Increased access to social media and sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble with their customer review tabs have leveled the playing field as far as reviewing goes. These days, anyone who wants to can espouse an opinion on the internet and see his or her “brilliance” preserved in electronic print for all eternity. It’s a shame that there are no standards for limiting such recognition to posts that are substantive, informed, and meaningful–or at the very least, for winnowing out those that are illiterate and mean-spirited. But so it goes. As an editor in the book publishing arm of Barnes & Noble, I can tell you that publishers do pay close attention to these customer comments. As a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, I can also tell you that the proliferation of these reviews has had an impact on trade review journals. Booksellers used to rely on PW, Kirkus, and other sources when making their decisions about whether to buy a book, and in what quantity–they now get all of the information they need, often as far in advance as is necessary to make their decision, from non-vetted reviews.
Those of us who review and who look on the reviewing process as engagement in dialogue with others will continue to patronize reliable review sources. But as to why the subject of reviewing and standards is entering the zeitgeist?–lets face it, we probably all feel that standards of taste and expertise that we respect are under siege by the mongrel horde.
The issue of sockpuppet reviews and the devaluing they bring makes me think of Harriet Klausner. She was still fairly new when my first novel came out, and I remember my editor being so excited about her as a reviewer because she would only comment if she liked the book — no fear of a bad review! And she got through so many books!
And now Klausner’s reviews have become an industry joke. The one she posted for In Ashes Lie appeared to have been based entirely on the cover copy and the first four pages (you would have thought Thomas Farynor was a main character; in fact you never see him again), and I’ve seen others that seem like they were auto-assembled by a text generator. Her “brand” got devalued in amazingly short time.
Guy Gavriel Kay
Yes. And when we read a piece like this (including his pleasure and education as a reader of good criticism) it makes me wonder about Stefan’s phrase about the levelled playing field. I usually agree with him, but here I’d rather suggest a significantly altered game, not a levelling. That’s what I was fumbling with when I proposed that perhaps we need a language that treats much of social media book comments and amazon reviewing as marketing, not appraisal. Is it possible, at least, to wince and lament a little, while not actually dissenting from the comment about the ‘need to build a brand’? Is joyous embrace the only proper response?
Blog reviewing is more complex, to my mind, there is a very wide continuum there.
No, Guy, we’re still very much in agreement. My “leveled the playing field” comment was largely in reference to the fact that now just about anyone can get a “review” (i.e., opinion) published, regardless of standards or substantiveness. In fact, retailers like Amazon and B&N almost certainly prefer pithy customer comments to the types of reviews that we all write. They’re retailers, and they takes those comments as a gauge of what their customers want. There’s nothing necessarily bad about that–it’s just a shame that it has had a negative impact on review periodicals, if not reviewing itself.
Guy’s point about “marketing”seems both apt and useful to me.
Agreed. What’s more this type of marketing and promotional hype existed long before Amazon came into being or B&N developed a dotcom arm. It’s just that now it’s more prominent. But whereas it serves a function at the retail sites where it appears, it doesn’t seem to have gained much traction (yet) with publishers of the very books that are being promoted or trashed. I’ve yet to see a publisher blurb a back cover with “More than 200 positive reviews on Amazon.com” or “Followed by more than 10K tweeters.” (Mind you, with Amazon starting up its own publishing program, this could be an idea whose time has come.) Publishers still prefer name authors and name publications to take their quotes from.