Scott Pack, buying manager for Waterstone's, is one of the most influential people in the industry. If he does not like your book, or think that it will sell, he is not likely to order it in a quantity that will give it prominence in Britain's largest bookselling chain. Telling him that you are certain to attract the attention of literary editors will not help: he does not believe that literary editors have any insight into what his customers want. "Reviews no longer sell books in the volume that they used to," he wrote in The Bookseller recently.
Literary editors might respond - one, Claire Armistead of the Guardian, did - that they are not booksellers. They are journalists. Their job is to inform and entertain. They select books that they think will interest the readers of their papers or magazines, and that they expect to generate good copy. They commission reviewers to provide critical assessments, not consumers' guides.
These are good points; but Pack has put his finger on a problem for the review pages. Their approach was formed in an era when there was a far greater cultural consensus than there is now. Choice was more limited; the books that got reviews were almost self-selecting. The audience was more coherent, and could be addressed in a critical lingua franca.
Now, culture is atomised. We are multicultural; we have hundreds of TV channels and radio stations to choose from,
and more than 150,000 new books each year. The kind of people
who formed the old cultural consensus are a dwindling minority.
If we are not interested in Radio 3's Beethoven Experience or BBC2's How Art Made the World or John Carey's What Good Are the Arts? we can go elsewhere. This atomisation has produced a different kind of writing: one that reflects the choices we can make. That kind of writing is found on the web.
Some people mock the reviews on Amazon. They allege that the system is open to abuse by friends or enemies of the author - but in that respect it is no different, to anyone with knowledge of literary affairs, from the books pages. They point to the naivety and frequent grammatical imprecisions of the postings. But as guides to what to read, such reviews are very helpful.
Take the comments on And What Do You Do?, a novel by - I should declare an interest - a friend of mine, Sarah Long. "None of the characters seemed to have anything going for them at all," writes one reader; another calls it "funny and perceptive . . the author is scathingly amusing". Well, it's true that you don't go to Sarah if you want cuddly characters. A reviewer argues that the slow pace of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, "particularly in the middle section which sometimes dragged in its descriptions of gay sex and drug-taking", has thematic justification, and that "the author is very brave in not making his central character particularly likeable".
A professional would have phrased it differently. But, on the web, professionals are writing like amateurs now. On blogs such as the US Bookslut or the UK Grumpy Old Bookman, books are discussed in a conversational style that removes the barrier between trained critic and lay audience. Readers will turn to these channels, just as consumers of news are finding alternative sources of news delivery.
The professional/lay barrier would not have been noticed, or bothered about, 30 years ago. In bemoaning it, Pack is reflecting not just his commercial interests, but a cultural shift.
Nicholas Clee's Don't Sweat the Aubergine: what works in the kitchen and why (Short Books) is out this autumn