In one installment in his very useful series of reports on last weekend's flurry of NBCC-sponsored panels on book-reviewing, Richard Grayson cites these remarks (I assume they are a paraphrase) by Scribner's senior editor Colin Harrison:
. . .there's a very short period of time in which responses to a book come in and actually matter; most books are in the marketplace of ideas for only a brief moment. A lack of reviews can be very discouraging to writers.
This isn't quite right. There is no "marketplace of ideas" in American book review publications; there's only the actual marketplace, the one in which book reviews appear all in a rush over a week or two and by the commercial measures of which the immediate value of books is judged. The process of book publishing and book reviewing has become indistinguishable from that which rules the release and reviews of movies: build up interest over that opening weekend, whose box office receipts tell us what we need to know about the quality of the "product" in question.
The recent publication of the final Harry Potter book almost exactly followed the movie-release paradigm. All of the purported excitement over the book crested during that weekend in which it appeared, only to almost instantly wane in the days and weeks to follow. The long lines of ticket/book buyers must have contained all of the book's enthusiasts, since there's been very little discussion of the book over the longer haul and just this past Saturday, during my periodical visit to St. Louis area book stores, I noticed big stacks of unmoved books gathered discreetly here and there, with no more loud displays and silly promotional gimmicks accompanying them.
But if most books still don't get the full-on publicity treatment of a Harry Potter novel, the "very short period of time" in which they're allowed to be noticed is real enough. For "big" books, the newspaper book review sections quite obviously compete to get their reviews out first, with the predictable result that they all appear on the same Sunday and their mutual shout-outs to readers are lost in the din. Even the less-publicized novels and those from smaller presses tend to get their few notices all at once. Some books, of course, get no "coverage" at all, but it's a little hard to see how an isolated review here or there could cut through the noise enough to do such books any good, anyway.
(Why, for example, couldn't book review sections during the summer months, when the bigger publishers are in their off seasons, devote some space to those books that were victims of the deluge of books released in the fall and spring and didn't get reviewed then? (Or in December through February, a similarly slack season?) Instead, the same old approach seems to apply, as those few new books that are released at these times are still the focus of review attention.)
I'm sure that writers do find a lack of reviews "very discouraging." Since, as far as I can tell, publishers do little else to find readers for most of their books (other than send authors on the road to flack for themselves), no reviews sends a clear message: your book isn't worth much. But writers ought to be just as discouraged at the state of affairs that has led to the "crisis in book reviewing," as the NBCC has it: publishers who throw their books out at the public through an exceedingly narrow "window," and book reviews that abet this hidebound and increasingly loony strategy by catching them and tossing them in a pile.