Friday, September 28, 2007

Survivor, and the Evolving State of Book Reviews

Last night, I did something I don’t normally do. I watched Survivor. I’d watched it last week, catching the debut, and found it easy to spot which tribe was going to lose the immunity challenge. And within that tribe, I knew three members who were in trouble. One, I wanted to see go, but a different one lost out.

This week, that was rectified. The same tribe lost both a reward challenge and immunity, and the person I wanted to see booted last week was voted off in an amazing 6-1 vote.

Why do I say ‘amazing’? Because a few people on the team actually seemed to be good friends with her, and seemed to be genuinely frustrated with the only other person who received a vote against him. I was a good enough judge of human behaviour to spot the team in trouble, from the get-go. (And truly, this was what kept me watching last week. I was drinking in the China scenery, admittedly unimpressed by the Christian radio host walking out of the welcome ceremony - despite the fact they’d been clearly told it was not a worship ceremony – and about to turn it off when I saw the one tribe interact. I was convinced they were in serious trouble, and then had to stick around to know if I was right.)

But where I fell short was in reading deception. I swear, I honestly thought Jamie and Sherea (I think those are their names) were voting against Dave. Sherea was actually wiping away tears as Ashley went to have her torch extinguished. And then I watched the vote.


I guess the moral of the story is, never underestimate human behaviour. Never underestimate the willingness of people to use you when it suits them, and stab you in the back when that’s to their advantage. Honestly, last week I’d thought the reasons some had voted against Chicken were nuts. At least he worked around the tribe. That’s why I didn’t think Dave was safe. Yes, the man worked his ass off, but he was annoying.

Anyway, I don’t know if I’ll stick with it week to week, but it is a fascinating look at human behaviour, from a certain point of view. I haven’t watched Survivor since… Australia. I hadn’t realized how many of these shows they’d had.

What does this have to do with reviews?

We’ve been bombarded with stories about declining review coverage of books. Recently, author Steven Torres lamented the lack of reviews for his latest book, which is titled The Concrete Maze and was published by Dorchester. Since we have the same publisher, I read his comments with interest.

Then, last night, I read Jeri Westerson’s B’con day 2 recap in which she detailed information from the reviewing panel.

What are writers doing wrong that earn them either a negative review or none at all? Stupid protags and amateur sleuths who have no business getting involved; inaccuracies (authors who obviously never visited the cities they write about; inaccurate science, etc.); formula plotting; can tell who the killer is right away; alcoholic/pill-popping cops; illogical plot; plot going through the motions (author just repeating himself book after book); stupid endings; anything that takes the reader out of the story.
When asked how to get one's book to reviewers, Leslie Doran suggested pitching to reviewers as you would pitch to agents or editors: make sure the reviewers review your genre and SEND THE BOOK. The panel couldn't understand when publishers don't bother sending to them (if there is anything I have been learning lately, is to take your own publicity into your own hands!) They don't want the whole publicity package for several reasons. One, they don't want to read the reviews of others, two, they don't want to get hung up on the publicity department's blurbs (which they say is sometimes inaccurate!) and three, they want to come to it fresh.

There are a few things I read in Jeri’s notes that rang clear bells for me:

1. They couldn’t understand publishers not sending the books to reviewers.
Oh, yeah. Uh huh. Let me put it to you this way: I almost never ask publishers for review copies. Now, I have publicists who give me catalogues, and then sometimes I ID books we’re interested in, but I rarely approach an author or publisher and ask if I can have a review copy of a specific book.

And in my experience, when I’ve asked (once because of interview prep), they still haven’t sent them. I’ve delayed profiles and interviews so that I could wait to buy the latest off the shelves… and guess what? 99/9% of reviewers aren’t going to do that.

2. They don’t want the whole publicity package because they want to come at it fresh.
Exactly. I could launch a whole tirade on the subject, but won’t.

Here’s one other thing I’ll add, though. I don’t know why I’d need to hire a publicist. Some of them are not only so gracious as to email press releases that I can’t use in any capacity, but they display all the email addresses instead of bcc’ing the release. Beautiful! Free of charge I now have a list of contacts compiled by publicists I happen to know people pay big bucks for. And having read their press releases, I also know that it wouldn’t be hard for me to write my own.


Truth is, getting reviews has become a bit like competing on Survivor. For one thing, right now, there are two tribes, and so individual effort alone will not save you. I’m going back to point #1 – if the publishers don’t send out the review copies you can’t get reviews.

There is a real issue in this industry of relying on word of mouth. It may be that word of mouth spreads faster than it used to, courtesy of the internet, but people still need to hear about books in order to buy them, and read them, and not everyone is a gung-ho enthusiast who’ll post reader reviews or mention the book on forums and discussion lists. Not everyone will start an ezine or volunteer to review on online reviewing sites.

