Revisiting the Book Review Problem
A few weeks back the New York Times ran a piece on the inherently dubious business of paid book reviews. If you’re an independent author or are writing a book for any reason other than personal interest the article is a must-read, but not for the reasons you might think.
As anyone knows who’s ever tried to search the internet for the best spatula or best toaster, finding credible reviews on the internet is impossible. No amount of persistence and no set of keywords will ever produce what you’re looking for because keywords are the life blood of both search engines and the soulless, SEO-driven marketing weasels who exploit them. The only chance you have of getting an unbiased opinion about anything is to already know sources you trust, and to hope they’ve reviewed the product you’re interested in. For many products ConsumerReports provides that kind of objective, metric-driven coverage, but when it comes to books there’s little chance a title you’re considering will have been reviewed by someone who doesn’t have a personal axe to grind or who isn’t part of the publisher’s own extended marketing effort. Worse, if you’re an independent author there’s almost no chance that you’ll be able to have your book reviewed by a reviewer who has established their own credibility.
The internet workaround for this problem has been to allow customers to post reviews of products they’ve used. The practical result of this workaround in the book world is that authors and their friends and family salt and sock-puppet their own positive reviews when a book comes out, while competitors and griefers and put-upon students post scathing negative reviews about books they have often never read. The resulting noise can be sifted through endlessly or judged in the aggregate, but even then it tends only to reinforce whatever sense of the work the prospective customer already had.
As the article notes, almost all of the current paid-review options are not in fact reviews at all, but sponsorship and marketing. And consumers of reviews are not confused about this transactional relationship. In fact, whether you pay for a review or not, the default assumption by the public is and must be that your review is corrupt. And since it doesn’t matter how sincere a paid reviewer is, that consumer bias only corrupts the process that much faster, with the lion’s share of the paid-review business going to the most corrupt reviewers. (What authors are paying for when they buy a reviews is a positive review, and paid reviewers know this.) I have no doubt that the best of paid reviews are better than the worst, cleverly avoiding, for example, over-the-top claims of grandeur, but the goal is always the same: to help sell, rather than to independently judge.
Made almost comically explicit in the article is the idea that traditional arms-length reviewers do not have this credibility problem because they do not participate in the review process as adjuncts to marketing and sales. But that assertion is patently false. It’s true that the New York Times Review of Books doesn’t take checks or cash up front, but they certainly take phone calls from publishers, and it’s a fair bet that the people at the highest levels of the traditional publishing industry all know each other and how business is done. If the good friend of an editor writes a book it somehow ends up on the top of that editor’s stack. If a book is written by a despised peer the title somehow gets lost, or savaged by a hostile reviewer chosen for exactly that purpose. If there are humans involved, and money and power hanging in the balance, you can be certain that the process is inherently corrupt no matter how squeaky clean the press releases are.
50 Shades of Credibility
If what you’re singularly focused on is sales then you don’t need to worry about anything other than manufacturing a product launch that paints your product in the best possible light. Instead of killing yourself trying to hire people who will write a slate of positive reviews, you might as well just write them yourself, lie about their origin, and invest any money you might have spent on paid reviews in some other profitable way.
If, on the other hand, you’re afflicted with a sales-killing sense of personal integrity, I think you have to take a step back from the review question and ask exactly what it is you’re trying to accomplish by either paying for or soliciting reviews. Because if you’re not hell-bent on sales at all costs, you’re probably aspiring to something else, and it would be good to identify that something else before you accidentally destroy it or allow it to shrivel up and die from neglect. Or, to put that all in a more affirmative light: until you know what your other nebulous goal is — until you understand it as a real, concrete, tangible objective — you have no hope of achieving it other than through blind luck. And even then you might not recognize you’d accomplished something of importance to you.
Divorcing the mechanics of the review process — by which I mean all of it, including paid reviews and arms-length reviews engineered by glad-handing agents or publishers — may feel like a fundamental change in perspective, but it’s not. Only people who start mapping out a sales campaign before considering the content they intend to produce will feel truly disoriented by this kind of cognitive shift. And most writers, no matter how sales-driven, don’t fit that kind of mercenary mold.
