Book Smart

Could cyberspace be the novel's best friend? Litblogs take off—and grow up.

Publishers aren't just leaving it to the bloggers themselves: A few are trying to generate buzz by any means necessary. At the far end of the spectrum is viral-marketing company BzzAgent, which uses volunteers to covertly make recommendations to friends and create warm fuzzy feelings about literary novels like Meghan Daum's The Quality of Life Report and Adam Davies's The Frog King. Then there are some recent ads running on blogs, paid for by publishers, that try to tap into good word of mouth by linking to other blogs that have said positive things about a book (as in a recent blog ad for Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore) or to good reviews in print media.

Everyone has drawn his or her own ethical line in the sand. Bookslut declined to join either the Litblog Co-op or Virtual Book Tours, but it is one of the few litblogs with ads, many of them for small-press books. Crispin says she briefly panicked when she realized she wanted to write about a book that has an ad on her site, but then shrugged it off. "If people think I'm going to hawk a book in return for a $90 ad, they should probably read another blog! I'm glad we waited to take ads until now, though, because at first, we were so thrilled that someone sent us a free book that our choices were dictated by that." It can be a heady experience for a publishing outsider to be showered with advance copies, courted by publicists, and offered paid work in print media.

So many litbloggers are now writing book reviews in mainstream newspapers that Hogan jokingly suggests these sites now act as a farm team, just as fanzines once did. It's an idea that irritates Sarvas immensely: "I hope the Co-op can challenge the supremacy of print." He points out the positive effects of widespread blog admiration for a quirky novel such as Sam Lipsyte's Home Land, which became a darling of the realm earlier this year. "Its Amazon rating climbed through the roof while the blogs were covering it," says Sarvas, though he admits that "it also got reviews in some places like The New York Times, so it's hard to tell the direct influence of the blogs."

illustration: Justin Wood

Lipsyte became aware of this blog love for Home Land during his book tour. "Bloggers in different cities showed up at readings and then wrote about it. I kept calling my publisher from the road excitedly and telling them all these people were writing about me, but I think the publicist thought I was crazy." He sees it as a case of good timing: "Bloggers started realizing that they could connect to each other and create a momentum"—just what the Litblog Co-op hopes to crystallize.

Several of the most established book sites—Maud Newton, Bookslut, and MobyLives—are not participating in the Co-op. Newton says she declined because she's already juggling a full load among her blog, a novel in progress, freelance book reviewing, and her day job. But she also argues that "the Co-op does something like what the media do—it creates a big push for a book. If their goal is to prove the influence of blogs to publishers, I think they'll succeed—but it's not a goal I share myself." Instead, she says she prefers the way ideas slowly percolate down to the reader, independent of publishing dates and industry agendas.

Crispin, who expanded Bookslut into a full-fledged webzine with 40 contributors, says she's not even sure what all the fuss is about. She describes the litblogs as a kind of parasite, feeding off the mainstream media. "They aren't generally about content—they just link to it. So if something is dominating the print book reviews, that's what the blogs have to work with." This creates the danger of a catch-22 scenario: Newspapers attribute decreasing book sections to shrinking ad sales. And if publishers begin to funnel more of their marketing budget toward the Internet, print media coverage could decline further, leaving the bloggers with even fewer book reviews to comment on.

An editor at back in the Internet boom days of the '90s, Lipsyte believes the new wave has a very different agenda from the Web pioneers who founded content-heavy sites like Feed and Suck. "These bloggers are not so evangelistic about the medium," he says. "For them, it's not about using technology to create a new world. It's about creating a space that isn't available elsewhere to talk about the thing they care about—which happens to be books."

We read the best of the litblogs for the way they sift through the media ether, make interesting juxtapositions, provoke intelligent conversation, and connect lesser-known writers with an eager audience. In an era when books have been pushed to the margins of the cultural conversation, maybe that's more than enough. But as Lipsyte warned in a recent e-mail to Sarvas, bloggers "need to remember the eternal draw, too: a cranky individual with smart idiosyncratic tastes and a good bullshit detector."

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