Thursday, September 20, 2007

BLOG REVIEW WEEK, 3: Reviewer and Author: Happy Partnership or Uneasy Truce?--Cathy Clamp

When veinglory posted up a notice on a site we both frequent that she was looking for guest bloggers to talk about book reviews, I was intrigued. Authors have sort of a love/hate relationship with reviewers that crosses genre and category boundaries. Good reviews make us want to jump around the room and can keep us giddy for days. Bad reviews can elicit anger, embarrassment or even depression in some authors who are on the sensitive side (I’m not one of them, FWIW.) The bigger the status of the reviewer, the bigger the elation or let-down. For a paperback paranormal author such as myself, a good review in RT, PNR, Locus or Science Fiction Book Club is the equivalent of the New York Times for a hardback literary author. Authors know how valuable good advance reviews can be toward print runs, and how quickly a bad review can mean the end of a book (and possibly a career.) So, we send out our books with hopeful trepidation, wishing for the five stars, five blue ribbons, five champagne glasses or whatever the magazine/newspaper/website or blog uses, but fearing a three star “average” rating or worse—the dreaded one star. Yikes!

But do reviews mean anything in the real world? Are readers even looking? This is a question that’s coming up more and more often in the industry. Newspapers like the LA Times, Boston Globe and Chicago Sun-Times have cut their formerly hefty Book Review sections to a ghostly shadow of their former selves, and some genre magazines have eliminated them altogether. The October, 2007 cover story of Columbia Journalism Reviews discusses the matter at length. Review sections are a losing proposition to newspapers. As the author stated:

“In his illuminating 1985 three-part series in the Los Angeles Times on how newspapers go about reviewing books, David Shaw, the paper’s late Pulitzer Prize-winning media correspondent, quoted Mitchel Levitas, then the editor of The New York Times Book Review: “We lose money, and we always have, but I don’t know how much.” At the time, Levitas’s section at the Times had a staff of twenty-one, The Washington Post had four, and the Los Angeles Times made do with two full-time editors. Shaw reported that in the mid-1980s, The Washington Post was losing nearly $1 million a year on its Sunday book section. In 1985, the San Francisco Chronicle was expecting to lose just under a quarter million dollars on its weekly twelve tabloid pages devoted to books.” ( see here for the full article)

Of course, newspapers are all about making a profit, and few publishers have the budget to advertise in that medium to help pay the costs. Bookstores found it more economical to advertise where they would find casual buyers, from the news section to sports and even flyer inserts. So, without a profit margin, the sections have slimmed and trimmed until they’re little more than recitations of the back cover blurbs with little substance that will talk about the nuances of language or plot.

And readers are noticing. Those readers accustomed to detailed accounts of books from authors they’ve never encountered before are lamenting the lack of coverage. Something is missing over coffee on Sunday morning, when leisurely discussions about arts were commonplace. Authors are both frustrated and concerned about disappearing reviews because we understand that the lack of noise about the book before release can mean diminished sales. After all, if a reader doesn’t know the book exists, they can’t be expected to go buy it.

Fortunately, readers were frustrated enough that they began looking elsewhere. When they couldn’t find reviews in newspapers or magazines, they started to look to a different medium for the information they craved. The internet has come to the rescue of both readers and authors. Genre book reviewers flourish on dozens, if not hundreds, of websites, RSS feeds and blogs. Some reviewers are paid, while others do it for the simple love of books and wanting to share them with others. As I write this post, I’m looking at another screen where I have a list of over thirty-five book review websites where I dutifully send copies of our books to be glorified or slaughtered (ask me sometime about the well-known reviewer who wanted to throw one of our heroines “face first into a wood chipper” and you’ll understand the slaughter comment. LOL!) Some sites have thousands of monthly readers, while others have just a dozen or so devoted fans.

A number of other authors have asked why I do it. Why do I spend the time to create PDF versions of our books to send out to dozens of reviewers? Why do I spend the postage to mail out more dozens of Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) to others? The simple truth is that I know the kind of reader who likes our kind of books DOES read reviews, and we’re new enough in the game that plenty of people have never heard of our books. So, the more reviews that are out there, the more readers are exposed to our books, and the better chance for the reader to get an unbiased view of the book.

