MIND MELD: How Have Online Book Reviews Affected the Publishing World?
Welcome to what we hope is a long-running feature of SF Signal: The Mind Meld!
In this series of posts, we pose a single question to a slice of the sf/f community and, depending on the question, other folks as well. The idea is similar to the Brain Parade posts that used to appear on the long-defunct Meme Therapy blog. What we hope to get is an interesting cross-section of views and opinions that open a particular topic up for discussion. We’d love to hear what you think!
For now, let’s begin this post’s question:
Online reviewing at this point is a hopeful mess, rather than a hopeless one. A majority of it still has the validity of a late night bar conversation, or an offhanded phone call, blurting out undefended opinions, to which everyone is entitled. The hopeful sign is that a small portion of it is written to publishable print standards, and an even smaller portion is actually edited. That small portion is what publishers and sensible writers pay some attention to. Readers tend to find their own level, and as in contemporary politics, go where their own opinions are reflected back at them. That’s the real mess part. So no one learns anything.
I guess I have two points of view – is that allowed? I’m not sure that the proliferation of online book reviews has yet had a huge impact on the way that publishers and booksellers do business. Sure, the occasional title might well get acclaim online and in the blogosphere. But that just feeds into the pernicious blockbuster model of bookselling. When we see evidence that online reviews are pumping up sales for midlist and long tail titles, maybe shining their light on the quirky, the literary, the difficult and especially those books aimed at a niche market that hit their target exactly, then a new day would indeed dawn. But I fear that not enough potential buyers of these types of books are reading online reviewers to make much of a difference. Having said that, I think that online reviewers have a major impact on net savvy writers. I supposed I should be embarrassed to confess this, but I regularly egosurf, and I probably see the overwhelming majority of my online reviews. Writers are validation junkies and even a bad review means that somebody noticed. We read (and reread) reviews of all stripes — even the hateful ones – and then chew over them obsessively. So yes, I, for one, am paying close attention, dear reviewers. Try to be kind, but if you can’t, then at least be right.
Online reviews–and pretty much everything online in general–have their detractors, but I think that more reviews, whether they be online or in print, are a good thing. Sure, the very nature of online communication makes it possible for bone-heads who don’t know what they’re talking about to shout their thoughts to the masses, but you have to take the good with the bad. But the thing is, even those bone-heads can be useful; as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Even a bad review is better than no review; and bone-head reviews are less damaging than negative reviews from professional critics–because with the bone-heads, everyone (or at least most everyone) reading the reviews will figure out they’re written by bone-heads and react to them accordingly.
And online book reviews have certainly been good to me as a reviewer. The time I spent reviewing for Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show did a lot to raise my profile in the SF community. But the other type of online review–the more informal blog review–is equally valuable to the community, and to the reviewer him/herself. A well-written blog review is just as useful to general readers, and sometimes more so, because with a blogger, you can kind of get to know them and their tastes a bit more than you can with a reviewer, since bloggers can write about a variety of subjects in the same space, whereas a reviewer, all you see in each column is his/her thoughts on books.
Who I think reaps the most benefit from online reviews is independent and small presses. Lots of times books from such publishers are overlooked in favor of releases from major houses. And I think that’s where the importance of online reviews comes into play: They help keep an independent voice in the public consciousness, and without them, it would be very easy for mega-conglomerates to control everything we read, watch, or listen to.
It all together depends on what you mean by ‘publishing world’. If you mean the publishing industry – the actual businesses that do the buying of manuscripts and printing and promotion of the resulting books – I’m not sure that much has changed, except the venues they need to send stuff to get it reviewed. The internet provides more specialist niches than the book sections of the big newspapers ever could, so in some ways it may be easier for them now – however, whether it’s more effective or not, I imagine only they could tell you!
But if by ‘publishing world’ you mean authors and readers and (of course) reviewers themselves as well as the publishing houses, it has changed hugely. The web is inherently a dialogue platform, whereas print media like newspapers is resistant to feedback simply because of the distribution logistics – if you read a review of a book you disagreed with in, say, The Guardian, what would be the odds of your letter in response to it getting printed? Pretty bloody low, I think it’s safe to say. Web reviewing opens up reviews for public debate in something close to real-time – a double-edged sword, perhaps, but still a major change.