Whether you’re writing for love or fame or fortune, you’re probably also aspiring to write something that’s qualitatively good — hence your desire for objective reviews that validate this criteria. But quality itself isn’t actually determined by a review, it’s merely authenticated if the reviewer has credibility. To see the endless absurdity in this, however, note that credibility is also a goal for people who routinely review products, including books. Not only do you have to read what a book reviewer wrote about a book you’re interested in reading, in order to know who the reviewer is you have to read other reviews they wrote about books you may have no interest in at all. Even online user reviews follow this same unending search for credibility by allowing users and readers to rank each other.
In the same way that a tree falling in the woods does make a sound even if there’s no one around to hear it, if your work has quality it has quality whether anyone reviews your book or not. So the most important non-sales-related question you need to ask yourself is how willing you are to put your neck on the line for something (quality) that isn’t going to pay a whole lot of bills, at least in the short term. If that matters to you, then you need to remember that you’re the only one who can put that quality in your book. If that doesn’t matter to you then you can simply pay people to say your book is fabulous and hope your readers don’t notice until they’ve given you their money.
Remember, you’re not making a lawn mower here. People aren’t seeking reviews of your work to determine if it’s going to blow up in their face or send a detached blade slicing through their ankles. People who read book reviews are looking for a judgment of quality — of literary or artistic or entertainment value. But in order to demonstrate that your book contains that quality you have to enlist the support of a third party who may or may not have any credibility themselves, even if they purport to review works at arms length. How much sense does that really make? And specifically as relates to self-published authors and paid reviews, how much sense does it make to shell out money to breed a whole new class of gatekeeping power brokers when what you want — as an author — is to be able to directly communicate your work to readers?
The point here is that the self-publishing revolution has done a funny thing to the issue of authorial credibility. Industry-supported authors were implicitly validated by the publishers who brought them to market, leading in turn to the idiotic and self-serving industry-wide assertion that anyone who couldn’t find a publisher was objectively a failure. This implicit but duplicitous validation meant that only the quality of each work needed to be vouched for, not the author. Because self-published authors don’t have this kind of implicit third-party validation from a publisher — which is, in fact, a validation not of quality, but of profitability — the question of each author’s personal credibility remains unknown to prospective readers and customers.
This presents a bit of a quandary. If you’re determined to make not only a name for yourself, but a name people respect, you’re going to have to do more than pay people to testify that what you wrote is good, you’re going to have to demonstrate that you as a person have credibility or authority in what you write. If you’re a doctor and you’re writing a self-help book about your specialty that linkage is pretty straight forward. If you’re a storyteller, however, and what you’re writing is fiction, then you’re going to have to figure out how to bootstrap your credibility through your work, and the best way to do that is by making sure that what you wrote is in fact good. Not good because someone else says so, or someone else was paid to say so, but good because your readers says so.
It should be obvious from this linkage between your personal credibility as an author and the credibility and quality and authority of your work that anything that damages one will probably have a negative effect on the other. Which is why relying on reviews to establish your credibility may not be a good idea whether you plan to pay for them or not. If the default assumption from readers these days is that pretty much any review is a scam, what is it that you’re getting for your time and/or money even if you do everything you possibly can to be honest and arms-length in soliciting reviews?
Credibility vs. Attention
The more I think about storytelling, the more I think writers should be encouraged to take the long view about their work. Pinning all your hopes on a breakout novel is idiotic, not simply because of the odds against you, but because of the conceit. Are you as good in your first book as you’re ever going to be? (If so, that’s probably something you should keep to yourself.)
If the internet (and social media in particular) has laid anything bare it’s that there’s a vast gulf between the ability to attract attention and the ability to establish and maintain personal credibility. If your new-media experience is anything like mine, you’ve learned that there are a lot of opinionated people in the world, some of whom are entertaining, but only a few of whom are lucid. While this new ocean of blather means you’ve got more than the back of a cereal box to occupy your mind when chewing your morning cud, most of it only matters in the moment if it matters at all. And that’s probably not a message you want to emulate as an author who wants to be read.
There is of course a relationship between attention and sales, but the longer I live the harder it is to see any connection between those things and qualities like art, craft and truth. In fact, it seems to me quite the reverse: that people who are good at presenting themselves as personalities or celebrities — people who are, in effect, performers – are best at maximizing attention, while people who are more interested in things like art, craft and truth seem to be better at creating works of enduring merit or popularity. And I don’t think that should be too surprising, because if what you’re invested in is an identity that is at least partly a facade, then you’re probably going to let that facade have a say in what you write.
