Monday, January 25, 2010

Reviews Today: It’s the Wild West out there

by Libby Hellmann

The holidays are over, and now that we’ve packed up all our peace and good will until next year, it's time to turn our attention to something not so kind and gentle.


You know the story. It used to be you’d write a book. Your publisher would send out ARCs to major trade publications and newspapers. While you probably wouldn’t get reviewed in the New York Times, you could count on Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal. And your local newspapers. Those reviews, for which we sat on pins and needles weeks in advance, helped create buzz. Good reviews could make or break library sales, bookstore interest, even word of mouth.

Newspaper Not any more. First to go was review space in big city newspapers. All of us can point to a paper that no longer exists or, if it does, has pared reviews to the bone. Closer to home was the demise of Drood Review and Mystery News. Then, just a few weeks ago, the death of Kirkus. Say what you want about their last line zingers, a good Kirkus review was cause for celebration. Even worse, there seems to have been a decline in the number of reviews from Library Journal and Booklist. I could usually count on reviews from them for my books. Not this time.

At the same time, we’re seeing an explosion of what’s being called “citizen reviews,” most of them online, all of them written by “readers” as opposed to professionals. I probably first Amazon logo noticed them on lists like Dorothy L, but over the years they’ve picked up steam on Amazon (‘fess up.. how many of us have asked a friend to write a favorable review?) to the point that they’ve been institutionalized with the Amazon Vine program. Reader-oriented websites, like GoodReads and Library Thing encourage them. And that doesn’t even include the proliferation of book review blogs and websites. There are literally hundreds of citizen reviews these days. I know, because I’ve tried to keep lists of them.

Which is the point of my rant. Citizen reviews are filling an important void. Many of these reviewers are professional, thoughtful, and take their responsibilities seriously. I’ve been the beneficiary of their work, and I’m grateful for it.

Then there are others.

Toxic hazard label I was the recent target of a citizen review that has to be the most savage review I’ve ever received. Bar none. (If you’re into hate, go ahead and click on the link) Clearly, anyone has the right to say they hated a book and why, but this individual went above and beyond by inferring the type of person I must be because of the subject of the book. He also threw in several racist comments, which were gratuitous... and hurtful.

I don’t care how many good reviews you get -- it’s the bad one we obsess over. And I did. I waited a week to say anything – I didn’t want to be impulsive -- but eventually I took it up with the organization’s managers. They maintained the review didn’t violate their “terms of service.” Which made me wonder what would.

But the most offensive (at least to me) part was the discovery of a sub-group of citizen reviewers on the same website, some of whom consider it a badge of honor to write clever but snarky reviews. “Writing scathing reviews is fun,” the person who critiqued my book said. Someone else agreed, saying “savaging bad writing is fun, and often necessary.” To be fair, I should point out that others in the group challenged those remarks.

I deleted my page from the organization, but it brings up an issue I believe all of us need to grapple with. On one hand, the dearth of traditional reviews is filling up with new voices. That’s good. And necessary. On the other hand, how far can a review go and still be considered useful? Citizen reviews will undoubtedly be a permanent part of the literary landscape, but at what price? And how should an author handle reviews that they believe are over the top? Should we do what author Niteflyr-one did on Amazon, ostensibly to her regret, since it seems to have backfired? Or should we just crack open a bottle of wine and let it pass?

The absence of parameters – good or bad -- has catapulted the act of reviewing into an online version of the wild, wooly West. And yeah, I know the bromide about any publicity being good publicity. Still, I wonder.

What do you think?


Sandra Parshall said...

Libby, I think the only thing we can do is shrug off this type of "review" and move on. If we publish a book, we are throwing it out into the world, where we can't control how people react to it. When I read an unusually nasty review, though, I always have to wonder why the reviewer cares so much -- why he or she sees the book as a personal affront and apparently wants to launch a crusade against it. It's so weirdly out of balance and is beyond irrational. But with the growth of the internet came reader reviews, and they are here to stay.

Libby Hellmann said...