Which makes things new for authors and readers, too – it’s a lot easier for a fan-base to mobilise in support of an author (witness Jonathan McCalmont getting bum-rushed by the G R R Martin brigade), or for an author to fire off a terse response without thinking and make a fool of themselves (the name escapes me, but there was a big hoo-ha about a horror writer doing this recently). The landscape has changed, and we’re still settling in; the protocols and the etiquette aren’t yet concrete. But it’s getting there slowly, I think.
The biggest change is for us reviewers ourselves, as far as I can see. I mean, if it weren’t for the internet, I wouldn’t be known as a reviewer beyond the pages of Interzone, and you’d not be asking me this question! The web gives me more places to get my reviews published, more ways of engaging with an industry and an art-form that for years I was merely a passive consumer of. Which is fabulous from where I’m sitting – but again, it’s a double-edged sword. Witness Harriet Klausner, for example. But therein lies the rub – Klausner wouldn’t be where she is if people didn’t read her. And that’s probably the biggest change of all – there’s now room for every type of reviewing possible, from the “reminiscent of Tolkien at his peak, four flaming swords out of five!!” stuff to the more academic and heavy-duty critical pieces. And this is where market forces make themselves felt – people gravitate to the reviews they want to read.
Everyone wants something different from a book review (or a music review, or product review, or whatever), and the anarchic economics of internet publishing mean that all those needs can be supplied in proportion to demand. Whether that will end up doing any good for literature as a whole (or more specifically genre literature) remains to be seen. But I lean toward pluralism; as long as there’s still space for me to write reviews, and for other people to write the sort of reviews I like to read, I think there’s more than enough space for everything else as well.
From my point of view…eh – this seems to be the key part of the question. As one of those who is guilty of proliferating on-line reviews, I’m going to be rather biased. In my own experience, I consider it an important evolution in the way people can discover new books. I would estimate that in the past five years I’ve bought in excess of 400 books. I would also estimate that in the five years previous that I bought something around 50 books. That increase in book buying is directly correlated to my book-related involvement on the internet (sure there are other factors, but this one is the most significant). So, from a publisher’s perspective, people like me are the target.
People like me don’t necessarily have the time or means to browse bookstores in person. People like me have embraced the internet and developed a network of on-line friends whose opinions we respect (even if we don’t always agree with them). When my on-line friends and acquaintances recommend/review a book, I pay attention. My book purchases over the past few years are dominated by such recommendations and I no longer purchase a book without first searching out on-line reviews and recommendations trusted sources.
Now I have become one of those people reviewing books – which ultimately serves a role very similar to recommending books. Presumably, people like me are reading the reviews I write and using them as deciding factors in their book buying.
Back to the original question – on-line reviews provide unprecedented access to a group of consistent and reliable potential customers. In concert with all the book-related on-line communities, on-line reviews help to foster an atmosphere where reading is accepted, respected, and considered “cool”. In short, on-line reviews have become an essential part of the way forward, and the very survival of publishers in a rapidly changing environment.
How about that for self-serving, pretentious answer?
As a bookseller I don’t think I’ve seen as much of the effects as authors or publishers. What I’ve seen most clearly is that it accelerates and improves the feedback process from readers. In the past, reviews didn’t really reflect the opinion of readers as much as they reflected the opinion (and bias) of professional reviewers. This is not to say that professional reviews don’t serve a very valuable purpose or that reviewers don’t strive for objectivity but, a review from a reader (by it’s very nature) more accurately reflects what the book buying public is thinking. And that is as valuable (and far less subjective) as a “professional” review.
With the capability of the internet to give every reader a forum to express their opinion of an author’s work, online reviews give booksellers an additional resource to draw on. One that is perhaps less sophisticated than a professionals but at the same time gives a better feel for the ground level impression of a work.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what publishers, booksellers, authors or reviewers think of a book. The end-user is the reader and they are the people who pay the bills. It’s great to be able to read what they think.
