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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:

From your point of view, how has the proliferation of online book reviews affected the publishing world?

David G. Hartwell
David G. Hartwell is Senior Editor for Tor books and editor of many anthologies including The Science Fiction Century, The Space Opera Renaissance. He also co-edits the long-running Year’s Best SF anthology series and The New York Review of Science Fiction with his wife, Kathryn Cramer.

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.

James Patrick Kelly
James Patrick Kelly is the author of a slew of novels and short stories including Burn, Look Into the Sun, Strange But Not A Stranger, and Think Like A Dinosaur And Other Stories. His numerous short works include the Hugo Award-winning “Think Like A Dinosaur” and “Ten to the Sixteenth to One”. He is also co-editor with John Kessel of two anthologies: Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology and Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology. He laos writes a column for Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

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.

John Joseph Adams
John Joseph Adams is the editor of the anthologies Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse (Night Shade Books, January 2008), Seeds of Change (Prime Books, Summer 2008), and No More Room in Hell: Stories of the Living Dead (Night Shade Books, October 2008). He is also the assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and a freelance writer. His reviews have appeared in Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.

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.

Paul Raven
Paul Raven is a bedraggled museum library assistant by day, but leads a thrilling double life as a freelance writer and social media consultant. He is Reviews Editor of Interzone, the UK’s longest running science fiction magazine; Non-fiction Editor of Futurismic.com; a freelance music hack for a number of websites including his own creation, The Dreaded Press; and still somehow finds time to collect links and blather about books and other stuff at Velcro City Tourist Board.

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.

Ken of Neth Space
Ken blogs at Neth Space.

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?

Alan Beatts
Alan Beatts is owner of Borderlands Bookstore in San Francisco, a specialty bookstore focusing on the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres.

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.

Niall Harrison
Niall Harrison is editor of Vector, and Senior Reviews Editor for Strange Horizons. He blogs at Torque Control.

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?

Larry from OF Blog of the Fallen
Larry blogs at OF Blog of the Fallen and has recently undertaken a reading project to read the works of Gene Wolfe.

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.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

26 Comments on MIND MELD: How Have Online Book Reviews Affected the Publishing World?

  1. Online Book reviews have affected me as a reader.

    One of the reasons why I first got a subscription to Locus, years ago, was to increase my awareness of new books and forthcoming books, and reviews of books.

    With the proliferation of book reviews on the internet, that need is far less. Still, there is a need for good reviews. I don’t take just anyone’s word.

    “First I try and then I trust”

  2. Thanks for the very interesting post.

  3. Interesting read. Personally, I swear by one and only one source of reviews. Yep, you guessed it: Harriet Klausner!

  4. Great responses! I’d be interested in seeing your opinion John – comment here on your thoughts.

    I can’t remember the book (John will!) but I know at least one quote from the review was printed on the jacket attributed to ‘sfsignal.com’. I’d like to say that one quote made the difference in the books commercial success, but I figure most people don’t really care much about quotes on the jacket.

    The book publishers (like David Hartwell’s Tor) seem to be betting that some amount of online review publicity is valuable even if the actual reviews aren’t very good. One need only look at my embarrassing review of Sun of Suns for an example of how bad a review can be. Did this help sell the book? Extremely unlikely. However a well done review can have an impact – at least if the comments are to be believed.

  5. Even wider…how has the internet affected writing/publishing? Book reviews are one thing, what about the interaction between readers and writers (hello, Mr. Wright!) here, or Baen’s Bar and the like?

  6. My 2 pennies: Any publicity is good publicity.

    Publicity helps sell books by, at the very least, getting the title in front of readers’ eyes. That’s why I see no reason for anyone to be dishonest in reviews: it serves no purpose. Publishers,I suspect, don’t care one way of the other whether a review is favorable or not. As long as the title is in front of readers, they can make up their own mind. As Jim Kelly said above “even a bad review means that somebody noticed”. But while publicity sells books, the specific contribution of blogs is unclear as far as I know, besides the occasional follow-up comment (as Scott linked to above) that a reader will seek out the book.