Agreed, but... when something like that shows up on Amazon or another widely read source, you have to wonder whether it makes a difference in a readers' decision to buy a book, or maybe "just get it from the library" which, of course, affects our sales.

On the other hand, someone said they read a report that bad reviews generate close to 80% of sales as good reviews.

I don't know the answer. I just know a bad review of my work lingers longer (at least in my mind).

Jackie Houchin said...

I am a book reviewer for Mystery Scene, The Strand, and Crimespree magazines, plus several local newspapers and I view myself as a "kind" reviewer. If there is something obviously "off" with a book I will try to tell about it as nicely as I can (as I did with Jeffrey Deaver's recent book, "The Bodies Left Behind" for Mystery Scene). And frankly I won't read snarky or vicious book reviews (or play reviews, which I also write). There is NO cause for being nasty, just to BE nasty. PS: Visit my "News and Reviews" website sometime.

Grapeshot/Odette said...

The review tells us more about the reviewer than the book. It's a mystery (!) to me why anyone takes the time to write a long review about a book the reviewer doesn't like. Better spend time praising what one does like and ignoring the other books. As Sandra said, "move on." There are some good reviews out there, too.

Julia Buckley said...

Wow. That is one intense review. Libby, I put myself in your shoes as I read this and I felt angry and mortified. (And it reminded me of my worst review, the one that had me feeling horribly exposed and practically weeping).

This reviewer did make it personal, and therefore, while the review was detailed, it read almost like a vendetta. Hard to take a review like that to heart without wondering what the agenda is. Why so angry, reviewer?

Sorry you had to go through that.

Patg said...

Unfortunately, the Internet has given voice to everyone with an ax to grind. Savage reviews are never about the story or author, it's always about the self importance of the reviewer and the desperate need for it. As Sandy said, why would anyone want to launch a crusade against a book just because they didn't like it?
Even though the best course is to move on, I can well understand something like this staying with you. I once had a rather savage critique of a short story I wrote, and I mean savage as this group considered themselved 'blood-bathers'. Can't remember the story at all, but I remember that critique.

DebBaker@PoweredbyBooks said...

I won't read a nasty review, so I'm not going to bother looking at it, Libby. For any of you reviewers out there, I have a blog called Powered by Books with author guests, etc. (I'm really not trying to pitch it here) and would love it if you'd guest post, maybe show my readers how to write a review (or leave one alone if they don't like the book). I, for one, could use some guidance.

Amy Denton said...

You just have to let things like this go because there will ALWAYS be people who delight in making others miserable. This is not to say reviews like that don't hurt, they do but there's nothing you can do about it.

I also think that people who take the time to post such nastiness do so partially out of jealousy and I'm quite serious on that. You've done something they couldn't.

The one thing to keep in mind when you receive such a review. It was probably the highlight of that person's day to post that review. If that's the case, what does that say about that person?

I can honestly say I've never gotten nasty reviews for the short stories I've written but I have definitely gotten odd reviews. I once received a review that said I must be from England or Australia because I used the word 'car park' in a story.

That was the entire the review. I've been to England once and never been to Australia. I do have friends in both countries however. *shrug*

Theresa de Valence said...

Not to contradict what anyone says, but a viewer of a play or reader of a book has entrusted the author with their time and their mind for the duration of the story (unless there are too many TSTL moments).

That makes it personal, to the reader. And it's quite possible to be outraged. Further, remember all those one-sided arguments one hears from one's friends about what an a##hole the other party was. The fault is always wholly the other person's.

So the review isn't always about totally trashing the work for the fun of it (though it seems evidently so in this case of Libby's); sometimes it's about how the author violated the contract with the reader in some way very personal to the reader. I know I've felt that way with some books——but of course, in that case, I try to avoid writing the review.


Melissa Fiskateer #2396 said...

In October, I lost my journalism job due to yet another round of downsizing. Many of us are concerned about the way the Internet will shape the "news." It starts with biased and unprofessional reviews and soon, we fear, it will be biased "news" not based on fact, but on gossip, perceptions and outright lies. The Internet is a strange, wonderful and scary thing.