Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The problem of reviews

I expect today’s post is not going to be popular in some quarters. So be it. I feel I need to say something about current problems in that have arisen with book reviewing.

With a new book being launched next week, of course I’m thinking about ways to sell more copies. Probably since the dawn of the written word, the best way to get noticed is through reviews.

These can be more formal critiques and comments in the big newspapers, especially ones like the New York Times Sunday book review section. A good review there is like manna from heaven, reaching huge numbers of potential readers. Newspapers used be publishers’ and authors’ best friends in this regard. A best seller could be made simply by a great review in one of the big papers. Even smaller circulation periodicals can be very beneficial to get the word out.

Sadly, the number newspaper reviews has been dwindling steadily over the years to the point where it’s very likely you won’t get reviewed because there just isn’t space in the truncated book review sections that exist these days.

Online reviews have taken up a bit of the slack. There are some great reviewers who do their work in this medium and to get some line space in their publications and blogs is always welcome.

But there still isn’t enough space.

What enterprising publishers have recently begun doing is offering e-versions of the standard ARC (Advanced Reading Copies) of their new releases to anyone who promises to give an unbiased review. I admit I haven’t looked into what other criteria or checks there are in who gets sent one of these e-ARCs, but I think it would be safe to say that there isn’t all that much in the way of oversight. Many of these reviewers merely post their thoughts on Goodreads.com and other such sites.

I guess the thinking behind this is of the “any publicity is good publicity” kind, and with the shrinking legit review options, any way to get the word out is looked on as being at least marginally helpful.

If you’ve read Type M for any length of time, you’ll know that my feeling is (strongly) that if you can’t handle a negative review, then don’t publish. So this little rant of mine isn’t about negative reviews that my new novel might be getting (actually, they’ve been uniformly good to great).

What is distressing me about this new switch is that there are a lot of people out there who don’t understand what reviewing actually is all about. Yes, your likes and dislikes enter into any criticism of any work of art, but a credible reviewer has to go beyond that. If you are going to say anything about a book (in this case), you have to understand what it is all about and what its author is trying to accomplish, and judge it from that standpoint.

Case in point: “I don’t like this kind of book and never read them.” (True statement I’ve seen for a friend’s novel on goodreads.com.) Huh? Then why are you reviewing it — especially when you obviously hated it? Any thinking person would start the book, discover that it’s the sort of thing they don’t like to read, and move on to another one they will like. In this case, the review was scathing, and not for the authors’ craft but because of the nature of the book. It was a thriller, and rather “gritty”, and the reviewer obviously leaned toward cozies and other lighter fare based on their more positive reviews.

We authors all have to take our lumps. It’s part of the process. But it really hurts to be pilloried unfairly. I’m not saying that there aren’t “professional” reviewers who don’t have axes to grind. The things Carl Maria von Weber made in reviews about Beethoven’s compositions are hilarious seen through the filter of time.

I have no idea what the solution is. As newspapers drop book reviewers and publications of various kind close, we are left with makeshift efforts such as asking anyone to review books.

Personally, I feel honoured whenever anyone makes the effort to read one of my novels. That’s special. A person has to devote a lot of their personal time to do this. I’m thrilled when they enjoy the story, and chagrined when they don’t — and always feel as if I’ve let them down.

But due to the social media aspect of “the new face of book reviewing”, I worry that we authors are in danger of not getting a fair shake.

As with so much about what we do, we have very little power to change things. This is just another example.

Your thoughts?


Victoria Reeve said...

I don't know the answer to the problem but, as an avid reader, I can say that I've never once chosen a book based on a review.

Eileen Goudge said...

I've used NetGalley, and it's not so hit or miss if you have someone in the know "curate" it for you (as did I). By that I mean out of the blogger/reviewers who requested the e-ARC, only the ones most likely to either a)read it or b)be favorably inclined toward it are selected. It's not foolproof, but it makes for better odds. Negative reviews? You win some, you lose some. I kill with kindness by thanking the person for taking the time to time to read it. You never know...they might say nice things about your next book:)

Rick Blechta said...

That's refreshing to know, Victoria, especially from an avid reader, but I believe you would be in the minority. If I might ask, how do you go about choosing what to read, especially if you aren't familiar with an author?

One thing I didn't cover vis-a-vis the shrinking of outlets with "professional" reviewers, is that coupled with more and more books being purchased online where readers can't just browse easily the way they can in a bookstore is that publishers and authors have to rely on the quick, little reviews that are submitted to the sites. As a sidebar, I wonder why the sites only have a "this review was helpful" option and not a "this review was not helpful" one.

Like everything else in the publishing industry currently, it's a mess.

Eileen, I think it's important to say thank you to a reviewer (if you can) because they did take time to read the book. And we do have to live with negative reviews. It's all part of the game.

Victoria Reeve said...

I was dragged to a mystery writing workshop given by Mary Jane Maffini and, through MJ, introduced to the treasure trove of authors that is Capital Crime Writers. If none of them have any books coming out, Google is my friend (search using 'mystery' plus whatever topic I'm interested in at the moment). If anything interesting comes up, and the title captures my imagination, it is off to the bookstore, where I'll check out the back blurb and maybe read the first paragraph of the book. If the book pulls me in, I turn into one of those people marketers are always trying to find: brand loyal.

Rick Blechta said...

Thanks for the further clarification, Victoria. That's a system that seems to work pretty darn well. Too bad you can't patent it! Thanks for weighing in.

And speaking of Ottawa, Barbara Fradkin and I are doing a joint launch of our new novels there on the 29th. Contact me for details: rick@rickblechta.com.

I'd love to meet you!