Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Stars, they come and go . . .

While I confess to sharing Janis Ian's ambivalent and semi-despondent take on the whole star thing, here are the books whose reviews will be starred in the January/February 06 issue of the Horn Book:

An Innocent Soldier; written by Josef Holub, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (Levine/Scholastic)

Inexcusable; by Chris Lynch (Seo/Atheneum)

Skybreaker; by Kenneth Oppel (Eos/HarperCollins)

The Silver Spoon of Solomon Snow; by Kaye Umansky (Candlewick)

Prehistoric Actual Size; written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins (Houghton)

Re my ambivalence and semi-despondency: I can't speak for Janis Ian, but it bugs me that we've all gotten so hooked on stars. Authors and illustrators love 'em (and think that they're the only reviews worth getting); publishers often make their advertising decisions based upon them; librarians confess that, pressed for time, they are the only reviews they read. And review editors like them because sticking a star on something is both a shortcut to popularity and an easy out from the responsibility of actually being articulate about why and how a given title is so terrific. We're all in the business of words, so why don't we trust them?

18 comments:

Emily Jenkins said...

I don't read PW with regularity any more, but I did like that system they had where they used a colored font for books of great commercial appeal, whether or not they warranted stars. So they had two systems, overlapping one another, with two different agendas.

One thing I've found in my own life as a writer is that the stars only make a difference to the future of my book when they accumulate. Two stars (across the usual reviewing spectrum) don't seem enough, though of course a single review might help individual buyers make decisions. But many stars make a difference to the sales force, PR and so on, who then make use of those stars, and help the book reach an audience in a larger way.

I've been enjoying your blog very much.

Roger Sutton said...

Thank you, Emily. But the question remains: forget the stars, do REVIEWS make a difference, if not to the life of your book, then to the life of yourself? Do you read reviews of your own work? I'm not saying you need to--I think with writers the main thing is that they write, and that reading reviews may or may not be helpful in this. The singer Dawn Upshaw has her husband screen her reviews--not to weed out the bad ones, but so that she only sees the ones that might be useful in making her a better singer, rather than undermining her or making her head explode in egotistical satisfaction.

Fran Hodgkins said...

As my former editor Diantha Thorpe counseled, there are no bad reviews or good reviews. All reviews have an impact -- getting your book noticed. Of course, I'd rather be given bouquets than thrown rotten tomatoes!

Elizabeth Law said...

Oh dear, I can't say I agree about "no bad reviews." Surely a bad review in SLJ could hurt the institutional buy on a book? And I think Emily's comment, above, is perceptive. Yes, we do a lot to market a book...but three starred reviews is a genuine threshold that will guarantee it gets extra attention. And two stars are better than one, in large part because we're able to spend extra marketing dollars on an ad for that book, whereas we might not be able to for a single star. Is the decision to take an ad always so cut-and-dried? No, but let's face it, the stars help.

And finally, a personal shout out to Inexcusable by Chris Lynch, which has now received SIX starred reviews. Yes, it would still be an extraordinary book without any of those stars. But with attention like that, everyone will stand up and take notice, and that's terrific. I say bravo, Chris, and bravo, editor Ginee Seo.

ginee seo said...

I wish I could say I don't care about stars, that it's the true quality of the book that matters--but you know I'd be lying. The fact is, right or wrong, a star is public affirmation of quality--and even when we resist, we can't help but respect it somehow. Maybe--like a lot of things in life--it all comes down to grade school. Remember how much you loved getting a gold star from your teacher? (Well, I did, anyway. And a slew of them is, I'm embarrassed to say, deeply satisfying. Thanks for the shout-out, Elizabeth.)

As for Roger's question about whether reviews make a difference: if it's intelligent, thoughtful and well-argued (which not all of them are, alas), then yes, I think a review can make the author and editor sit up and think about what he or she could have done differently to make the book better. And I have to say, as an editor, there can be nothing more perversely satisfying than those rare occasions when you receive a review that confirms everything you've tried to tell the author during the editorial process, that the author has politely (or not) blown off. Of course, this presupposes that the review will be more than a mere rehash of the main plot points followed by vague praise or damnation. The usefulness of the review is, in the end, dependent on the perceptiveness of the reviewer. Ball's back in your court, Roger.

Anonymous said...

I second Ginee's second-to-the-last sentence.