    Case in point: My own poorly-written reviews of Half Past Human and The Godwhale. Both are unfavorable and in both cases, fans of the author and book came out in droves to protest. If anything, that review helped bring the book to people’s attention. And let’s not even bring up Blade Runner

    I think, Scott, you are referring to a quote from the review of The Affinity Trap which appeared on the back cover of the sequel The Destiny Mask. Also (you sly devil ;-)) I believe you are already aware that a quote for your own review of Event appeared in both the mass-market paperback version and a print ad in Locus magazine. And as long as I’m tooting our horn – Toot! Toot! – various other quotes have appeared in catalogs, publisher websites, author websites and blogs, and Amazon.

  7. Fred: Good topics — hopefully covered in future Mind Melds. Stay tuned… 🙂

  8. I enjoy online book reviews, especially those here at SF Signal. The thing is most of these books that are reviewed are in hard cover format. I don’t have the space to store hc books or money to buy them so I have to wait for a year for the mmp format to come out. Still book reviews give me an idea of what’s coming. Then once I read the book review I go to something like Barnes and Noble and see if the Peak Inside feature applies to the book reviewed. If it does, then I’ve an advantage. If I like the writing and the genre, I put the book on my wish list for when it comes out in the mmp format and order the book. The other thing I like to do before (if I haven’t heard of the author) the mmp edition comes out is go to Fantastic Fiction (on my site) and see what else the author has. The book is in hc format now but the author might have something else of a similar theme a book previous to this. I think it’s a good process. I know, so much for SF/F impulse book buying.

  9. As an online SF reviewer, I find that although I enjoy people’s comments, and enjoy reading the books, and enjoy meeting the authors, the best part about writing reviews is the thinking I get to do about a genre I love.

    Nothing is better than the coalescence of my reaction into a few paragraphs. Does it boost readership of the book, maybe, is ti fun to work on my writing and my critical thinking skills. Oh, yes.

    I am one of those rare revisers who is not also a writer or world-be writer. For me, it is all about reading new material, reacting to it, and putting that into words both urbane and eloquent. More of the former than the later, I assure you.

  10. Heaven’s forbid we bring up the topic of a James Tiptree, Jr. review either!

    |-)

  11. A good and varied round-up…on one hand people saying what they might be expected to say, what they have said in the past; on the other hand, these discussions too often deal only with a snapshot of the present when it comes to online reviewing, while almost everyone involved here made clear that they were also thinking about the future and how online reviewing will continue to change and evolve.

  12. Larry from OF Blog of the Fallen writes:

    “Before 2004, you just didn’t see many dedicated online review sites”

    Which is inaccurate to the point of strangeness. Most of the major online review sites date back to well before 2004. Even excluding personal blogs, the online genre reviewing scene has been vibrant and robust since the mid-90s. Emerald City debuted in 1995, and only ceased publication last year. 1997 saw the launch of SFRevu, SFSite, and Infinity Plus. The former two are still going strong and the latter only closed its doors this year. Strange Horizons started publishing reviews in 2000, and The Agony Column in 2002. These are but a few examples.

    While I agree that online reviewing, in genre in particular, has gained more prominence over the last half-decade, I think this has more to do with the internet’s growing population than with an increase in the number of online review sites.

  13. Abigail (and others, as this originally was going to be in response to the other contributors, before I saw your comment),

    In my defense, when I said “decided review sites,” I was referring to the type of blog that I discussed in the sentence afterwards. Yes, I am very well-aware (having been active online for about seven years now) of each of the sites you mentioned, but again, without looking up the information, what’s the most that would be remembered off-hand by the “average genre reader”? Ten? Twenty? Many of which were short-lived and had a niche audience? My main point still stands – before the past few years, you really didn’t see much in the way of “popular” review blog sites (although I do think my point would have been clearer if I had remembered to put in the “popular” part). A great many of the ones started since then emerged from the UBB-style forums and I think some of that ethos of making short, quick, plot summary-focused commentaries evolved from that setting. It is something that is very different in style, format, and intent than the mid-90s multi-reviewer sites that you mention above.

