that Pvt. Ryan lost something on the small domestic screen that Bill Shakespeare did not.

David Lynch talks about large versus (very) small screens in a way that may be relevant to picture books v. JPEGs:

youtube.com/watch?v=wKiIroiCvZ0

Brigid said...

I agree, Roger. I review a lot of comics, and while digital review copies are certainly convenient, they are not the same as a physical book. If I set my Adobe reader to show a full page at a time (as the artist intended me to see it) the text is too small to read. I would imagine you might have a similar problem with picture books. And then there are the tactile qualities of the book—paper quality, print quality, etc.—which probably matter even more for picture books than for comics.

Turrean said...

I can't imagine it would even be possible to review some picture books based on a digital copy. Anything with textures, lift-the-flaps, pop-ups, fold-out pages, or die-cut "windows" would be out. A quick look at Amazon's "Look Inside the Book" feature shows how much of Lemons Are Not Red or The Black Book of Colors is lost in the "translation" to digital.

Anonymous said...

I so agree, Roger.

When ipicturebook.com made a big, enthusiastic presentation at the winter SCBWI conf. some years back, I turned to the person sitting next to me and said, " It will never fly."

Sure enough, in no time flat, they went belly-up.

Good. Picture books are meant to be held and caressed and enjoyed in bed next to kids or held aloft in a classroom with real pages of paper turning slowly enough for the kids to savor a moment of anticipation.

Andy Laties said...

Aww come on you guys--are you trying to hold back the future??

“Of man only the brain would remain, beautifully encased in a duroplast: a globe equipped with sockets, plugs and clasps….The brain case could be connected to any number of appendages, apparatuses, machines, vehicles….Then…transcepting would do away with crowds and congestion, the consequence of overpopulation. Channels of interbrain communication, whether by cable or radio, would make pointless all gatherings and get-togethers, excursions and journeys to attend conferences, and therefore all personal locomotion to whatever location, for every living being could avail itself of sensors and scanners situated over the whole expanse of human habitation….At this point I stopped and remarked that the authors of these papers were surely deranged. Trottelreiner replied coldly that I was a bit hasty in my judgments…the criterion of common sense was never applicable to the history of the human race.”—Stanislaw Lem, The Futurological Congress, Translated by Michael Kandel ([1971] New York: Continuum, 1974): 135-136.

Anonymous said...

I listened to a lot of archived interviews of John Updike in the wake of his death and was struck by how often he talked about his love for the “thinginess” (his word) of books: the paper, the ink, the letterforms, the jacket design, the heft. True of all books, I think, and doubly true of picture books.

William said...

I think the "thinginess" of picturebooks is going to be replaced by a new "thinginess" of the digital book sometime soon. It will be durable and have its own kind of wonderfulness very different from that of paper and texture. First we will use it as an alternative and then slowly the books will fade away. It's all about conditioning. The next generation will look at picturebooks and say they are nice, but awkward to hold and they just "aren't what we are used to." The way we feel about trying to read by candlelight, maybe.

Anonymous said...

Did anybody ever really miss trying to read by a small, feeble, flickering glow? Listen, I'm generally a technology fan and like many a Victorian would probably have studded my house with as many electric light bulbs as my means allowed. But in my opinion the Kindle, etc., is a solution looking for a problem.

Roger Sutton said...

William's comment allows me to give another plug to Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age--if anyone wants to know the great possibilities of the electronic book look there, not at the Kindle.

But my concern is very much here-and-now: are digital ARCs too different from finished books to make reviewing from them inept and/or dishonest?

Anonymous said...

Yes.

Andy Laties said...

OK as a serious response, I recall that a few months ago a friend sent a series of PDFs of a picture book he was shopping, and I was quite capable of evaluating it on the basis of those PDF images. (It was obviously terrific -- I could certainly tell that by looking at PDFs.)

I can see why publishers would want to send digital files to reviewers: they are already sending digital files around amongst themselves, in-house. Their authors are being instructed to use YouSendIt.com

I would think that a smart publisher would of course not ask for a book review based on digital files if there were some pop-up or physical attribute of the book that would contribute to the reviewer's successful judging of the book. But for most picture books a reviewer would be expected to get with the program and operate the way in-house staff and authors are now operating.