I would be lying if I said I never read reviews and they don't matter. I hold my breath while I read reviews -- and cross my fingers and toes at the same time. Okay, well maybe not my toes. But a great review can make my day, and a middling or critical review can depress me. Though, once I have recovered, I do examine what the critical concerns are. And, for all reviews, I do consider the source. Which is why, though appreciated, a review from my mother does not carry the same weight as a review from professional source.

(Roger, sorry for having taken the ball from Ginee. I'm returning it to your court now!)

Lisa Yee
www.lisayee.com
www.livejournal.com
AS IF! Member

Roger Sutton said...

The late Dorothy Briley, publisher of Clarion Books, once referred to stars as "reviewers getting it right." (Yes, she was a fierce defender of her authors!) I'm glad to see a more nuanced approach being demonstrated here. What do you think would happen if the review editors rallied together in the darkest kind of antitrust meeting and abolished the star system overnight?

Anonymous said...

The thought of reviews makes my stomach hurt. Because if you buy into the good reviews (they liked my book so I must be a good writer), then you have to buy into the negative reviews as well (which is often: they loathed my book so I must be a sucky writer). Ouch.

I most appreciate the reviews that are detailed in their criticism (positive or negative). Those reviews help me learn more about my strengths and weaknesses and give me something to work on.

Stars are a beautiful thing - they do make one feel rather special. I don't know that I would do away with them... I'm not sure what that would accomplish. Part of the challenge in YA & children's literature is that our books can/should operate on several levels. So a terrific story that will hook kids into reading might be slammed because of a lack of literary merit. I like the approach that the VOYA reviews take with their codes. It allows the reader to look at a book from several different angles.

Thanks for this discussion - love the blog, Roger!

Laurie Halse Anderson
http://www.livejournal.com/users/halseanderson/
http://www.writerlady.com/

Jane said...

As an author, I am often cast down when a perfectly wonderful review has no star. And the book reviewed next to mine, with a review that is slightly carping has a star. I know how important stars are to the life of midlist books, long for the olden times when they were not.Some companies will not do anything other than a list ad unless you have three stars on a book.

Jane

Linda Sue Park said...

I've enjoyed reading this thread; thanks to Roger for the post that generated it.

I have what other authors tell me is a bizarre attitude toward reviews and stars. I've always LOVED reading reviews of my work, good or bad; I still experience a sense of amazement and gratitude that anyone bothered to read and then write about my book.

The good reviews and the stars delight me; the bad ones make glower or pout. But--here's the nut--whatever my response, it lasts for maybe five minutes. Really. For me, reviews fall squarely into a large category of Things Over Which I Have No Control and Therefore Refuse To Sweat.

There could be any number of reasons for my sanguinity, ranging from the fact that until a couple of years ago, I always had a 'day job' and never expected my books to pay the rent (hence *anything* beyond the advance was gravy, and I didn't know I was supposed to worry about sales), to the knowledge that I have only so much space between my ears and most of it has to go to the current manuscript, leaving little room for fretting over a book I can no longer revise.

But there it is: I adore reviews, and I also adore forgetting about them as promptly as possible.

As for the stars themselves, I love them too. I agree with other posters here: One star may not mean all that much, but a bunch of them for the same book look awfully purty.

Linda Sue Park
http://www.lindasuepark.com

Fran Hodgkins said...

Stars or no, some journals always elicit a "Wow! You got reviewed in [insert journal name here]!" from other writers. Horn Book, for instance...

Anonymous said...

I wish someone privvy to the starring process--especially at pubs which review anonymously--would shed light on how it's decided whether to star or not. (See Jane's post above.)

Anonymous said...

As a children's/YA librarian, I use reviews to make purchasing decisions. Stars definitely do catch my attention, but I don't necessarily purchase a book just because it has a star. (The star doesn't hurt, though!)

One thing that I have noticed, and been thinking about lately, is how some reviewers seem to have almost stopped reviewing books. By this I mean that I've read A LOT of reviews lately that have been little more than plot summaries with a vaguely positive or negative statement at the end. This has been especially true of projected best-sellers like "Eldest" by Christopher Paolini, "The Will of the Empress" by Tamora Pierce, and even "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." (Yes, I pay a lot of attention to Fantasy!) This is most distressing to me because I firmly believe that the projected popularity of a book should have no bearing whatsoever on the reviewers opinion. Reviewers should always feel comfortable giving positive or negative reviews, regardless of how popular the book will be. Otherwise, publishers have waaay too much power, which should never happen.