Meanwhile, more authors are on the chopping block, earlier and earlier, struggling to stay alive in a competitive marketplace. If you’ve got a big publisher who does the basic mail-outs, you’re automatically ahead of all the small publishers that aren’t doing any book promotion. And so, there is something of perception, where people think that because they’re seeing a lot of reviews for a book by a certain author it must be a hot one. Frankly, I hardly read the reviews, and this goes back to Jeri’s point #2 – I like to keep my mind clear if the book might be on my reviewing schedule. But I certainly know what books are being reviewed, over and over and over again.

I read Steve Torres’s comments with some sympathy for his frustration, but I do actually think his conclusion isn’t looking at the whole picture. This is not about unwillingness to review mass market paperback originals. Okay, there are some with that attitude. Forget Kirkus. (Unless you want to pay for one of their purchased reviews, a whole other subject we won't even touch...)

However, I’ve seen reviews for the latest PJ Parrish (and it’s a book most deserving of praise). I’ve also seen plenty of reviews for the new Rick Mofina – again, a great read that came out in mmpb.

Sometimes, it’s about timing. It’s about the reviewers knowing when the book is coming out. It’s about them not getting the book so early they forget about it, and not getting it so late it’s already out there. There are places – Midwest book review – that prefer to review after a book is released so they review from the final copy instead of ARC.

And in the very latest twist on reviews, what do I receive in my inbox this morning? An email from Hachette Book Group. The subject line:

Reader Reviews of Alice Sebold's THE ALMOST MOON

And they’ve used half a dozen reader blurbs before putting “official” review quotes there, after a blurb about the book.

Look, simply put, it’s time to get creative. I’ve seen authors ponder how they can use reader endorsements: Hachette has taken it to the next level.

It’s a new playing field. Unfortunately, that means I’m setting rules to block email from people who spam me constantly, and blatantly ignoring pushy emails from people who seem to think I’m their publicist.

But it also means that people who actually listen to what reviewers want, form contacts appropriately and take matters into their own hands are going to have a distinct advantage. None of this is a news flash. I just couldn't help thinking that the rules of Survivor will become what determines who stays in the game - not necessarily who writes the best. You can have the best writing in the world, and if nobody reads it, you'll still be dropped by your publisher. I know award-winners who've had to look for new homes, so I just don't buy it. Not that I'm sitting here advocating certain behaviour, but I am going to say that if you want reviews, you have to take some initiative, follow up, make sure the books are sent at least. I just can't tell you how many times we're contacted and the publisher doesn't send the books, and there are a few publishers I just won't agree to take books from anymore. Why? Because it isn't one email about the book. It's four or five as the author follows up, then follows up again, then we still haven't received the book... As an author I completely sympathize. As a reviewer, I just don't have time to chase all that down.

And if any of you are watching Survivor and have bets on, I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Meanwhile, I send my congratulations to the winners of the Barry Awards.

Best Novel - The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos

Best First Novel - Still Life by Louise Penny

Best British Mystery Novel - Priest by Ken Bruen

Best Thriller - The Messenger by Daniel Silva

Best Paperback Original - The Cleanup by Sean Doolittle

Best Short Story - "The Right Call" by Brendan DuBois

(You know what I still find funny? The prevalence of people who say they aren’t influenced by reviews when purchasing books. If that’s really true, why is it we’re so concerned about declining review coverage? Because it infers books are no longer culturally significant to merit the interest of media.

And this as Canadian newspapers launch a $10 million campaign, fighting negative views about the industry sparked by falling circulation south of the border.

“Beginning on "International Right to Know Day," this Friday, advertisements celebrating the role of newspapers as champions of the public interest will run in most of Canada's dailies.”

I’m snickering at the concept of ‘preaching to the converted’ – sure, run your ads in print newspapers so that the people who do read them can feel warm and fuzzy.

Baffled that they think the way to solve an image problem that’s been created in a different country is with advertising. And left to wonder, if they’re really the champions of public interest, why it is I don’t even see local authors getting reviewed in our papers.)


John McFetridge said...

Lately I've been writing reviews for the Toronto Star and it's been interesting to see things from this side.

The Books section editor is a good guy, but he's an over-worked one man operation. There's a column once every two weeks by Jack Batten (a well-known, veteran writer in Toronto) called Whodunit that covers all crime, mystery, thriller, whatever. Jack's a good guy, I like him (I see him in the schoolyard once a week when he picks up his granddaughter for lunch and I'm getting my sons), but that's only 26 reviews a year. Once in a while he covers two books in a single review, so maybe he covers 30 books a year.

