Friday, 4 July 2014

All the things I didn't get to say on the Radio

So if you missed it, this Wednesday past I was an expert guest on the ABC 720 Drive Program... for almost a whole five minutes.

Oh yeah.
Still, someone thought I was enough of an expert on something to broadcast my opinion to a local radio station worth of listeners and that actually was pretty cool.  The topic was reviews, and whether or not reviews in the big name newspapers still equates to anything as far as book sales go.  We also covered the impact of amateur reviewing on the book buying scene.  All of this was prompted by a glowing review of Tim Winton's Eyrie in the Washington Post.

I love reviews.  I have to read a lot for work, but it's kind of a Catch 22, because actually being at work means I am not reading and therefore I don't have enough time to actually read all of the new books that come out.  For people like me, reviews in reputable newspapers are a great time saver, and a great resource for recommending books to customers at the bookshop.  The two main sources that I use are The Guardian and The New York Times.  The Guardian and the NYT often will use other authors as guest reviewers, for example recently Jo Baker reviewed Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey (and made me desperate to read it... too bad I am on a buying ban for all of July) and Val McDermid reviewed Robert Galbraith's The Silkworm.  I have read neither of those books, but it tends to mean something to people when you can say, "Hey, that book you have just picked up, it got an excellent review in the New York Times from this famous author that you've probably heard of, and now I really want to read it too!"  Not only does this open up lines of communication between you and the customer, but it also helps them equate the book they have in their hand, a virtual unknown, with something they already might know.  If this were a mathematical equation it might look something like

If Val McDermid = x and Robert Galbraith = y and y is > or = to x, then $$$$

(Ok, so I'm not very good at maths.  But I think you see what I mean.)

On top of this, if you read a review, you will get an excellent idea of what a book is actually about.  To use the Northanger Abbey example again, Jo Baker tells us some key fundamental points.

1) The book is part of the Austen Project, in which a well known British author updates a Jane Austen classic.
2) She (Jo Baker) is always skeptical of Jane Austen paraliterature but was pleasantly surprised, which means something because her own book, Longbourn, is the most successful Jane Austen paraliterature novel in a very very long time.
3) The book makes some clever points about the kinds of sensational literature that people read now as compared to the kind of sensational reads in Austen's time... so, Twilight versus Dracula.
4) There were some changes to the cultural perception of certain things that required changes in the novel (ie Henry couldn't be a priest because these days that no longer gives him the necessary social standing, so he's a lawyer in the new version) and that these things were done really well.

If you can memorise a couple of points such as these from a review, you can talk with authority about a book you haven't read yet.  Just don't tell someone you actually HAVE read it, because what if you read it later, hate it, and feel guilty for making the customer spend money on something awful on YOUR authority.

In this digital age, when everyone has a smart phone or a portable tablet, I think these overseas reviews take on even more importance than they would have had even thirty years earlier.  Publishing is now not a small English village, but a global one.  If you're in a bookshop, and you pick up a book, you can whip out your phone and Google it, and the most likely thing to come up on top is a review in a fairly well peer-reviewed newspaper.  Or maybe Wikipedia...  Context is everything.  Newspapers like the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post and even the Australian Book Review, hold a lot of clout because people know they have been committed to bringing the best sorts of reviews and information for a long time.  Regular review readers come to know the names of their favourite reviewers.  They learn whose viewpoints they tend to agree with, and who has a similar taste in books.  And if they're a new reader, they know that these publications are highly regarded.

In a small book store, you can walk in on any day of the week and ask the person behind the counter what's good to read.  They'll try their best to help you, but honestly, if you don't know them, sometimes it is hard to catch their enthusiasm.  And if you're shopping online, which I try to ignore people doing these days, but yes it happens, you don't even have that.  So your only resources in choosing quality reads come from

1) Books your friends tell you about
2) The books that are selling well and turn up on the front pages of these websites and
3) reviews

Points 1) and 2) are very likely to turn up the same three books again and again and they will probably be The Rosie Project, Burial Rites and The Light Between Oceans if you live where I live.  Nothing wrong with any of those books, but I just wish sometimes that the people asking for them knew something about them other than that they are best sellers.  The best in best seller stands for a high volume of sales and not necessarily quality.  Remember, Fifty Shades of Grey was once a best seller too, and I bet a lot of people regret reading that.

