Friday, March 16, 2007

Why Review Space Is (and possibly should be) In Decline

A recent article citing that the L.A. Times is expected to end freestanding book reviews is but one example of a growing trend and serious issue for authors: Book review space is in decline.

Author J. Peder Zane has chimed in on this trend, with his fear - no, make that prediction - …that literary fiction will be increasingly marginalized as general interest publications focus on "books people actually read."

So, wait a second? We actually have people advocating that review space should be devoted to books people don’t read? The temptation to start criticizing here and now is great, but in order to fully appreciate my disgust with this very notion, we need to first look at the job of the reviewer.

For the purpose of this post we’ll only look at the definition that’s applicable.

re·view n
A journalistic article giving an assessment of a book, play, movie, concert, or other public performance

A reviewer is someone who writes an article giving an assessment of a book, play, movie, concert or other public performance.

Now, let’s examine journalism. Journalism works the same way every other commercial product works. You produce a product which you sell. If you sell enough you stay in the game. If you don’t sell enough you fold.

In the case of newspapers you need to sell advertising space and you need subscribers. One hand washes the other. Why do you think newspapers give steep discounts to subscribers? Because it is the subscriber base that is used to persuade advertisers that this is a solid avenue to market to consumers through. If you don’t have sufficient circulation you won’t get those ads. And, let’s face it. There are tv ads, radio ads, billboards, ads on buses and subways and online. It isn’t like there’s a shortage of advertising space to consider. Therefore, everyone who relies on ad revenue must be a viable player. In this case, newspapers must have solid readership.

This is, in my opinion, why review space in many newspapers is decreasing. Reviewers fail to understand their role is not to be a cultural innovator. Their role is to reflect popular culture. Why do you think that so many newspapers report on Brangelina and TomKat? Why do we see cover after cover on People with Jennifer Aniston etc? Not because they are the most important people in our society, but because they’re popular.

Let’s face it: Nobody picks up a newspaper for the review section, unless they suspect their book/play/movie/CD is going to be reviewed.

What does entice people to read reviews? People read reviews of books they’re thinking about buying, or of books they’ve written, or of books their friends have written. The average person does not put their feet up and read the review section for entertainment.

And this is where the issue is. If the review section is filled with assessments of books people haven’t heard of and have no interest in reading they’ll just move on to the next section.

Now, I’m not up on the current statistics, but let’s make up some just for the sake of example. Last time I was given stats I was told that 28% of the market was mystery books, so I’ll work from there. (And my apologies – I don’t remember if this was Canada, North America, America or global, but the point is, these aren’t accurate numbers, although they are loosely based off general comments I’ve heard on the stats.)

So, let’s say the sale of books breaks down like this:

22% mystery
22% romance
17% non-fiction/resource
2% western
5% horror
5% fantasy/sci fi
15% childrens
12% literature

If these are the sales figures then review space should be allotted accordingly. 22% of reviews covering mystery. 22% cover romance, etc.

I am saying this as a person who counts Bronte, Dickens and Austen amongst their favourite all-time authors. I’ll happily pull out Joseph Conrad for an afternoon and indulge. The Chrysalids, Fahrenheit 451, Anthem, Heart of Darkness, Jane Eyre, Hamlet, Brave New World… these books are shelved along with works by Tolkein, Lewis, Christian philosopher Francis Shaeffer and Anita Shreve.

However, when I open up the arts and entertainment sections, when I see the entertainment magazines, I see them touting the latest over-hyped movie. I see them discussing the current blockbuster.

In 23 weeks The Departed earned $132,310,442. By comparison, in 31 weeks Little Miss Sunshine earned $59,831,476.

Do you want to hazard a guess which movie I saw more reviews and advertisements for? Come on, go out on a limb here. That’s right. The Departed.

The reality is that reviewers of CDs and movies all seem to understand that you need to cover enough of what’s popular in order to keep people interested. If Ebert and Roeper (or whoever it is now) decided to stop reviewing Hollywood films and only discuss French imports do you think their show would still be on the air? Of course not.

It’s the first rule in any commercial enterprise. Know your audience. If you aren’t appealing to your target market you aren’t going to stay in the game – end of story. This is why there are award-winning authors who find themselves without publishers – the sales aren’t there. Awards and good reviews are nice, but if you don’t sell it’s ‘don’t let the door hit you on the way out’. Publishers will only stay behind you for so long and then you have to start performing and that’s reasonable.

Therefore, it’s also reasonable to point out that reviewers have to cater to an audience, and if they don’t they’ll lose the audience. And if they lose the audience they’ll lose their ad revenue for their section and, ultimately, their job.

You know how the newspapers know enough people aren’t reading the reviews? They take away the space and nobody complains, because nobody notices.

Now, the truth is, people do read reviews. However, I can honestly say that most people I know will read reviews of books they’re already interested in buying. I don’t read many reviews myself, but I’ll read reviews of the new Rebus books. I mean, I have a cat named Rebus – do you really think I might not buy the new book? There isn’t even a remote possibility I’ll skip it, but I’ll tune in to see what the buzz is before I get a copy.

Another thing I can honestly say is that almost exclusively, the reviews I read are online. I have been told by authors that when we’ve reviewed their books their sales figures have spiked on amazon. I have no idea. I have no idea if the reviews of my own book corresponded to any sales spike, because I didn’t monitor my sales ranking (an idiotic form of self torture – past week 1 I was pretty much done, although Kevin continued to watch the stats).

When it comes to reviewing in Spinetingler I have certain luxuries. For one thing, I’m not paid. We don’t get advertising revenue to support our review site or that section of the ezine. So I don’t have to concern myself with whether anyone other than the author reads the review. Therefore, I never have to consider what books are marketable and what books aren’t when I do reviews. I insist on the liberty of choosing things I’m interested in, since this is an investment of my free time.

