Friday, September 15, 2006

Reviews--Part 2


So—a review is a marketing tool, as far as authors and publishing houses are concerned. If a review comes in positive, they’ll quote it. If it comes in negative, they won’t. If it’s positive but includes a few negative comments (pretty typical, as reviewers don’t like to sound gushy, and besides, no book is perfect), they’ll quote the good stuff and leave out the rest. It’s all an advertising game.

Meanwhile there are the reviewers, who happen to be serious about their work. And they should be. (Let me be clear—I’m not a reviewer because I’d be lousy at it, for numerous reasons.) Reviewers put in considerable time and energy reading a book and writing an opinion piece about it. Now, they’re not stupid. They know that for advertising sake, only the best parts of their reviews will be quoted, and the rest ignored. But at least in their own venue, whether online or in a magazine or newspaper, the reviewer has the satisfaction of seeing the whole review in print. Let the book publisher’s marketing department do what it will in excerpting the review, there’s proof of the review in total out there somewhere.

Marcia Ford (
http://www.marciaford.com/) said this about reviewing (comment used with permission):

I've been reviewing books professionally for 30-plus years (for newspapers, magazines, and recently, websites). One thing I'd like to emphasize is the importance of maintaining your credibility as a reviewer. I decided early on that I would not review books written by friends, for the same reason that, as a journalist, I would not accept gifts (including many tempting vacations and junkets) from subjects or potential subjects of my articles. The problem is not just that you may feel compelled to write a glowing review because the author is your friend; it's also that you may feel obligated to be more critical than you normally would to avoid the appearance of partiality. Either way, it's not fair to your readers. Over the past few years Christian authors started offering me money to review their books (not for publication but to use as a PR piece in their media kits). I know this happens in the general market, but it disturbs me that this practice is spilling over into the Christian market. I try to give the authors the benefit of the doubt; maybe they don't understand how a professional reviewer works. Magazine and website editors assign books for me to review(which I can reject), or they approve the titles I suggest. It's not my job to promote the books; it's my job to simply let readers know enough about the books so they can tell whether they're likely to enjoy them or not.

Perfect example of the two faces of the review game. Author/house looking at the review as possible publicity; the professional reviewer meanwhile striving to maintain integrity in doing his/her job, regardless of the resulting publicity—or lack thereof—for the book.

What does this mean for you as a consumer? When you pick up a book and see a list of excerpted quotes from professional reviewers in the front—that long list of positives sure makes the book sound glowing. Can you believe the quotes? Well, yes. But . . .

Consider these excerpts from the Publishers Weekly review of one of my backlist titles—Color the Sidewalk for Me (1992). Here’s the actual review (I’ve taken out the part that tells about the story):

In this excellent novel for the inspirational market, Collins uses her talent for suspense (Eyes of Elisha) in a more memoirlike tale that flashes back and forth between the 1960s and the 1990s as it explores a mother/daughter relationship . . . The story is beautifully written and the characters (whom readers will recognize from Collins's related stand-alone novel Cast a Road Before Me) are well developed, although the pacing drags in spots. The reason for Celia's lack of mother-love is not explained as neatly as might be wished; conversely, the conclusion is like a fairy tale, a contrivance that readers, depending on their tastes, may appreciate or find disappointing in. Overall, this novel exemplifies how Christian fiction is finally coming of age.

Fortunately, this is a positive review. If I were going to excerpt it to put at the beginning of a reprint of the book, it might go something like:

Excellent . . . Collins uses her talent for suspense (Eyes of Elisha) in a more memoirlike tale that flashes back and forth between the 1960s and the 1990s as it explores a mother/daughter relationship . . . beautifully written . . . characters are well developed . . . this novel exemplifies how Christian fiction is finally coming of age.

Which would leave out the negatives:

. . . the pacing drags in spots . . . The reason for Celia's lack of mother-love is not explained as neatly as might be wished . . . the conclusion is like a fairy tale, a contrivance that readers, depending on their tastes, may appreciate or find disappointing.

Yes, this is a positive review. But how much more positive a little excerpting can make it sound! Now imagine this process done to ten, fifteen, twenty reviews listed in the front of a book. The total effect is a much different picture than if you were to read all those complete reviews.

Bottom line for consumers: Look at those excerpted review quotes with a jaded eye, remembering this is a marketing game. Any negatives were deleted.

Monday—reading between the lines of a reviewer’s opinion (Or—how much weight should you give that review, anyway?)
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The CFBA is currently sponsoring a blog tour for Squat, debut novel by Taylor Field. I just returned to our California home last night and found the book in my mail. Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to read it yet.

From the back cover: In the shadow of Wall Street’s wealth, homeless citizens with names like Squid, Saw, and Bonehead live in abandoned buildings known as “squats” where life is hand to mouth, where fear and violence fester . . .

Visit the
Squat website. Check out more of the book at amazon.com.

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Read Part 4

6 comments:

Kristy Dykes said...

Take a look at the excerpted reviews in the front of The Notebook. Four pages. Four pages! Dallas Morning News. Cincinnati Post. USA Today. Library Journal. On and on.

'Course it IS a good book!

R. K. Mortenson said...

Of course, even bad reviews are publicity, and depending on the context, "any publicity" can be "good publicity."

I say depending on the context. A nonfiction example: Al Franken's book "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot." Franken's publicist sent this book to Rush saying, "If you mention it on air, it would be good for sales." Rush never did mention it on air, but if he had it certainly wouldn't have been a "good" review! Nonetheless, it would have helped sales, for sure.

I can't think of a fair comparison for a novel. Although I did receive a terrible review in one newspaper last year. There was a minor backlash from folks who thought the reviewer "attacked" because she's not a Christian, and didn't like the book for that reason. Anyway, a month later, a Christian radio station in the same city picked the book as their "Selection for the Month," and promoted it on air! Was it cause and effect? I don't know. Either way it turned out to be all good publicity.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I agree with R.K...there is no such thing as bad publicity as long as they spell your name right...LOL!

And on the internet, even the reivew isn't important in many instances. Our CFBA present selection is an example.

Because of all the links to Squat on Amazon.com, the book has remained as the #2 book on the Technorati Popular Book List for the last three days!

Thanks Brandilyn for the link love, all CFBAers rock!

Wren said...

Ok, here's question: As a reviewer, if you have read a book that you are meant to review and you don't like it, how do you write it in such a way that it's not harsh? I'm faced with this right now with a first-time author. A lot of it is just bad editing (the editor should be fired!), but a lot is the author's writing. How would you go about this?

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Wren, tune in Monday, when we look at how to read reviews--since they're "just one person's opinion." It'll be sort of a backwards answer to your question.

J. Mark Bertrand said...

One question I'd love for you to tackle in all of this, Brandilyn, is why readers read reviews. I read a lot of book reviews, but I don't really do it for buying advice. For me, and I imagine for a lot of people, the point of reading reviews is to keep up with a general sense of what's going on in the world of books. Every week, I can sit down with the TLS and the NYTRB and feel that (in a small way), I have a sense for what's happening on the shelves. If I form an opinion on individual books as a result of reviews, it's usually through consensus -- the weight of the reviews in general, rather than one in particular. I've always thought this was the way everybody approached reviews -- after all, they don't sell books, right? So there must be some other use for them.