    Niall makes an interesting point above, about how in some ways a secondary-world (I prefer this term over “epic” or the more pejorative “fat” fantasy because it deals with more than just a Tolkien-lite setting) fantasy has really been under-reviewed in many of the more traditional genre review mags (and nowadays, on many of the sites you named above). That is what I had in mind when I wrote my response to John’s question. Before the past few years, where did you have to go if you were a fan of multi-volume fantasy series? The bookstore? Depend upon a friend? Hope to find a related book in an author’s fansite forum?

    While I will agree with you in that it is a natural growth in online population activity that’s fueling the rise in online reviews, I would argue that there was a gap or need that had to be filled, especially in regards to the types of fantasies that I mentioned above. After all, those tend to be the big sellers, the ones that the publishers most want to make sure potential readers know about. James Patrick Kelley brings up a very pertinent point: the blockbuster model. I hate to say this, but a lot of online blogs are geared towards finding and reviewing the “next big thing” – could be the “next Robert Jordan” or the “next George R.R. Martin,” or the “next ‘gritty’ fantasy author.” There isn’t much coverage given to those who write those quirky, difficult-to-peg, challenging books. That is a shame, yes.

    I like Paul’s point about pluralism perhaps being the way to go. There are reviewers whose main goal, like Ken says above, is to give a personal take on a book, with the audience being perhaps much the same as the “late night bar conversation” that David Hartwell mentions above. There is nothing “wrong” with that approach and that is the desired one that people want. Ken apparently is not aiming to be an “authority,” but rather to present an “everyman” type of book commentary that people can take or leave as the desire hits them. But yet many do not like that approach towards reviewing and they want something that is more “traditional,” where one can sense that the reviewer probably knows a helluva lot about the subject he or she is reviewing. Can these two approaches be reconciled or even synthesized? I think they can and I suspect in the coming years, you’ll start to see people who have grown up with the blogosphere start pushing the envelope, coming up with new techniques that will enable more people to hear about interesting books of all sorts. Sometimes I get the sense that publishers and editors are waiting and seeing just what we’ll come up with next, so they can latch onto it.

    But while we could argue about its antecedents, Abigail, I think the next few years will prove to be more vital. Will personal review blogs that link to each other go the way of Usenet? Only time will see.

    P.S. Sorry for such a lengthy post. Like I said above, there was so much I wanted to hit upon in hopes of others sharing their thoughts.

  14. If I understand you correctly, Larry, you’re correcting your original statement so that, instead of saying that there were very few online review sites before 2004, your contention is that the sites existed, but not a lot of people were reading them. I’m not sure either of us have enough information to make that kind of determination. I was reading most of these sites in 2004, and was aware of the ones I didn’t read regularly. The site managers might be able to tell us whether their usage statistics have increased dramatically over the last three years, but again, how much of that is due to the internet’s increasing population?

    You say that the average SFFH reader wouldn’t have been aware of these sites in 2004. I think we need a more rigorous definition of ‘average’. Are we talking genre readers in general? The majority of them aren’t online, and therefore presumably no more aware of online review sites today than they were in 2004. Among the bloggers I was reading at that period, there was certainly an awareness of these sites, but I’m not sure how indicative that is of the general online genre reader population. However, if we take the Locus Online blinks list, and the Emerald City blog, as the kind of lowest common denominator that most online genre fans would be likely to frequent, then 2004 doesn’t make any sense as a turning point – both were referring readers to online review sites, as well as personal blogs, well before that point.

    Where you may have a point is in the matter of multi-volume fantasy series. Not being a fan of them myself, I can’t say that I’ve paid attention to an increase in coverage, or lack thereof, of these books. That said, most of the sites I listed do cover epic fantasy nowadays – which may be a recent development.

