Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Question: What Reviews Do You Read, and Why?

In case you don't read any blogs but mine, let me first clumsily sketch the current issues raging in the blogosphere at the moment, and in the world of book culture at large.

The National Book Critics Circle has launched a campaign to preserve newspaper book review sections, beginning with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which recently fired its full-time book section editor. You can read their reasons and their strategies here on the NBCC blog, Critical Mass.

Some periodicals (like the New York Times) and many bloggers, have picked up the story and interpreted it in terms of the rise of literary blogs. Some opinions (with which I risk offending someone even by summarizing):

- book reviews are suffering because blogs are cheaper and easier to produce.
- blogs represent contemporary, passionate criticism, while mainstream media reviews have gotten staid, elitist, boring, or irrelevant.
- professional reviewers represent an educated opinion on books, while bloggers are often amateurish, reactionary, uninformed, etc.
- the elimination of book review sections has more to do with the flagging fortunes of newspapers, and/or with corporate policies, than with literary blogs.

At this point, the roars of debate are dying down a bit, but the issues remain. I have opinions, of course, but I have a horror of going off half-cocked, and I need to process them a little more.

So first I'd like to ask you, readers, what you think. Especially if you're NOT in the book industry, or a reviewer (professional or amateur) yourself -- though I'd love to hear from everyone, I've been wondering what book readers in particular think. Since you're reading this blog, you're obviously a specific subset of the reading population, but I still think it's worth asking.

Where do you get book reviews -- if at all? Blogs? (What kind?) Newspapers? TV? Magazines? Online versions of "mainstream media"? Bookstores? The opinions of readerly friends (the "Trusted Fellow Reader", as one of my commenters cleverly calls them)?

Which of those, if any, makes a difference in what books you're interested in, and what books you buy?

What effect, if any, has the emergence of literary blogs had on your reading of other sources? What other changes have affected what you read in the last couple of years?

What do YOU think is the reason for cutbacks in newspaper book reviews? What do you think will be the effects? Do you think it's important?


This is one reader poll/question I'd really, really like to hear from you all upon -- a sentence from you would be worth more than a lot of time spent in my head. Respond anonymously if you like, or let me know exactly where you fit in the literary world. I'll attempt to summarize and synthesize your responses in the coming days.

12 comments:

Noelle said...

As a person who works in a bookstore, I find that a lot of customers still come in looking for a book that they read about in the Times (NPR being a close second in popularity.) Often, they don't remember the title or the author, so I try and read the Times book review so I can remember the name of the book based on their plot summary.

Natalie said...

Hi - I'm replying from the perspective of an artist/writer/cartoonist who has recently published (via print-on-demand) a book:
www.nataliedarbeloff.com/interviewgod.html
which started life as a comic strip on my blog. The decision to publish this edition myself via POD, rather than submitting it first to mainstream publishers, was influenced by the enthusiastic response I got from visitors to my blog who kept asking when the comic strip would be a book.Now that the book is out, it has received more reader-reviews (on the lulu.com site where it is on sale) than most new books would get from the mainstream press. Yet, because we live in a world where success is determined by media coverage, I find myself compelled to seek media "validation" and to spend vast amounts of time trying to get reviews for my book in the press - in other words, tilting at windmills. My hope is that a mainstream publisher will take it on but I've taken this roundabout route so of course I have to accept its difficulties. The excellent reviews I've had from bloggers/writers has encouraged and supported me but there is still this ingrained belief that unless your name is up in lights (ie in black ink on newsprint in the quality press and/or the A-list top-hit litblogs) you ain't worth a look-in. How to change this perception?

Kate said...

I'm replying from the perspective of someone who just reads a lot - not in the industry in anyway, I don't have a blog and I don't do any reviews - other than suggestions to friends/family.
I read reviews everywhere - blogs, magazines, Bookmarks magazine - and then I go to Amazon. I look at the reviews there and the brief description of the book and add to my wishlist if it's something I want. Often I don't purchase there - I go to the library or a local store, but I think it's a great resource.
I will say that I have found a few blogs where I realized I have very similar tastes to the reviewer - and I'm more likely to just get a book that is raved about there without much more consideration.
I assume if I subscribed to a newspaper, I might do the same.

michael said...