If you, the reviewer, ask to be sent physical books only, you'll surely get those only. But perhaps over time competing publications will find themselves receiving their digital versions before you get your physical F&G's...

Right?

Andy Laties said...

All of which said, I agree with you Roger. Some books turn our to have poor production values, or, do not work well when physically produced, for some reason. As actually printed and bound, their colors have been poorly reproduced, their endpapers are indifferent, their bindings are cheap, their formats or sizes have been poorly chosen. A reviewer (or bookstore buyer) cannot judge these attributes of final physical production by inspecting a PDF.

Contrariwise, an editor who prides her/himself on the physical production work done by their house would certainly prefer to have the reviewer handle a finished book -- that's the best seduction.

Mary Ann Scheuer said...

I can see both sides of the coin. On one hand, it's easier to send and receive digital copies. But then you are reviewing something that is different than the final product.

I'd like to add one more layer to consider. I often want to "test drive" picture books on children, to see what their responses are. This is much, much harder if I only have digital copies to look at. If I like a book, I often want to gauge a child's reaction - for that, I would definitely want a hard copy.

Anonymous said...

Very good points about production and quality in Andy Latie’s post.

Also, as an author and illustrator, I'd like to say that the reason so many other authors and illustrators make book dummy after book dummy after book dummy while working is that something HAPPENS in a story when you physically turn the page that doesn’t happen when you’re looking at storyboards, or InDesign, or Quark, or whatever. There is form and function in bound pages; they are not a neutral bucket into which one just pours content; their form affects the telling. We are writing and drawing and in a real sense building for that form. We are not just making stories and pictures. We are making books.

Lolly said...

I'm not willing to predict a future for electronic picture books -- except that I think they will/would be a different kind of art form. About digital ARCs, they could be useful up to a point but no review should be finalized until the reviewer has seen a printed book or F&G. Paper choice and the contrast between type and background are both elements that every reviewer should be looking at. As a graphic designer I am all too aware of the medacity of monitors. Lots of type/background combinations look great on the screen and die on press.

Lolly

Alex Flinn said...

What about splitting the baby? Obviously HB and some other publications don't review everything (at least, not in the real magazine). What if the publisher sent the digital copies, and the journal used them to decide which books to review . . . then got hard copies of the books they actually chose to review? Probably, the digital copy is sufficient to separate the wheat from the chaff, but maybe not enough to separate the, um, best wheat from the, um, second-best wheat (Sorry. Don't know enough about farming to continue this wheat metaphor properly).

sdl said...

I can certainly see a huge benefit to the publisher in not having to print and ship a bunch of paper, but I can't see any benefit to me, the reviewer. ARCs are incredibly appealing--I often like them better than the finished book as an aesthetic experience.

All of your points about picture books are valid. I'm not going to gather a storyhour group around the computer to try a book out on them.

What would stop people from forwarding them to other people once they're in electronic form?

Anonymous said...

Remembering all the past conversations about sexism in the selection of the Caldecott, I wonder if you would find over time, that some sorts of books translated to the digital better than others. As Andy Laties said, he could look at one set of digital images and see their obvious quality. I'm more interested in the books that would be passed over because their finer points didn't translate to digital. No one would ever see the book, and then no one would print more like it. Digital reviewing, whether it privileges male, or female, or one kind of story or one media instead of a another, seems likely to narrow the field inappropriately.

`h

Danny Errico said...

I'd agree there is a difference, but the change to digital format is probably inevitable. Perhaps there is a better way to present the media digitally that somehow captures more of the "real book" feel?

Andy Laties said...

Why inevitable? Don't customers have any say over, or influence on, the marketing behavior of corporations seeking to sell products?

If I as a bookseller want to see physical F&G's, am I powerless to prevent publishers from attempting to get me to buy using digital-marketing media only?

(You can argue that a generational change will implement this on behalf of the publishers--once I'm out to pasture--but this assumes a lot as well. Computers were a big part of my childhood in the 1960s--already big computer companies like ITT were buying publishers -- and then divesting when the promised electronic era was much slower in arriving than promised. Generations raised in a computer era can still exhibit preferences for the non-computerized information paradigms.)