  15. Online blogs and review sites are certainly the way forward, but the way they are handled by the publishing industry is bound to change. I don’t think it is the goal of blogs to become massive review sites, but rather each blog will have a number of regular readers who rely on them for recommendations. As such I see blogs serving the same function as book groups, and some will become large and widespread and influential (Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist being the obvious example and possibly the ‘Oprah’s Book Club’ of the field, a comparison I’m sure he will appreciate!) and others will remain small with just a few regular readers.

    I have perceived an increase in sniffiness towards bloggers (including by some short-sighted authors), perhaps because anyone can have a go at doing it and because in general bloggers do not seem intent on writing huge multi-page essays on each book delving deep into themes and influences. There are people who do that excellently – Larry for one – but a lot of the book-reading public just want short, sharp reviews suggesting if a book is worthwhile or not (William Lexner does an excellent job of the latter). The fact that we have blogs that do both reflects the strength of the Internet, namely that you can find what you want from a review site out there if you look hard enough, and blogs are part of that variety.

  16. “Where you may have a point is in the matter of multi-volume fantasy series.”

    Even there, I’m not sure. One aspect of the decentralized blogoshere is that certain circles do develop, often with very little awareness of what is outside the circle. Looking at two blogosphere darlings, SF Site for example seems to have reviewed The Darkness that Comes Before in 2003 (http://www.sfsite.com/02b/td146.htm), before it was even released, and Gardens of the Moon way back in 1999 (http://www.sfsite.com/06a/gard58.htm).

  17. Abigail,

    I think we’re starting to talk at cross-purposes here. When I said very few, I’m referring to review sites that the internet-savvy person who might read only a handful of the “biggest sellers” in the genre might go. The people who would gravitate to fansite forums for the authors who started to hit the NYT Bestseller Lists back in the late 90s.

    Yes, I know the SF Sites, etc. would do the occasional review of a Robert Jordan et al. but in what form? Was it “accessible” for the people who might have wanted the “quick and dirty” form rather than an elaborate breakdown of a particular volume’s strengths/weaknesses? If you can rattle off well-known blogs that catered to this particular crowd, the one that constitutes a large percentage if not an outright majority of SF/F readers, you will have covered more than I knew back in the day. I used to have to scan fansite forums almost exclusively to find out detailed information about certain books.

    I have helped co-run one particular fansite’s (wotmania) Other Fantasy section since it was established back in October 2001. In that time, it wasn’t until quite recently that one started to see a proliferation of readers creating their own blogs, crosslinking with one another, branching out to cover the types of books that they wanted to cover and mentioning their conclusions on forums such as the one I mentioned above. If it were an old phenomenon, we wouldn’t be having this question asked in the first time – the numbers really have exploded in the past few years within even a limited subsection of the genre such as secondary-world fantasies. Even outside of it, who is really “established” in the personal reviewing/SF blogging area? One of the oldest ones that comes to mind is Matthew Cheney and he’s only been doing that since late 2003. So yes, compared to the past few years, what happened before 2004 or so really is small in comparison in terms of reach and impact on those who use the web to troll for books akin to their favorites.

    And as an aside for the anonymous person who responded at 9:01 AM, neither of those books was available in the US in 2003 – Bakker’s first book was released in Canada that year and Erikson’s were UK only from 1999-2004. If I recall, it took quite a bit of mobilization on the larger secondary-world fantasy forums stating a wish for there to be a US release before either author found a US publisher. Decentralized? Hell yeah it was, because there weren’t any blogs out there of which those sites’ readers were aware. Times have changed to an extent there. Now you have these “reader blogs,” if that term is neutral enough, that are promoting the newest and the next in these line of books, often months before their release dates in the US or UK territories because those bloggers are receiving ARCs from the publishers – something that certainly was not a common thing even a few years ago.

    But perhaps in the end, what we’ll end up discussing is what constitutes the “readership.” That, that I’ll leave to others to define. It might be that we are defining the terms of debate by our personal experiences. There is one final thing vaguely related to this that I am pondering: Where has most of the discussion taken place regarding Tor’s choice to complete the final Wheel of Time novel? Or even more recently, who’s going to be discussing Terry Pratchett’s announcement that he has early-onset Alzheimer’s?