So let me propose a bit of radicalism here, which will lead, shortly, back to the review problem. Let me propose that in telling a story in any medium your first concern should be telling the best story you can in a craft sense, your second concern should be communicating that story most effectively to your ideal reader, and your most distant concern should be generating sales. Because I honestly believe, if you’re willing to go down that story-first road, that you’re also going to end up writing long enough to generate a body of work over time, as opposed to putting all of your authorial eggs in one fictional basket. This, in turn, vastly increases your chance of developing an enduring readership and market, as opposed to banking on a home run your first time out.
So how does taking the long view help with the review problem? Well, I think it actually obviates reviews as an issue. Instead of spending energy gaming the system or networking your way into quid-pro-quo blurb relationships you’ll spend most of your time writing and very little time thinking about how to engineer fleeting success. Imagine how wonderful it would be to begin any journey with no expectation other than that you would be true to yourself. Imagine how liberating that would be, and how that liberation might in turn lead almost inevitably to a measure of success over time. Perhaps, just as importantly, to the kind of soul-satisfying success that comes from being who you are.
In looking back on my own experience as a reader, it struck me recently that I almost never sought out reviews of books I went on to read. Instead, I found my way to an author either by accident or through a brief personal recommendation from someone I trusted. Much more important to my enduring interest was the fact that if I enjoyed an initial work by an author I tended to seek out more from that same author — meaning that it was my first contact with the author’s work that mattered most.
The current argument against taking the long view is that there’s so much content available today that someone needs to take on the curating function that was effectively a byproduct of the old publishing industry’s gatekeeping habits. But again that argument assumes that readers are trying to find new authors with no track record at all, rather than someone with a longer history of publishing stories, no matter how obscure that author might be. And on that point I’m not convinced that the impenetrable ocean of readily available content is all that impenetrable.
I don’t know what percentage of the world population will ever write even a single novel, but I’m willing to bet the percentage that will write two novels is less than one percent of that number, and the percentage that will write three novels is less than one percent of that one percent. Which means taking the long view and intentionally producing more content and using breadth of content over time to attract readers allows you to do something that authors who are trying to engineer a hit with their first (and probably only) book will never be able to do, and that’s persevere. You may — and perhaps even should — stop writing stories when you’re raising young children or caring for someone who’s sick or dying, but over your lifetime you’ll continue to learn and grow as an author as you continue to produce. And that body of work will in turn increase the likelihood that you become known apart from any reviews, no matter what they said or who wrote them or what you paid to procure them.
I’ve probably read every Lew Archer mystery written by Ross Macdonald, every Travis McGee mystery written by John MacDonald, and everything ever written by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I’ve also never read any reviews of their work. Nor have I ever read a review of Hemingway’s work, or Steinbeck’s or Fitzgerald’s or Faulkner’s. Even if given the opportunity I don’t think I would, because I honestly don’t care what somebody else thinks — I care what I think. And if I’m going to waste time figuring out if a writer is a hack or not, I might as well waste that time on the authors themselves rather than the reviewers, for all the reasons listed above.
In this context, the review problem is exposed for what it is: a marketing dilemma having little or nothing to do with art, craft or truth. If you’re writing to sell then sell away. But if you’re writing because you have something you want to say, or because it’s something you enjoy doing, then I think reviews become less of an issue the longer you write. If you put out five novels in your lifetime that’s pretty rarefied air, and will probably have more to do with establishing your readership than any marketing campaign or reviews you could muster. And I think there’s a pretty simple reason for that.
Your books are your reviews. Yet unlike the old days, when most prospective readers were effectively hostage to book reviews as a means of learning about new books or even reading tantalizing excerpts, the internet allows you as an independent author to publish excerpts and sample chapters to your heart’s content, demonstrating first-hand that your work has those qualities that your intended readers are interested in. Which means focusing on craft and/or art not only advances your long-term career and success in every conceivable way, it’s most effective in ways that are advantageous to self-publishing itself.
– Mark Barrett