I find most of my books by reading a story in a magazine or lit. journal and then further investigating the author, or through lit. blogs. The lit blog co-op and EWN, in particular, have been very influential. I've bought at least a dozen books this year that I've found through blogs. The only print reviews I regularly read are the NYTBR, some lit. journals that run reviews, and our local weekly, the Boise Weekly. I also get recommendations from other writers who know my personal tastes.

That said, as a recent debut author whose first novel, Radiant Days, came out with an independent press (Shoemaker & Hoard), the reviews and press about my book has exclusively come from traditional print media (NYTBR, Washington Post, SF Chronicle and a few others). While I'm insanely grateful and happy about the coverage, even the negative, this has been surprising to me. I always thought my book was more 'a bloggers' book since I'm with an independent press and more or less unknown. My day-job is as a computer developer so I’m online and reading the blogs pretty religiously—probably way more than is heathly. And I guess, and I realize this is totally ridiculous, I felt I was somehow part of that community, just because I’d been reading them since way before my book came out.
But man.. if there hadn't been print reviews...

I should also point out that while the reviews resulted in a slight and temporary sales bumps, they’ve been nothing compared to announcements of readings (spam to friend’s email lists). And I’ve corresponded with other authors about this, and it seems to be agreed that unless it’s a glowing review on the front page of the NYBR, print reviews don’t directly correspond to large sales. But what they do give you, and this is invaluable, is some sort of “legitimacy” and a starting point for getting your book in the literary discourse. People I work with suddenly wanted to talk to me about the publishing process. Reading series began to answer my emails. My parents concluded I might actually be serious about writing (despite doing making the regular sacrifices for over 15 years in order to do it) once the book was mentioned in the NYTimes. etc... This might seem petty, but they’ve all be landmark events for me.

michael said...

I should add that my town (boise) doesn't have a very strong independent bookstore presence, but when we lived in Missoula, I regularly when to Fact & Fiction or and the stellar Shakespeare & Company for suggestions.

David de Beer said...

ok, we have to give a summary of where we fit in?
former bookdealer, has sold some short stories recently, no novels yet.
Reader first and last though.

It's probably important that I'm also not American; we do have newspaper and magazine reviews of books here (South Africa), but very few and seldomly along the lines that I like. We mostly only get leadlist, or at least top selling authors since it's all imported, so it's frustrating not knowing what's happening in the writing world in that sense.

So, I can't really comment too much on the value of your newspaper and mgazine reveiws, although it seems as if people look to it for validation more than suggested reading.

Blogging and online forums has changed that for me, a lot - interacting with other writers and readers from different countries has opened up a whole new realm of options regarding authors.

It's the word of mouth thing, in the long run nothing beats word of mouth, I remember this from the time I spent as a bookdealer as well - people would come looking for books that friends recommended, none of them read reviews in newspapers.

For myself - there's a few online sites that I like, and a number of fiction magazines do regular reviews. I've found these official reviews helpful; blogging is a boost, IMO, not a detriment. It creates more dialogue, and I've learned about interesting books and writers much faster than I would have.
I do have a preference for a one-man/ woman blog - whether reviews/ commentary, whatever.
The reason I'm not sure of, but I feel more at ease measuring the advice and tastes of single person against my own. Easier to follow and understand in some ways; maybe too a belief that bloggers are a bit more honest since they don't get paid for reviews? I don't know, but I'm comfortable reading blogs.

Like I said, to me it's a bonus, not meant as a replacement to official paper or online reviews -I read and compare as many as I can before I make a choice.
I do value my money, and don't like to spend it on too many long-shots. That, is what it comes down to.
The more discourse about books the better, IMO.
Here endeth the essay..

Ragu said...

Hi, I work in the bookselling industry so a lot of the books that I end up reading are just books which I've stumbled across while receiving books, putting books away, selling to a customer. I DO get some of my books through blogs - not so much reviews in blogs but books which are brought up in conversation. Periodically I read the NYTBR but, if I get a book from a print review it normally comes from Entertainment Weekly. I'm constantly amazed at how often I'll find a book reviewed there which you would never expect to find in such a mainstream publication.

I also get a lot of recommendations from friends and readers of one of my blogs.

I would like to say that I think that, while blogs are daily becoming a better place to find great reviews of books, print reviews still hold more credibility to me - possibly because the reviewers have seemingly more reason to be listened to. The downside of print reviewers - at least in some circumstances - is that many of them are turning into the very thing they are accusing the blog reviewers of being: partial judges who you can expect a certain responce to a certain kind of book.