  18. Jeff VanderMeer // December 12, 2007 at 3:12 pm //

    I think you find just as many crappy reviews in print magazines as online. It’s somewhat illogical to assume that the way in which a publication is presented to the public–whether print or online–necessarily indicates a difference in quality. What I would like to see happen is for more print-only publications to begin publishing their reviews online. As far as I’m aware, NYR of SF still doesn’t post its contents online, which is missing an opportunity. NYR of SF does present a variety of not just reviews but *criticism* and actual essays, usually of a pretty high quality. Posting this material online would provide examples that would be useful for some others…

    JeffV

  19. Very interesting article. I am in the process of reorganizing my review site. The comments made here will be considered as I look at how I am reviewing books.

  20. This from Adam: “Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist being the obvious example and possibly the ‘Oprah’s Book Club’ of the field, a comparison I’m sure he will appreciate!)”

    I highly doubt that I’ve reached Oprah’s stature (or that I’ll ever come close to it, for that matter!), but it sure beats being compared to Harriet Klausner!;-)

  21. FYI: More great discussion on this topic can be found here.

  22. I review all sorts of books on my own blog, but tend toward fantasy and horror more than anything else. I’m happy to say that I’m edited, but that’s because I’m married to an English professor who teaches writing first and foremost, and rarely does anything get posted that does not first pass through his hands. It helps.

    I used to review for Rick Kleffel at The Agony Column, and I know that reviews I wrote there had some impact (Greg Frost still quotes my review of his wonderful collection, ATTACK OF THE JAZZ GIANTS). Rick’s site is, as far as I can tell, pretty darned influential, especially now that he’s podcasting. He works very hard at turning out an excellent project.

    Abigail, too, is an excellent blogger, and I can’t imagine that she isn’t influential as well. As she knows, she and I often disagree, but I always respect her opinion. I think she is an amazing writer and critic, even when she’s wrong. In my opinion, of course.

    There’s so much stuff being published that the print journals can’t possibly get around to all of it. That’s why bloggers really will, ultimately, make a difference. SOMEONE’s going to read it, whatever it is, somewhere along the line, and have an opinion about it, and be a guide to someone else who wants to know about it. With any luck, it will be someone with some genuine judgment who just happened to pick up something that everyone else missed. So, for instance: I read and reviewed Mary Gentle’s ILARIO books, which were not widely reviewed, so far as I can tell. I hope my review will lead people who will enjoy them to pick them up. That’s what I’m aiming for.

  23. I think the biggest question is – aside from the ‘all publicity is good publicity’ statement, do online book reviews influence anybody to buy a book? I’m not so sure.

  24. Good question — and the topic of this week’s poll! (Accessible from the from the main page.)

  25. Speaking as a voracious reader of F&SF (purchase and read between 20-25 books a month), my purchasing has definitely been influenced by the blog-reviews. The blog format (which tends to include many informal posts in addition to plenty of reviews) tends to permit the reader to familiarize him/her-self with the reviewer’s tastes. I know that I tend to like the books that Pat and Adam W (Pats Fantasy Hotlist and the Wertzone) praise, and I occasionally look at the more ‘literary’ titles recommended by Jay Tomio or William Lexner. Their sites allow me to be much more precise when purchasing my monthly allotment of books 🙂 I have also found the blog sites to be a great source of industry news, discussion, and sites-of-interest (browsing through chains of links via blog sites can consume days of my time).

    Publicized reviews, and the more formal review sites of the 90s, tend to be much less personal, quirky, and representative of my tastes (as a reader). I am also increasingly weary of professional critics, as their opinions almost never match my own (often more useful to reverse critical opinion, as too many reviewers praise originality and invention regardless of quality).

  26. RE: “…do online book reviews influence anybody to buy a book?”

    If our readers are any indication, the answer is an overwhelming YES.

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