I'm not sure why this phenomenon has been happening recently, or if it's happened all along and I'm just now noticing it, but it really bothers me. I can't read every book I purchase, and even if I have to purchase something like "Eldest" I still want to know whether or not I should recommend it to kids. Reviews help me do that. I agree with Laurie Halse Anderson that VOYA's system seems to be the most productive: I can find out if a book might be popular, but also get an inkling as to the quality.

Also, as a writer and freelance children's book editor, I would certainly hope that authors would read reviews of their books. Criticism, both positive and negative, is essential to improving oneself as a writer. If one refuses to read reviews, he or she may never learn from his or her mistakes. (Of course, scathing reviews are painful and can be ignored if need be!)

What a fascinating dicussion! Thanks Roger!

Roger Sutton said...

For Anonymous One: I can't speak for the other journals, but stars at the Horn Book are determined by the editors in consultation with the reviewer of the book in question and the masthead reviewers as a group. Generally, the reviewer is the first one to bring up the question of a star, but sometimes an editor will suggest it to the reviewer; in both cases, a list of star candidates for that issue of the Magazine is drawn up and ultimately decided at a meeting just before the issue goes to the printer.

I can understand why Jane would feel some disappointment at getting a "perfectly wonderful" review but no star, particularly when a review of another title expresses reservations but is starred nonetheless. While two books can be perfectly wonderful, it can be the case that one of them takes more risks, says something new and worth saying, or somehow makes itself essential to the care and feeding of children's literature. That's the book that gets starred. Bear in mind that the starring policies differ from journal to journal--not just procedures, but what a star actually means.

I share Anonymous Two's frustration with undiscerning reviews. There *is* pressure for us to be enthusiastic about popular books, but it doesn't come from publishers, it comes from subscribers. Our mixed reviews of the Harry Potter series, for example, have cost us subscribers who believe that a book review's job is to predict how popular a title is going to be. While the changing nature of "authority" in library book selection (from the days, for example, when libraries would not purchase series books) is a question too huge to go into here, I will say that while it's the reviewer's job to give the review reader a good enough sense of the book so that he or she will know whether it's likely to be popular, I don't think reviewers should be held responsible for what is actually the librarian's job.

Lara M. Zeises said...

As a children's/YA librarian, I use reviews to make purchasing decisions.

It's funny; as an author I used to have a vested interest in starred reviews, and of course I'd have loved to receive one. But. The reviewing process has changed since my last book came out, and now I'm finding that other publications that used to review almost every book - PW, SLJ, etc. - are following in the path of Horn Book and only reviewing selected titles. While it's fine to have one or two major review journals operate this way, learning that everybody but Kirkus is now adopting this process is scary. At least it is for a midlist author like myself. I'll take a mediocre review in a major journal over NO review any day. Because, like the librarian stated above, reviews help guide purchases. Now I'm left wondering how anyone will even know I have a new book out if SLJ doesn't acknowledge its existance.

In short: I've stopped hoping for starred reviews and now am just hoping for reviews period.

Interesting thread here, and what a great blog!

Anonymous said...

It's me, the children's/YA librarian again. I'd like to clarify a point, based on what Roger said to my comment. I don't think it's the reviewer's job-- nor should it ever be-- to determine a book's popularity. Popularity is a fluxuating state: some books will be very popular in some libraries and not in others, it depends on the patrons. For example, at the last library I worked at, the "Cirque Du Freak" series by Darren Shan was extremely popular, but at my current library, they're not as in demand. Reviewers can predict popularity, though, which is where VOYA gets it right. They give a general idea, and also state the quality of the title, which is extremely important to me.

And for Lara's comment: rest assured that I at least go to the bookstore and check out what's new. (Children's and YA books are pretty much all I read, so I do this for my own enjoyment and not just for work.) That's how I find out about books that aren't reviewed. And when I go to trade shows, I make a point to visit some of the smaller publishers I know about to check out their titles. Not all librarians do that, but I try to make an attempt! :-)

Anonymous said...

Anon 1 back. Thanks for the insight, Roger. I appreciate your thoughts on Jane's comment, too.

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