If I wrote for a newspaper it would be a different matter entirely. I would certainly hope to have the liberty of inserting my own personal pick of the week, but I would expect to be assigned to review more popular books people are interested in reading about.

I’ve known people who’ve read reviews, thought a book sounded interesting and then they went to look for it and couldn’t find it anywhere. Not knowing anything about the inner workings of the publishing business they expressed extreme frustration – why was a reviewer even talking about a book they couldn’t get? And in some cases, couldn’t order into local stores?

Such occurrences contribute to a jaded outlook amongst consumers. If it happens a few times they’ll stop reading those reviews, because the books are inaccessible to them anyway. You scoff and say they can order through amazon, but my own best friend, who is a nurse and two years younger than me doesn’t have the internet at home and makes no online purchases. I had to order in my book for her. Same with my mother-in-law, and half a dozen others.

The reality is, if reviewers are going to insist on largely covering books people have no interest in reading, it stands to reason that nobody will read those reviews either. I don’t have to care for Spinetingler – I could stop reviewing tomorrow – but if you get paid to do this then you have to care. It’s the same as running an ice cream shop. It doesn’t matter if your favourite flavours are mint chocolate chip and tin roof sundae – you have to sell cookies ‘n’ cream, bubble gum and tiger tiger if those are the most popular.

We all understand that when we go to a car dealership the most popular models are the ones they carry more stock of, and that when we go to HMV we’ll find more albums in store by The Rankin Family than Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans.

Well, end of the day, review space is a commercial product. And if it doesn’t reflect the interests of consumers it’s just an indulgence destined to go the way of the dinosaur.

The moral is, if we can’t get reviewers to be relevant enough to save the review space, we have to be forward thinking. As a reviewer I am contacted routinely with offers of books.

As an author, I see that we have to move beyond conventional reviews and find other avenues to promote our work. Bookstores like Murder By The Book have exceptional staff who hand sell books – authors have told me in some cases hundreds per copy.

And the other obvious avenue is to support the fan magazines and e-zines. There is more innovation to be discussed. One would hope that it isn’t too late to salvage some review space in conventional outlets.

Then again, with newspaper readership declining, perhaps we need to stop flogging a dead horse and move on. It seems to me the writing is on the wall, and the publishers who will gain the advantage now are the ones innovative enough to find new, effective methods of promoting books.

(And before anyone jumps on a tangent and starts bashing away, celebrity couples, what Paris What's-her-face is doing or who she's doing and Britney's breakdown are of no interest to me. You can't help learning about it - bad enough it's all over the news but then people hash it over on blogs. I mean, fair enough, talk about what interests you, but to me, it's of little to no importance. I'm not personally happy that they get as much coverage as they do, but I understand that the reason they get coverage is because they sell papers. In order to fix that we need to reprogram the future generations to have some taste and common sense.

And what's worse is, there are far more important things to focus on than subjects such as this. Moan all you want - the writing is on the wall as far as review space and newspapers are concerned. We can either stand and moan and say that things should remain as they've always been, or start addressing the reasons people are tuning out and fix them. I wouldn't be overjoyed to open up a review section that only covered Patterson, Steel, Crichton and Brown, but if I opened up a review section that had 60-70% allocated to covering popular sellers I could at least understand it. Truth is, despite picking up newspapers on a regular basis, and despite the fact that I always skim the review section, I can't remember the last time I read a review in a newspaper.)


Sela Carsen said...

Hear hear. My newspaper back in South Carolina actually had a Romance Reviewer! Could have knocked me over with a feather. It was so interesting to read and I bet she got plenty of readership and plenty of response.

The paper here? Won't touch it. As far as I can tell, they don't do any genre fiction. All lit fic and non fic, all the time. Boring. Very, very boring. These people need to learn the difference between "powerful" and "depressing."

S. W. Vaughn said...



Okay, I'm done. :D Well said, Sandra.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sela, it's insane, isn't it? Who cares about reviews of stuff you have no intention of reading? I turn to magazines - Crimespree for example - and listservs where people discuss the books to see if there are mentions of things I'm interested in.

The city paper here last Saturday had no book reviews in it. There were three reviews of plays. Says something to me...

SW, I don't blame you for moaning. You know, if it was up to me, I'd love to have a pullout section with all kinds of book reviews, run the gamut and let people find the stuff they're interested in...

But with the space being so limited, and being cut, it's time reviewers realized that if they want to dissect literature they should become a professor. If they want to be a reviewer they have to assess what the average consumer will actually buy.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't noticed it until now, but my local newspaper doesn't review books, which is odd. Our local library was library of the year a few years ago-you would think that our paper would want to encourage such a thing. Of course, my local paper is rarely good for more than wrapping up dead fish.

I do however read magazines almost like a germ obsessive washes their hands, so that's where I read most book reviews. Unfortunately, they don't usually review the kind of books I read. They focus on the "important" books. You know the ones, the kind that make Oprah happy. I prefer the ones that Oprah would walk away from.

Thus I rely on my friends on the forums, online reviews like yours Sandra and sometimes just plain luck when I'm at the library or the bookstore. It must be working, I've got one hell of a tbr pile. Eek, shouldn't of thought about that! norby

Eileen said...

I adore book reviews. I actually started subscribing to the NY Times just for the weekend book section. I make huge to-read lists. I will admit my favorites are books or authors I am already interested in- but I get a lot of great finds this way too.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Norby, your local paper is becoming the norm.

Eileen, what's the review section like out your way? You know something about the NY Times that undermines it for me? You can buy a review there. There's a self publishing company in the US that includes a NY Times review in one of its packages.

Sign of very depressing times.

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