Books are being reviewed in much the same way in 2020 as they were in 1990 or 2010. This despite the fact that books are now often sold and read as digital products (ebooks, audio files or sometimes as PDFs). An important point to note about these digital books is that they are all file format or ‘downloads’ through which the user or reader obtains a complete file corresponding to the book on his/her device. And of course the reviews now are usually now published in a digital first format, even if they appear in traditional newspapers, magazines or scholarly journals: the Guardian, the Spectator, or the philosophical journal Mind. The review is really a short essay or notice, at most a few hundred words, which might be very similar to a notice published in the same publication a generation ago. So the practice of reviewing has barely changed though the form in which we consume and read books is now very different.
There have been some digital innovations. Amazon reviews are now highly influential, GoodReads (owned by Amazon) and many similar services provide short informal written reviews. Recently podcasts may perform a powerful reviewing function and the reviewers are often very knowledgeable and may also interview the author of the books under discussion (my own favourites include: Backlisted, Slightly Foxed, The Exponential View, Dan Snow’s History Hit, and The Ezra Klein Show). Good podcasts often circle round and explore a good book. But all these encouraging forms of digital and social appreciation are at one remove from the real book. Could there be a deeper and more intimate form of appreciation with a great book?
The Exact Editions platform for making magazine issues and printed books available individually available in a Reading Room will allow the publishers of reviews to give a close up but temporary experience of the book under review. How should this work? The key point is that the Reading Room technology allows a complete book to be made temporarily available to co-incide with the appearance of the review. It will only work if publishers decide that such intimate but temporary access to books is good for sales, and if the reviewers decide that book reviews are even more useful when the audience actually enjoys sampling the goods
Reading Rooms are tools for a publisher to enable free but temporary access to a complete digital representation of a book. Once a book has been uploaded and databased at Exact Editions, the publisher can make links with a pre-set time limit for free access. Anyone who has the link or follows it will have access to the digital book. The links will stop working after a while, and the publisher chooses the length of the open period when the Reading Room is made: 1 hour, 1 day, 1 week or 30 days are the options.
So the key point about the Reading Room system is that the publisher controls the situation, through determining the short-ish period in which the digital book is available. Therefore if books are to be reviewed with accompanying Reading Rooms for the book, it will be with the publisher’s agreement and co-operation.
Why should a publisher want to have a brilliant new book reviewed and at the same time sampled by the audience who might be reading the review? From the publisher’s standpoint the key measure should be that such limited sampling increases rather than decreases the chance of a sale. The simple and compelling reason is that a good book will be more likely to sell itself if the potential audience has a chance to sample its delights and closely examine its quality and style. And this reason is compelling only if the publisher (and presumably the author whose views count also) think that the value of the book is unlikely to be consumed or exhausted in free exposure for 1 day or a week. Free exposure for a full 30 days might be another matter, and one suspects that publishers may only be liberal in granting 30 days free access to the public at large if a book is of undeniably lasting value. But perhaps not, since it would be quite rational to offer free access in a type of inspection copy mode to all and sundry, for an introductory book for Ethics 101 when the free access is granted in July for book sales that will only arise at the beginning of the academic year. So for some books, in some circumstances, 30 day Reading Rooms may be a highly efficient option. Perhaps also for a book short-listed for the Booker prize! Or for a book on Christmas cuisine made freely available only in September.
Whether the temporary but full exposure of a digital book does succeed in increasing the sales of that book will only be convincingly tested by the actual practice of trying it. But let us suppose that books are to be reviewed in forums, podcasts blogs or magazines, where the audience also has the option of looking through and reading the book for a limited period why would the reviewer or the reviewing publication want to do this? For the sake of argument, what would we say if it were possible to digitally sample a wine, a chianti, chablis, or a champagne; would we prefer to read a wine column which offered such virtual samples or one which did not? Well such digital synthesised taste experiences are not (yet) possible, but surely Jancis Robinson or her readers would love to be given that choice. Equally surely the Financial Times would find many more subscribers for its digital weekend edition if such digital but compelling short-term experiences were on offer.
One advantage of the Reading Room solution is that the publisher can specify or allow a succession of uses. If we suppose that a popular and widely heard history podcast decides to offer, with the co-operation of the publishers, who really want to have their books reviewed, by Dan Snow, free Reading Room access for a week to books which are discussed at length on the podcast. Such links to be made available to the email list of supporters of the Podcast. This burst of free access might be supplemented by 1-day Reading Rooms for the book in the previous week’s email or through the Twitter account the day before the Podcast will be released. Book publishers have some significant permutations to contemplate. Book publishers, podcasters, bloggers or periodical publishers wishing to develop deeper digital experiences to accompany their reviews are invited to get in touch with Exact Editions.