Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A conspiracy theory of reviewing

Editorial Anonymous has, for writers, some good news and some good news about children's books reviews. The good news, she (?) says, is that good reviews can help sell books. And the other good news is that bad reviews won't hurt selling books.

I have a more nuanced opinion. More and more children's books are review-proof: good or bad, reviews won't make much difference to series franchises, celebrity books, brand-name authors or merchandise. All of those depend on marketing and saturation. Where reviews matter is in public libraries and schools (which themselves serve as a staging post for wider readership).

Good reviews do still matter to this institutional market, and bad reviews (or no reviews) have both a primary and secondary effect. Middling or worse reviews for an author without a built-in audience mean that not only will librarians be more likely to give the book a miss, but its publisher will be less inclined to fork out more money for advertising and promotion. As the legendary Mimi Kayden said, "one or two stars won't do it anymore."

And lets not forget the ALA awards, which consistently provide a bigger boost to sales than any other award out there, save perhaps the Bluebonnet. If The Graveyard Book had been published to indifferent reviews, it would most likely have not won the Newbery Medal. Not because the award committee members are slaves to reviews (although I have seen reviews used to kill a book's chances), but because the members and the reviewers are the same people. Sometimes literally, but more pervasively in the way they imbibe the same historical tradition and, however shifting, "standards." While the Newbery Medal only gilds the success of Gaiman's book, it was essential to the shelf-life of, say, The Higher Power of Lucky (although maybe that's not the best example of my point, as the book got respectful but not overwhelmingly enthusiastic reviews prior to the award).

Certainly, reviews mattered more when most juvenile hardcover was destined for the institutional markets. But certain books still need success there (if only there, often) to allow the author the go-ahead to publish the next one.


Linda said...

My first novel just received an award from a state library association. When I asked the committee how the selection process went, a member told me that they started by making a list of novels which had received starred reviews from one of the major journals. Since mine had garnered no such stars, I asked how it had even been considered. Apparently one of the committee members had read it on her own and had asked the others to take a look. (I sure am grateful for the accidental read!) In any case, I wanted to point out one more way that those elusive stars can help a book find its audience.

Anonymous said...

What is the process for choosing reviewers for the various journals?

Are the reviewers paid? Are they evaluated from time to time by the journals?


Anonymous said...

...and I forgot to ask. What is the star process for the various journals? It must involve agreement amongst a group. Does it have to be unanimous? How many persons have to be on board for that star to shine?

C again

Anonymous said...

but funding for institutions is disappearing, so library sales will continue to be less important

Roger Sutton said...

Linda, I hate the whole star racket but it looks like it's here to stay.

Curious, each of the review journals has its own way of doing things. The Horn Book pays its reviewers and the editors decide who will review what. Stars are suggested by reviewers and we solicit opinions from the other mainstay reviewers, and the in-house editorial staff makes the final call.

Anonymous said...

There seem to be other instances where reviews don't matter much, though ...

I can think of a couple recent novels by unknowns that just seemed to hit the zeitgeist and sold well despite some outright pans. Likewise, I can recall a couple of ho-hum picture books by Big Name Novelists that reviewers fell all over (as if too afraid not to) that did crap in the marketplace.

As for those stars ... I've come to the (half-joking?) conclusion that many of the journal reviews are so vague and namby-pamby that maybe they should resort to the movie-review star system.

You know, "Four stars for Higher Power of Lucky!!!" At least, in that way, reviewers would be forced to back up the rating with their prose and not just regurgitate plot points or describe the illustrations without actually providing analysis for 98 percent of the "review."

Maybe Roger Ebert shouldn't be the only Roger waggling his thumb! Ha!

nw said...

Roger, do reviews affect other reviews? More specifically, if a book from a new author or small publisher gets a starred review in one place (e.g. Booklist), will that help convince the others (e.g. Horn Book, SLJ, Kirkus) to review it?

Roger Sutton said...

Kirkus is a bit ahead, but the other journals are reviewing on much the same schedule, so there is not much chance one could be helpful to the others.

Roger Sutton said...

Anon, 3:17, could you share any names of books that weren't reviewed well nut nevertheless were a success? I'm not doubting you, but I want to think about how that might have worked. I certainly know that there are books the HB Magazine didn't review well or at all (cough, House in the Night) that still hit it big, but obviously we aren't the only game in town.