Reviews Ain’t What They Used To Be

It’s true that it had been a while since I’d published a book.  My first book came out in 1997, my second in 2001, and here I am eleven years later facing a whole new reality when it comes to my new novel, The Goodtime Girl, getting publicity.

Newspapers have cut their book sections to a mere page or two on weekends, Montreal has lost its two alternative weeklies, The Mirror and The Hour, and what reviews do appear are shared amongst various papers under the same corporate umbrella, so the variety of voices and views is very much diminished.

Social networks are supposed to fill in the gaps, give the author more control of his/her marketing, and readers more of a voice in terms of their likes and dislikes.  This is not a bad thing.  A study by Heritage Canada states that the top two reasons people buy/read a book is because a friend recommended it, or because they received it as a gift.  Reviews came in third in terms of book buying, which is probably a good thing at a time when fewer and fewer books are being formally reviewed, but more and more are appearing thanks to wild frontier of e-publishing.  Rankings and reader reviews on Amazon,Likes on Facebook pages, recommendations on Goodreads, not to mention the plethora of other sites dedicated to books, book clubs, etc. are certainly valid sources of information, and I value the time and effort any reader puts into expressing an opinion on my books. In fact, I encourage it.

But it’s a lot of work for an author to maintain a presence on all of these different sites, to remain in the virtual spotlight, to get the word out to others who will in turn get the word out, and so on, and so on…  There are experts who recommend the number of Tweets a day an author should send out, how many contacts he or she needs to make on a daily basis, how many freebies to give away in order to hopefully sell a few other copies of the book.  Granted, this freebie-to-sales ratio is probably no different than when publishing houses send out review copies in order to generate a review and subsequently sales.  So here we are again: reviews let people know your book is out there, and whether they are favorable or not, they start the ball rolling.  Even a lousy review will give at least a bit of plot summary and context for a reader to go by.

But opinions on any form of art are, to some degree, going to be subjective.  I know that when I look up restaurant reviews on Yelp or Urban Spoon, I am not sure who to believe.  The person who deemed the lobster thermidor sandwich the best on the continent or the one who swears the lobster was actually mock crab? And when I check out the reviews after I’ve visited one of these places, I see how my experience  varied wildly from some of these self-appointed food critics.  The problem is familiarity–or lack thereof.  When you get to know reviewers you can gauge your taste against theirs, you can recognize their peeves and their agendas.  If you read a Manohla Dargis review in the New York Times, you know what you’re getting, and from whom.  She is a known quantity, love her or hate her.

One might say that if you follow a certain blogger who reviews books, you also get to know his or her taste, and once again you can make an intelligent decision about whether you want to read a book. This is, no doubt, true, but those stellar reviewers can be hard to find, and if there’s one thing you can say about the more conventional (some might say old-fashioned) venues for reviews, it is that there was oversight, quality control, and consistency. Not to mention that it can be daunting for a reader to wade through the various blogs, opinions, profiles, etc.  I’m an obsessive reader, and I find it difficult.

We used to have common sources, which gave us some common ground for information, for debate.  They were not always inclusive or fair (there are still more men being reviewed by the major publications, and most of the reviewers are also men, which raises the question about the kind of information they are delivering about certain types of books by female authors, but that’s a whole other blog post for another time).  With the internet, we no longer watch the same t.v. shows, listen to the same music, read the same books–we are, in a sense, on our own, both as artists and consumers.  There is definitely more variety, but it is harder to find, and most importantly,  harder to trust.

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