The question is how to sell books. No inevitability exists: it's in the hands of We The Readers.

Danny Errico said...

@Andy Laties I meant inevitable for digital _reviewing_. In that sense, the publisher has the power to control the format because they can (probably) get faster, and thus cheaper, results from their reviewers by providing them digital copies. This is a different process than selling "real" books vs electronic books to consumers. For that latter case, I agree with you that we-the-readers have the power to choose which format we prefer.

Andy Laties said...

Sorry if I came on too strong.

I did understand you though. Reviewing and buying for a bookstore are very similar activities. I was disagreeing with you -- pretty much in keeping with what I've already been saying in this conversation. I think that lots of people who make decisions about what books to recommend or place bets on want to see physical samples of the books they will be staking a bit of their reputations on. It's entirely reasonable. We are strong-minded professionals. We will get our way. The publishers will not be able to ignore our unpleasant insistence that just because something is more convenient for the marketing department doesn't mean it's a smart business practice. It's not a smart business practice for marketing departments to rely on digital review materials as selling tools, when that marketing department is working for a company that is attempting to sell physical books or get physical books evaluated. The company should supply actual, physical samples for evaluation by us, the gatekeepers. We will win this one.

Andy Laties said...

One way to understand my point is to consider this as simply a variation on a really old question, which is, "Is it really necessary to send review copies to book reviewers or booksellers?"

Of course publishers would rather send cheaper evaluation materials. They've wanted to do this forever! Sending physical review copies has always been a big expense for publishers. And yet, decade after decade, publishers that have failed to send physical review copies have had trouble getting their books into the marketplace. Publishers compete with one another. Which publisher will be the first to stop sending physical objects to reviewers? Will their list of books for that season be reviewed proportionately to the competing publishers, who continue to send physical samples??

You can respond by saying that it's a huge waste of money to send physical review copies. That may be true! But I'm just saying that it's been a huge waste of money for many years and yet it's continued to be the necessary practice. It's terribly difficult to get your books into the marketplace. It's expensive. This is a part of the expense.

If you want to know where publishers should be cutting back, I can tell you that in MY opinion this has to do with the incredible waste in the way they work with chainstores -- in particular, payment for shelf-placement; and excessive returns allowances/costs-borne. That's my hobby-horse. They are places to change the industry which I prefer to focus on. My opinion is: I don't know as this is the central problem in the industry, this review-copy-expense-issue.

Anonymous said...

I'm responding to this idea in the essay: "reward people for writing shorter books."

If this has already been discussed on this site I apologize.

Is there anyone else out there who feels that many books currently on the market are unnecessarily long? I'm not speaking of picture books, of course, but of books from about 3rd grade reading/interest level and on up.

I can't decide if it is because authors are paid by the page or if it is lax editing or if it is a trend.

Or do books seem so long because the descriptive writing is so dull?

I realize that I am generalizing in a very bad way. But I'm still wondering, does any one else notice this?

Anonymous said...

Authors are not paid by the page.

Anonymous said...

Van Alsburg's nightmare about families gathering around the computer to "read" a book may be all too likely! Just what would suit some publishers: think of the savings in paper, shipping (no returns!) etc. etc. Not to mention getting rid of many employees, from sales force on up. A clever promotion could sell the idea to modern parents.

Danny Errico said...

@Andy Laties I understand your point. Hopefully publishers will continue to stick with physical review copies.

Anonymous said...

1) I do not think most books are too long. I sometimes feel cheated by short books (Briar Rose/Yolen come to mind). Diana Gabaldon, on the other hand, needs to be edited but they are too intimidated by her.

2) I understand why people complain about placement to the chains but without the quantities they move, there would be fewer books. I would instead be critical of publishers who don't use their profits (if any) from the chains to fund arcs for the indies. One problem is that feedback from the chains comes earlier and is circulated faster, so is more useful early on to the publisher.

3) I review for PW and would probably quit if I had to do it on a reader. I spend enough time at my job staring at a computer screen. I understand the need to save money, however.

4) I notice that I am buying fewer books, partly because feeling frugal but partly because I just have no room! I try to donate $25 to my library every other month as it is GREAT about ordering my requests.