I'm sorry this was so long. I'll end it now. I hope that you found something in all that I've said helpful.

Andy Laties said...

I participated in a rather raucous exchange on this subject last month, on Roger Sutton's blog (Horn Book Magazine). The angle of attack Roger chose for framing the debate concerned impartiality and niceness and publishers' marketing efforts. That is: Isn't professional reviewing a better means of obtaining "juried" or "impartial" reviews? I took Roger's side, and a LOT of litbloggers got quite irritated when I argued that now that marketing departments are clued in to the importance of getting books reviewed on major litblogs, they're working hard to manipulate the litblogosphere, and that since these marketers are pros, and under enormous pressure to get results, therefore, major litbloggers are now, and will be, subject to the same pressures as the major book reviews always have been -- but because the individual litbloggers don't have the institutional structure within which to operate, their resistance to co-optation by publishers will be less dependable. (Talking about very popular, widely read litblogs -- the ones that cause book-sales to jump when a book is reviewed there.)

Hence, print reviewing is important because of the established checks-and-balances that go into the publication of such.

http://www.hbook.com/blog/2007/04/this-is-why-i-dont-have-blogroll-or.html#links

Troy said...

I am a former bookseller, but have always been and continue to be an avid reader. When I worked in a bookstore, I was immersed in book culture and was constantly talking books with other employees, reps, and customers. Once that conversation ended, along with my employment (by my choice, to pursue a different line of work), I had to become more reliant upon reviews.

I find most of the books I read through word-of-mouth, via friends, or through print reviews, via newspapers or magazines.

I use to rely rather heavily upon The New York Times Book Review until they decided to become weighted more heavily toward the non-fiction end of the book spectrum. I still read them occasionally, along with The New York Review of Books to see what is being published regarding books about current events, politics, and history.

I also tend to trust the essays and book reviews in The Believer, to which I subscribe. And, I subscribe to the daily email book reviews of Powell's City of Books, which culls reviews from their own newsletter as well as many national publications.

All of that being said, I have recently begun to switch to the reviews and recommendations found on blogs such as yours. I picked up the spring 2007 Read This! recommendation due to the link from your blog to the LitBlog Co-op site. I have picked up a couple of other books via reviews on blogs.

I will also "research" a book via personal reviews on Amazon.com and on other sites to get a "feel" for whether or not a book and I are a good match, although I tend to oftentimes discount those reviews because they seem to tend toward unbound fanaticism or vile hatred.

So, I do use print reviews, although I seem to be trending away from a reliance upon them.

Alin said...

Yes i agree with u now a days many book reviews are suffering because blogs are cheaper and easier to produce.However i found many interesting things to read,gathered information
so here i am linking you relevant site to get more details,
onlinebookreviews

lady t said...

I've written about this subject at my blog,and while I feel for those print reviewers who are being pink slipped and undercut,I don't buy that it is all due to blogs. It's like public school funding,the arts are the first ones to take the hit,while the football team gets their new uniforms. It's all about money to the corporations who run the newspaper/magazine industry,not quality vs. quantity.

I also find it peeving that there are folks who insist that most of the litbloggers out there are rank amatuers,who only put biased reviews or sarcastic ones. I've read plenty of reviews in the NYT(both the Sunday and weekly book section)that are downright nasty and actually give away the ending of the book,which is horrible to me. Even If I don't like a book/movie/TV show,I wouldn't ruin it for someone else. Also,I've seen many litblogs that are just as crafted and well thought out(Maud Newton,for one)as any newspaper or magazine section.

The bottom line is,this should not be either/or. We all want the same goal,which is to help good books get the attention that they deserve. Instead of fighting each other like Jerry Springer guests,we should team up and see if we can help each other out.

Oh,and as for where I get my reviews,I check both the internet and blogs such as Buzz Girl for the latest in books. I also read EW's book section(which gives a nice mix of high and low brow). I'm a former bookseller who believes in word of mouth when it comes to great books,be it in person or online.

bhadd said...

New Yorker, NY Times, Chicago Tribune, Bookworm. Steal info off Newsweek, time, BookForum, NYRB, LRB, New Republic, GQ, Esquire, Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, I forget!

The Hood Company