Thursday, November 12, 2015

If You're So Smart, Why Ain't You Rich?

Pity the poor book reviewer. Authors love him if the review is good; revile him if there’s the slightest hint that a book is flawed. Underpaid, (if paid at all) and usually characterized as a failed writer… “If he’s so smart, why doesn’t he write his own book? And why isn’t it a best seller?” I have been asked many times if reviews matter. After having written just shy of a thousand book reviews for many publications, I think I have an answer: Maybe. Sometimes. It depends.

Amazon publishing and book selling certainly changed the landscape of traditional book reviewing. For hundreds of years book reviews appeared in newspapers and journals and sometimes magazines and pretty much nowhere else. These publications, some impressive and powerful, some not so much, were the most important places (and usually only places) to get the word out by publishers and authors that a book had come on the market. For the last fifty years or so, the three most important publications were Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal. If you got a good review from all of these three, your book was pretty much guaranteed to do well. Even if it didn’t sell as many copies as you hoped, you had excellent blurb material for the softbound version when it came out, and publishers were more inclined to accept your next effort if your first received this sort of critical reception. Of these three, only Publishers Weekly remains really relevant.

Then along comes Amazon and book reviewing becomes something new, more a matter of numbers rather than content. Reviewing is no longer the sole province of professional reviewers – who are often authors themselves -- but the territory of regular readers as well. If you love a book or hate a book you can go on Amazon and express your opinion, and other readers can make decisions of whether to buy and/or read a book based on what someone who is more like them has to say. These reviews have become one more weapon in Amazon’s powerful arsenal aimed at the heart of mainstream publishing. Almost all the self-help independent publication gurus advise that you do everything possible to convince people to give your book a good review on Amazon. The more reviews, the thinking and advice goes, the more copies you’re going to sell, and then the more good reviews you’re going to get. This, of course, has led to cheating and inflated numbers, a subject that I’m not going to go in to, but in general I think that this conventional wisdom is correct: Amazon reviews lead to Amazon sales.

But how about reviews for the really big guys, writers like Stephen King, Brad Thor, Donna Tart, Tom Clancy, etc. Do those people really give a shit? It’s my experience that they actually do. I’ve reviewed and interviewed some of the biggest in the business and they have always been seemingly happy to oblige my requests, been free with their time and willing to answer questions that they’re sick of answering. It seems as if the universal desire to be loved and admired remains strong in all of us. Everyone hates to be told their work sucks, even if that work has brought in boatloads of money.

Some years ago I went to the National Book Festival in Washington and stood in line to have a book signed by Neil Gaiman. I confess, I haven’t read his work extensively, but readers love him, and I really liked his book, The Anansi Boys. Here are a couple of lines from my starred review. If readers found the Sandman series creator's last novel, American Gods, hard to classify, they will be equally nonplussed—and equally entertained—by this brilliant mingling of the mundane and the fantastic.” And… “But it's Gaiman's focus on Charlie and Charlie's attempts to return to normalcy that make the story so winning—along with gleeful, hurtling prose.” So I decided to go to the book festival and ask him to sign my ARC (Advance Readers Copy) of his novel.

I went with my wife, and we were both nonplussed to see the line waiting to speak to Gaiman. It must have stretched as long as a couple of football fields, but I settled in and it inched forward. It took two hours to get to the signing table, and along the way I met many Gaiman fans who all had something he had written to sign. They were all impressed that I had a review copy of Anansi Boys, and it was passed along up and down the line to be looked at. You had to hand your book to be signed to one of his festival helpers, and when she set it on the table in front of him Gaiman appeared puzzled and looked up at me with a frown. I said, “I’m your ____ _____ reviewer.” He stood up, (he’s really tall) came around the table and hugged me. “You wouldn’t believe how much you’ve changed my life,” he said. Well, that was a nice surprise.

He said that before the review I gave him, his publisher saw him in as an up-market comic book guy, a writer who wasn’t basically serious. After the review, they decided to deal with his work in a more serious manner. One immediate pay off was that they were no longer going to put a lightening bolt (a “goddamn lightening bolt,” were his words) on the covers of his books to point up the otherworldly, fantasy aspects. We shook hands and he said if I ever needed anything, to let him know. As I walked away, the folks in line looked at me, awestruck. Well, maybe not awestruck, but with admiration. As did my wife, who had witnessed the whole scene. Suddenly the critic gets some respect. It felt good.

So in answer to the question, do reviews matter to the Big Writers? The answer is yes, maybe, and it depends.

You just never know.

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