The people who are writing these reviews most likely have literature degrees and have most likely heard of people like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jhumpa Lahiri and Teju Cole.  Let them introduce you to literature from parts of the world you've never heard of.  You don't have to like it.  Just acknowledge it.  And what about first time authors?  I think here of Brooke Davis and her book Lost and Found.  It's the best selling book in the country at the moment I think, and it couldn't have happened to a more deserving young lady.  It's reviews that have gotten Lost and Found into the public's eyeline; she's been reviewed in the West Australian, the Age (I think) and was on Australian Story (which is not technically a review).  Not all first time authors receive the same review coverage which is a real shame, but just one review can be the difference between no sales, and one.

I think this is a good time to introduce the idea of amateur reviewers here.  Bearing in mind that I count myself as an amateur reviewer (I am not paid for my work, and I publish it myself), I hold a lot of respect for the blogging community.  Aside from the Guardian and the New York Times, the other resource I go to time and time again for quick opinions on books I haven't read yet is Book'd Out, an Australian blog run by Shelleyrae Cusbert.  Book'd Out follows a concise and consistent format, uses star ratings, and the writing of the reviews allows you to get a great feel for the personality of the reviewer.  Because the whole blog is at the control of the reviewer, she is also able to bring in extra content, like interviews and opinion pieces, whereas publications run by newspapers would have to be mindful of space.  Amateur blogs like this one can give a lot more time to less literary genres, and can pay attention to commercial novels that would usually be completely ignored in favour of other more popular books.

Jonathan Frazen, in an essay in How to be Alone which I read in university, talks about the internet and the digital age as being an enabler for amateurism in it's basest form to run riot.  Because anyone can publish anything, the quality of that which the consumer is bombarded with goes down overall.  No one is special because every one is.  I used to agree with him.  Why should anyone care what I write on this blog?  I could write whatever I wanted, not fact check it, and it wouldn't matter because who am I?

But you know who I am.  You've gotten to know my tastes.  You know my writing goals.  You know enough about me to decide if you trust my opinion or not, and if you ever get sick of my blog you can just close the window.  And contextually, you know that the newspapers are products of writers, editors, publishers all working together to make sure the best possible articles come out (which sometimes I guess doesn't come off all that great... but let's just think about the reviews).  You know that they are like apples are oranges.  Both fruit.... but different.

There's so much more I could talk about... Goodreads, the comments on Amazon or Youtube... but I think you know what I'm going to say.  At the end of the day, the person who looks for a book to read, whether it be for Book Club or just for themselves, is capable of making up their own mind, but the availability of reviews is important.  It's about spreading the word, and making sure that the reader has as much information as they want.  They know where to draw the line.

And as for me, I'm just a girl who loves books.  I will continue to write about them so long as I still have thoughts.

What do you think?

3 comments:

  1. Excellent round-up of how important reviews are to book sales, Em. Especially these days, with the internet and Goodreads and Amazon, where a bad review from a member of the public can effectively end that book's career ...

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  2. I agree with Louise. Reviews are critical to book sales. And reviews on Goodreads and Amazon can be a bit dodgy especially where now you can just give how ever many starts as you want, and not have to write a review.

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  3. Hi Emily! I have finally got round to checking out your blog outside of your Facebook presence and I just wanted to let you know I'm really enjoying to so far ;)

    I just finished Elantris by Brandon Sanderson and am now tossing up whether to finish off Gatsby, start The Secret River (Grenville) or jump straight into another Brandon book...

    Hope you are well :) xo

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