Ah, yes—now we’re into the meat of the subject. Are reviews biased? Have reviews become more author promotion than reader education? Rumors are whispered on reading loops and groups, wondering whether a book that received praise from a favorite reviewer, but flames from readers, was based on the amount of dollars spent on the flashing banner ad on the front page. Are reviewers influenced by money or editor pressure? After all, some magazines will review a book ONLY if money is spent on an ad, and even respected review veterans like Kirkus are taking heat for allowing “paid-for” ads to appear on its pages.

Recently, I spotted a discussion on one of our Amazon pages about a particular review. I’d never before seen comments ABOUT a review, so I clicked to look. The comments accused the reviewer (which is one of Amazon’s top 100 reviewers) of bias, of not reading the books being reviewed because there was insufficient time to have read and reviewed it on the first day it was offered to the public and of inaccurate reviews. Naturally, I stepped in, because those commenting didn’t understand about the mailing of advance copies of the book to reviewers months before release, nor of Amazon’s policy not to post reviews until the opening day, even though written and submitted much earlier.

But one question by a poster caught me by surprise. It asked whether I felt the review of my book was fair. The reviewer had given our book an excellent rating, but I know for a fact that the reviewer read the book. In fact, she sent me an email the previous fall, asking if such-and-such error she spotted would be fixed in the final version (Advance copies are often made before editing is complete. The error in question had been caught.) I replied flippantly on the Amazon site that naturally I felt it was fair—it was a good review. But in reality, that wasn't the only reason. The review posted discussed elements of the book that weren’t obvious without thorough reading and talked about minute characterization details. So yeah, I felt it was fair.

But readers look at reviews for different reasons than authors, so the question of bias is valid. Authors are looking for sound bites . . . favorable bits of the review that can be posted on future cover jackets, touted on websites and grace advertisements. Readers are looking for the “down and dirty.” They want to know the negatives, from plot holes to “too stupid to live” heroines. They want to be convinced that the book is worth their hard-earned money. When plot elements are taken from the back of jacket covers on ARCs, it shows. One early review of our first book had the wrong person becoming a werewolf, and for the wrong reason. Another about a soon to be released book believed an early (and incorrect) distributor blurb and gave the wrong job to the wrong person.

Reviews do a disservice to readers when the plot recitation in the review makes it obvious the book wasn’t read in full (if at all.) They have no value if they only have fluff inside, when terms like “brilliant” and “mesmerizing” are used in conjunction with a 3-star ranking. Romantic Times long ago eliminated the 5 star rating. When I asked a senior reviewer why the highest review that could be obtained is a 4-1/2 Gold, the answer was simple. “No book is perfect.” And as much as we authors hate to admit it, no book is.

Then comes the question of whether an author actually wants a fair review. Well, of course we do! Even the most sensitive among us don’t want false praise. It’s like having confetti thrown on you every day you show up for work. Sure, it’s nice and flattering for a while, but quickly gets old. It also diminishes your true achievements. When you really do go above and beyond the call, what’s left to say? How will a reader know a true masterpiece from a “fun beach read” when the same words are used to describe both? How will a true masterpiece that will someday be compared to Jane Austin or Margaret Mitchell be found if the reviews give the wrong plot details? So, reviews do have value. The words have the power to sway.

The problem is with bad reviews that so many authors keep silent about it. Very seldom do I hear of authors who actually contact the review site or magazine management to complain about a WRONG review. I’m one of the few that actually does. Because if a character name is spelled wrong or a detail is way out of whack, it doesn’t just affect the book, it affects the good name of the review site. The more errors that occur that are allowed to slide, the more readers will find the reviews on that site to be valueless—all the reviews.

Overall, I think reviews matter, and since reviewers are really in the service of READERS, then their relationship with authors will always be an uneasy truce . . . of the very best kind. :)

1 comment:

veinglory said...

I think there is a lot of 'confetti' online. It's nice and all but the appeal does where off after a while. It's got to the point where a bad review engages my interest a lot more than a bland good one. Typcially a review has *thought* about a bad review and so their is some real content to what they say ;)