I’m going to answer for the sf publishing world specifically, since that’s the only subsection of the publishophere with which I can claim any familiarity, and my answer is: I don’t think it’s had a dramatic effect. At least not yet. For example, you’re still much more likely to see a dust-jacket quote attributed to Locus or Interzone than you are to see one from SciFiWeekly, SF Site or Strange Horizons, although that’s starting to change; and with the exception of Matt Cheney, I can’t remember seeing any blogger cited *as* a blogger. (I’m sure some quotes from John Clute’s Excessive Candour column have been used on books, but that’s arguably a special case.) Either the online community hasn’t yet produced individuals or brands that your average reader in the bookshop will recognise, or publishers haven’t picked up on them.
I tend to think the former explanation is more likely, because publishers — some more than others, admittedly — are clearly aware of bloggers and online review sites as marketing channels. What’s new, perhaps, at least when it comes to bloggers, is the kind of reviews we’re seeing and the kind of reviewer writing them. The classical print model is of reviewer-as-authority, reviewer as someone with an in-depth knowledge of the field they’re writing about. Even in fanzines that’s been true — William Atheling Jr’s columns, for an early example — if not universal. When you trust the opinions of that sort of reviewer, it’s a trust based at least in part on the sense that they probably know more about the field than you. In contrast, a lot, possibly most, of the sf review blogs out there at the moment tend to be self-consciously written from the perspective of the average reader. The trust that builds between the reader and this kind of reviewer is based more on the idea that this person is like me. They know what they like in a book and they say so plainly.
This isn’t a bad thing. It could become a bad thing if it becomes the dominant model for online reviews, but that seems unlikely. That said, and I’m sure this won’t be a surprise, I prefer authoritative reviewers, in large part because they tend to expand my reading horizons more — in my experience they’re more likely to bring quirky or under-exposed books to my attention. (I’d go so far as to say that finding such books should be one of the modern reviewer’s main tasks.) On the other hand, you could say that the books the new sf bloggers are covering are under-exposed in their own way: when was the last time you saw Gary Wolfe reviewing Steven Erikson or Kate Elliott?
I think the past 3-4 years has seen a sea change in how publishers are addressing their market. Although galleys and review copies have been sent to reviewers for quite some time, until recently the perception was that only the big-name newspapers, with their subscription lists of over 100,000, got to read/review the hottest releases before the release date. But with the decline of newspaper coverage and the corresponding rise in online blogs, many of whom have an audience in the thousands, things have changed. Before, it was hit-or-miss with the newspaper coverage, since so many various types of readers (some of whom would roll their eyes at any mention of the words “fantasy” or “science fiction”) might or might not read it. But with online SF/F-devoted websites and blogs, it is much easier for publishers to focus their resources and not have as much of a “miss.”
Publishers obviously have taken note of the rise in viewership in SF-related blogs such as Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist. Before 2004, you just didn’t see many dedicated online review sites and I believe readers were hungry for learning more about the “next big thing” and they wanted it spelled out in layman’s terms with short reviews that focused more on plot summary and personal opinions than on a thematic exploration that was then the norm in professional reviews. So when certain blogs began to draw in a large, dedicated online audience, it was only natural that publishers would want for these bloggers to review their latest books. Add to that the promotional giveaways of galleys and signed books that were done in arrangement with particular bloggers and the publishers found a cheaper, more effective way to market their books to their intended audience.
Whether or not this recent “democratization” of the reviewing process will last, however, is uncertain. I have already started to hear some rumblings about how too many people are reviewing the same book at roughly the same time, with some being accused of being little better than the infamous Harriet Klausner in the quality and depth of their reviews. I would not be surprised to see in the next five years a consolidation of sorts, similar to what happened in the computer industry in the early 1980s in regards to operating systems, in regards to which blogs/review sites receive publisher attention. It all depends on how online reviewers evolve their approach to reviewing and if they can keep a large audience while offering something “different” from the other reviewers covering the same books. If there is a glut of reviewers for a particular genre, it may mean a sort of Darwinian fight in the near future to see which blogs are best qualified to receive review copies for particular books. The next five years will be full of growing pains for the fledgling online reviewer/publisher relationship and I do not know if we can predict well what will emerge after that span.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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