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The Week in Review

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This morning I got an e-mail from a friend of mine, an actual person in actual publishing, that said something I’ve been sort of hearing on and off for a few years but never really took in before:

Print reviews, in magazines and newspapers, now seem to have absolutely no effect on sales.

To the extent that reviews have anything at all of an effect on sales, those reviews are online.  I’m not clear, quite yet, if he meant formal online reviews by online reviewers who make at least a long-range hobby of it, if not a career, or stuff like the reader comments on Amazon.

Oh, and while we’re on that one–what do I have to do to get some of you guys to post reviews of my books on Amazon?   I mean, please.  I end up with six people who hated the book for reasons I don’t understand, one perpetual pain in the ass who has “reivewed” every single one of the things as negatively as possible without having (as far as I can tell) having read them, and Harriet.  And I love Harriet, but she could use some help here.

Anyway, I read this e-mail, and it occured tome that I’ve bought exactly one book, ever, because of a reviewer’s judgment on it.

That’s one.  Singular.

The review was in the New York Times Book Review, and I don’t remember what the book was, except that it was some kind of thriller by a writer I’d never heard of.

I went out and bought the book the same day, because the review was so bad, it felt like a hatchet job.

And I was really angry on the writer’s behalf.

Unfortunately, the hatchet job was entirely justified.  So there was that.

That was almost two decades ago now.  Greg wasn’t born.  Matt was amall.  Bill was alive.

That said, I have in the years since sometimes bought a book because I saw it reviewed, but never because the reviewer did or didn’t praise it.   Reviews have mostly served to tell me one of two things:

Either there was a new book out by an author I get everything from


There was a new book out by an author I didn’t know on a topic I cared about. 

Beyond that, reviewers seem to provide me with no information I’m interested in. 

My taste in books is idioscynractic, and unlike a lot of people I don’t read nonfiction by choosing only one side of the political divide and holding fast to it like letting go would mean giving up my oxygen.   I read Thomas Franks and Thomas Sowell, Victor Davis Hanson and Katha Pollitt.  Life is more interesting that way.

But it occurs to me that I don’t know anybody else who buys books on the recommendation of the New York Times, say, or The New Republic.   And one of the things I like about The New York Review of Books is that you don’t have to read the books they review, the “reviews” are actually long articles on particular topics with books to serve as jumping off points.  And the articles are interesting, if politically predictable.

But the thing is, I don’t know anybody else who makes decisions about which books to buy on the basis of what reviewers have to say about them.  Most of the people I know who get recommendations get them from friends, or their librarian or local bookstore person who’s known them forever, or on online forums like rec.arts.mystery. 

Maybe this was what my friend meant by reviews “online,” I don’t know.

Okay, maybe I should have asked more questions before I started writing this.

But here’s the thing–my friend sounded as if he hated this idea, as if it wasn’t a good one.

And I don’t know why not.

The problem in publishing has always been, it seems to me, the near impossible task of finding the target audience of a book and letting them know the book is there.

Maybe online reviews, peer to peer reviews so to speak, are taking over from the professional kind because they do a better job of telling readers what books are out there that they might want.

The problem with professional reviews, from what I’ve read over the years, is that, at least for me, they always seemed to be concerned about things I didn’t care about, and not at all concerned about things I did.

They also tended–in the high end review vehicles–to rave about books I would almost always find pedestrian when I actually got hold of them. 

And let’s face it.  As a reader, I’m far more receptive to the kind of fiction that makes a lot of noise in elite publications than a lot of readers are.

In the end, different readers are looking for different things in books.  What’s a “good read” to one person isn’t to another.

Lots of readers will say, as Bookwyrm did yesterday, that their choices are character driven–but not all readers want the same thing in their characters. 

I tend to be strongly draw to books with a sense of place, but it has to be the right kind of place.  I want urban, not rural.  I want sophisticated urban and not gritty dying industrial city.

And if I can’t have that, I want Greece.

I was never able to discover this kind of thing, except very peripherally, by reading book reviews.   And since my idea of a great book and the average reviewer’s were not really in line, I wasn’t able to find out of the book was “good” either.

So I think I’ll go with the idea that peer to peer reviewing–rather than professional reviewing–seems like a good idea. 

I’m not much interested in having a reviewer “form my taste,” which was part of the older system, and my guess is most other people aren’t either.

I am interested in finding new authors that I’d like but haven’t read, and I’m interested in finding readers who have never heard of me but might like what I do.