I'd like to review some crime novels, but it's Jack's beat. So, I try and review other things. The way it works is, I can go into the office and look over the huge stack of ARCs that have arrived and say, "What about this one?" and the editor says, yeah okay, or he says, no, not interested. Sometimes I find out about something coming out and I email him and if he's interested in a review, he sends me the book (recently a book came in by a major award-winning novelist in Canada - literary fiction - and no one wanted to review it).

There's not much money in book reviewing (at least not at the Star or the Globe and Mail), but I feel I have a responsibility to... someone, I'm not even sure who, to be involved in this industry.

I was pretty shocked the first time I just cold called the Star and asked if they needed reviews and they said yes. I think it's something more writers could do.

Most papers seem to like the idea that local books get reviewd, and often they need reviewers. Of course, that's usually because they've laid off all their columnists (the Star has probably tried to get rid of Jack Batten, but the book editor is keeping him) and now rely on freelancers.

And Sandra, what reality TV can really show is the value of editing. How a hundred hours of footage can become 48 minutes of story. No wonder the editors of these shows are fighting to get recognized as writers.

Sandra Ruttan said...

You're right - I think authors have to take some initiative in keeping reviewing alive right now. To me, it's just a way of supporting our industry. I think Lyn Hamilton has reviewed some books for the Globe and Mail.

You know, funny you mention the editing, because I was thinking last night how the host never has to turn a name upside right when he tallies the votes. I bet they go through them and order them to make it more dramatic. Artificial tension- ooooohhhhh. On those reality shows I suppose the editing is the closest thing to writing.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It is incredibly sad that The Detroit Free Press/Detroit New does not review any book inhouse anymore. That means that local authors don't get any help, among many other things. Books written about Detroit curry no favor. It also means that they borrow their reviews from an assortment of news outlets, so you get no continuity of voice. I hate this.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Patti, what that has me thinking is that there's a real lack of understanding about sense of place, for both the writer and the reader. One of the people who commented about my book thread said she was excited to read about a series local to her, and rushed right over. There is a cultural nuance to every place, and sometimes that colours interpretation. It's like... me picking up on things authors get wrong about Canada. Write a general online review (Spinetingler) and I won't make a big deal about it, unless the mistakes are astronomically huge. But write a local review and those are things I'm going to point out, because they'll matter to local people.

I'm telling you, no sense of place. That's part of the problem.

PJ Parrish said...


Thanks for the shout-out (Hey, I'll say thanks on Rick Mofina's behalf as well!) As Patti pointed out, one of the worst things about the incredible shrinking reviewer is the loss of "local" opportunity. For many authors, getting ink in the local paper was the only way of getting a toehold. But now increasingly, that is gone. Much like when the regional book distributors were abandoned and authors lost what was a great chance to get on regional bestseller lists and get their works touted by regional distributor salespeople. Back in the 80s, I made it onto a southeastern bestseller list and you better believe my pub in NYC noticed and started pushing my books more. But that sort of chance is gone now because distribution is in the hands of a few consolidated companies.

I wish things weren't so grim because it makes things even tougher on the new authors coming up let alone those of us who've managed to hang on so far.

Sandra Ruttan said...

The local review aspect is a critical one, I think.

When I went public with the Dorchester deal, someone came to my blog and commented, saying they were excited about a book set local to them. I recently went through this with the library, because someone found out I was an author and went to the librarian complaining because they don't have my book in our branch (there are five in our region in other libraries which can be ordered in). In their opinion, a local author should be supported.

There are still a lot of people who think that way, and newspapers seem to be overlooking that as they turn to wire reviews that are run in multiple outlets. It's a shame.

Steven said...

My thinking about reviews has led me to an unavoidable conclusion - I did major damage to my writing career by not knowing what I was supposed to do when my first book came out. No launch party, no website, only two blurbs, no movement on my part to ensure that reviewers got copies, I invested money in a press release and press kits which most reviewers ignored, and the list goes on...

Either that or I simply don't have the IT factor. This is probably true since I'm not even sure what IT is...

As I've said elsewhere, publishers generally refuse to see the books they publish as cultural events - unlike movie producers or even music producers. Publishers prove that they don't think the books are relevant when they refuse to spend advertising dollars saying - rather weakly - that no one buys things because they see ads...

Movie/music producers are happy to run ads claiming that their product will "change the way you think about XYZ." Publishers don't run ads at all. What is the public supposed to think about which is more relevant?

Sandra Ruttan said...

You know Steven... That's a whole post, right there, and a compelling one. In fact, never mind. I'm going to e-mail you.