An important part of our mission at Follow the Reader is to connect book reviewers, book bloggers, media people, booksellers and librarians on the Web – especially those interested in how the best aspects of the print and digital worlds might converge. So, to break the ice, we’re launching a series of profiles of community members who are abetting the cross-pollination of electronic and traditional print media.
“I would love to have become a Ron Charles [at the Washington Post] or Nick Owchar [at the Los Angeles Times], but I came along at the wrong time. Hence the Book Studio, where I’m creating my own online book review ‘section’ to edit.” –Bethanne Patrick
Bethanne Patrick is an obvious choice to begin our series. An avid bridge-builder between print journalism, online book programming and TV, she is currently launching a pioneering blend of the three at The Book Studio, an outgrowth of WETA, a PBS/NPR affiliate in the Washington D.C. area. Over the past 12 years, Patrick has developed solid print credentials—most recently as a contributing editor at Publishers Weekly and as a member of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) who has reviewed books for the Washington Post and People magazine. She also currently hosts a weekly author forum at Barnes & Noble’s Center Stage, having cut her teeth launching AOL.com’s book channel from 2004-2007 (now defunct after layoffs). Each month, she also appears on TV to recommend books on New York One. As “The Book Maven,” Patrick is a regular presence on Twitter and in the book blogosphere, and often participates in thoughtful exchanges with print editors and bloggers that can be tracked across the Web.
(Full disclosure: I am also a contributing editor at Publishers Weekly and an NBCC member – but met Patrick only very recently.)
“I’m a Late Bloomer with a Non-Linear Career”
A Smith College grad, Patrick nearly began her career as a publicity assistant at St. Martin’s Press, but turned down the offer when she became engaged to a West Point cadet whose first assignment was overseas. While her husband attended law school, she started graduate work in English with the intention to get a Ph.D. and teach, but when a college pal pointed out that she’d be happiest talking to people about books, Patrick recognized her true mission.
Like many women with growing families, she found that achieving that goal would involve some improvisation. While having two children and undertaking various moves, Patrick taught and freelanced as a writer for Army Times and Episcopal Life, and bought books by the carload whenever she found a good independent bookstore. Then, in 2001, she was hired as the first telecommuting editor for Pages magazine. Within another three years, she was working at America Online, then located near her home in Northern Virginia, where she launched the books channel. This year, she moved over to WETA.com’s The Book Studio, which offers a mix of book reviews and author interviews in prose and audio formats, including an audio interview with Michael Pollan that will run May 15.
The following conversation – which ranges from the lessons of launching online book sites, to what publishers can do better, to the distinctions between bloggers and book reviewers – took place earlier this week via instant messaging.
The Book Studio at WETA.com
Charlotte Abbott: You are a book reviewer who is pioneering a new online arena for books on the website for a radio and TV station. Does that mean you’re threatening to the status quo every way you turn?
Bethanne Patrick: Unfortunately, that’s true. I wish we weren’t, but people find it scary to see something new. I will say that the AUTHORS are incredibly happy, grateful and thrilled – but I want READERS to feel the same way. The Book Studio has only been live for a few weeks, and so far, the time on-site stats are very, very good. People are stopping by and staying for a while.
CA: How do you keep the higher-ups at ease?
BP: I tend to be quite a people-pleaser, so why not let that work for me?
CA: But how do you avoid accommodating others so much that you lose opportunities you can see clearly but others can’t?
BP: I did lose some opportunities in the past, but no longer –I’m really focused now on what my strengths are. I know that I want to review and interview. I’d like to be the next Charlie Rose – though that sounds so arrogant. I may not get there! But that is a great goal: to be the online Charlie Rose.
CA: It sounds pretty good to me.
BP: Some people say to me: “Oh, be more hip than that!” But I believe that books will remain the best way for people to express complex ideas.
CA: Well, we can be sure you will have better hair!
BP: I promise better hair…even if I have more chins!
CA: What needs to happen for online book forums to assume the preeminence that Charlie has on late night TV for the intellectual set?
BP: I think we need to include the enthusiasm that people have for talking about books. Maybe we need a book group chat show, a smart one. At the Book Studio, we plan to experiment at some point with group videos -e.g., me and other reviewers, me and a bunch of authors in one genre.
CA: How will you handle reviews?
BP: Eventually we’ll have both professional reviewers (e.g., Oberlin professor Anne Trubek, Preservation editor Sudip Bose, and more) AND community reviewers. We also want to make sure people will see great book blogs that they might like, where they can go for more of a particular type of conversation, and also circle back to our site for interviews, spotlight reviews, etc.
The Lessons of AOL
CA: What was your biggest lesson at AOL?
BP: First: I could talk with readers any time I wanted. But: I didn’t want to chat with just anyone. I wanted to talk to really smart, informed people. I am not trying to be cruel or disrespectful to those who have found their bliss in online chats/book message boards. I just wasn’t interested in chaff at all; I wanted to go straight to the wheat.