I figure we can get into the whole educated taste thing in other places, where it fits better than in the simple retail selling of books.

Written by janeh

February 11th, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'The Week in Review'

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  1. Peer to peer is always best. If a friend says “you’d enjoy this book” or actually places a copy in my hand, I take that VERY seriously. Second best is praise for the book from someone I respect.

    But if Amazon says “other people who bought X also bought Y” that’s generally enough to get me to take a look at the reviews for Y. And it’s surprising to me how often the positive and negative reviews agree. The positive and negative reviewers don’t LIKE the same things, obviously, but if the positive reviewer says “the great strength of this novel is its settings” and the negative reviewer says “cardboard characters in an overly-described city” they agree on what the book is. They just have different tastes. In that sense, I’ll buy a book on the strength of negative reviews.

    And for short story writers and anthologies, the amateur reviewers, bless them, will generally contain at least one person with the common decency to list what stories are in the volume.

    As for the professionals, a good critic is invaluable, helping me to understand and appreciate the volume. But a reviewer, all too often, isn’t interested in telling me whether or not I’d enjoy a given book. He wants to tell me whether or not I SHOULD enjoy the book–which, bluntly, is none of his business.

    In that sense, the late Edmund Wilson was both the most important and the worst book reviewer in American history. If a book wasn’t what Wilson cared for, no one else had any business appreciating it. He is, of course, still idolized in certain circles, and thus rates even yet as one of the factors causing the decline of fiction reading in the United States.

    I need a book reviewer to tell me what the book is about, what the author was trying to do and how well, in the reader’s opinion, the author did. Sadly, the amateurs are more likely to do this than the pros.

    I always post a review when Amazon asks me. I’ll try to go back and add a few others.


    11 Feb 11 at 7:22 pm

  2. How do I choose what books I want to read? First, it’s by an author I love/like very much. Second, I look over the books on the ‘New Books’ shelf in my local library and I read the blurbs on the inside jacket flap. Third, I read a review in the local paper (Mpls. Star-Tribune) and the subject sounds interesting.
    I have a limited budget for book-buying, so over 90% of my books are paperbacks. And I’ve very likely read the book (from the library) and have decided that it is eminently re-readable so I can go ahead and buy it.
    True critical reviews have almost no effect on my book-buying habits.

    Kathie Goblirsch

    11 Feb 11 at 10:16 pm

  3. I find myself with a bookcase full of books that have been recommended (or at least favourably discussed) by a certain dame from Connecticut with a blog not a thousand miles from here, and of other works by those authors that I’ve since found irresistable. Whatever disposable shekels I have left after that, I tend to spend on other favourites that I’ve developed on the recommendation of others whose opinions I’ve come to respect. The tendency nowadays is for the fiction/non-fiction proportion of my book purchases has gone from 60/40 to about 30/70. I wish I’d spent more of my youth educating young Michael.


    12 Feb 11 at 2:35 am

  4. It never occurred to me that a reviewer was supposed to “form my taste”. I thought reviewers were supposed to give me enough information about a book so that I could decide if I might be interested in reading it. Not that I read reviews often, especially not reviews of fiction. Like many people, I get books from pure luck (coming across them on the shelves or a library or bookstore), occasional recommendations by friends (depending on how well our tastes match) and reading suggestions in forums like this one.


    12 Feb 11 at 7:59 am

  5. Ha, Mique! I agree with most of you. I’ve bought books on Jane’s recommendations. I’ve bought books because I see a review in the New Yorker and it was either a topic I’m interested in or a writer I want to read more of. I’ve bought books because of the Amazon.com recommendations but only after confirming (by looking into the book more closely) that it’s not just one of those weird “people who bought books by Jane Haddam also bought a vacuum cleaner” things.

    But peer to peer? Hardly ever. I rarely read anything based on recommendations on RAM, for example, because there are so few people there whose tastes are similar to mine. Janet’s recommendations I listen to, and … well, I don’t know.

    But I accumulate books faster than I accumulate dust bunnies, so I’m finding them somewhere.


    12 Feb 11 at 2:40 pm

  6. I don’t buy much fiction these days. Mostly authors I’m already familar with. And I don’t read reviews of fiction.

    I do buy “sciece” books based on reviews in American Scientist. But those reviews are by professional scientists who can tell if the book does a good job of explaining complex ideas for non-experts.


    12 Feb 11 at 4:01 pm

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