CA: Was there a lot of trial and error in launching the book channel?
BP: Oh, yeah. At first, I tried to make things a little too library-like. I had to get into the AOL groove and tuck the intellectual things in between celeb author interviews. That’s why you’ll still find lots of Google hits with me and Heidi Klum!
CA: Did you work with the forums?
BP: In retrospect, I wish I’d worked more with the AOL book forums. There was a lot of power and passion there. But, in my defense, I was actually discouraged from doing so, since the emphasis during my three years at AOL was on original content. (The emphasis shifts at AOL a lot.) I was working hard on developing a voice for my blog and on figuring out how to get publishers’ content fed into our environment.
CA: What was the impact?
BP: My biggest lesson from the community at AOL was that a lot of people will buy a lot of books if you connect them to the content. My most successful examples were two very different books: Mark Leyner’s Why Do Men Have Nipples? and David Friend’s Watching the World Change: 9/11 in Photographs. Show people some content in an engaging way and then give them an immediate opportunity to buy a book and you get big wins, all around. But it has to be in a media context; otherwise, consumers feel too manipulated. (Yes, of course, we’re all being manipulated all the time.)
CA: Do you mean you created a context for these books related to daily headlines?
BP: Yes, that was the most important thing: to relate to either a headline or a search item. I could have spent my entire AOL career just on Harry Potter, LOL!
CA: Were you ever able to exercise your sensibility as someone with an MA in medieval lit?
BP: Yes! HarperCollins published a fun little book about 100 Most Famous People Who Never Lived—not just characters from lit, but characters from myth, advertising, etc. Very fun for general public and also for academics, because of the lit connections. My boss said, “Don’t do this, it’s a loser. No one cares about fictional characters,” but I put together a photo gallery with fun text and it was a HUGE win: one million unique page views. Sold a lot of books, too!
CA: How satisfying.
BP: There is room online for a convergence of commercial success and intelligence. I believe that, or I wouldn’t keep doing what I’m doing.
What Publishers Can Do Better
CA: From your perspective, what do publishers need to do better, to adapt to the proliferation of bloggers, e-galleys, multiple book platforms, etc.?
BP: First step: Every publisher needs a PR person for new media, NOT just an online marketing manager. Any publisher whose main PR people are stuck in print/broadcast past should move on. Even TV these days has online components! Second: publishers need to understand that there IS a difference between amateur book bloggers and professional review bloggers like Sarah Weinman, Ed Champion, Mark Sarvas, and me, on my best days.
CA: How do you differentiate the roles of PR vs. online marketing?
BP: PR people are better at building pre-pub buzz, which is still important. Online marketing people are sometimes good at it — but they’re still better at post-pub marketing.
Book Reviewers vs. Bloggers
CA: What’s the difference between amateur and pro book bloggers – can you spell it out?
BP: I recently read a so-called “review” on an amateur’s site that was little more than a plot summary, with an “I loved it,” and a link to a giveaway. That’s lovely and very accessible–but it is NOT a review. A review can be 100% positive, but it still has to give you some analysis, some depth, some peek into WHY the book matters.
CA: Right, but isn’t there a place for enthusiasts in spreading their enthusiasm for books?
BP: There is definitely a place for enthusiasts! They are hand-selling books; they are voracious readers and very loyal.
CA: As bloggers and book reviewers converge through electronic media, will only the fittest of each group survive, or can they expand the audience for books if they work together?
BP: A great question, since I am an example of that convergence. As a reviewer, I want legitimacy, standards, a community. I still believe in that, and still believe that the NBCC matters. Which is why I want to drag it kicking and screaming into the online world!
CA: Yet you seem to very encouraging to book bloggers – judging by your comments and participation on various blogs.
BP: I am, because I think that hearing from people who do adhere to NBCC standards will help them look at those standards, too. Also, nothing’s wrong with MORE talk about books, as long as we all understand that there are still some delineations.
CA: Like between those who write for pay and those who write for free?
BP: As I’ve said on Twitter, I’ve always been paid for blogging – which makes me suspect to the litblogging community. And I’ve blogged for a long time, which makes me suspect to the NBCC.
CA: How do you think those tensions can be resolved?
BP: I think they’re all based on fear–that a paid blogger isn’t upholding indie standards, that a blogger of any type can’t uphold critical standards—but neither fear is justified.
CA: So it’s a matter of getting people to look past the format (e.g. blogs or print) to see the quality of the content?
CA: Of course, blogs also offer all kinds of fascinating content development opportunities – and self publishing opportunities.
BP: Yes. That’s why bloggers need to be rigorous about what their goals are.
CA: Thanks for sharing your insights, Bethanne! Best of luck, and please keep us posted on how it goes at The Book Studio.