Good Book Reviews Are No Longer Enough

By Peter Osnos

Today's authors can't rely on the merit of their pages. Literary coverage has grown, but reaching readers is as difficult as ever.

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As a longtime publisher of what is known as "serious" non-fiction, I am acutely aware of how sensitive most authors are about book reviews. After extended periods of research and writing, it is unnerving to find your work in the hands of someone else to pass judgment. Authors of established distinction feel the sting of a critical review, or worse, being ignored, especially by the Sunday New York Times Book Review, which remains for many writers the arbiter ne plus ultra. It is time--probably past time--to declare that traditional book reviews are no longer the dominant measure of a book's impact, or even necessarily the most effective way to reach the intended audience. Last week I wrote about changes in publishing since I started in 1984, but left out for consideration here the subject of reviews and book coverage in general, including publicity over the airwaves and on the Internet.

It is no revelation that newspaper- and magazine-based book reviews have been drastically cut back over the past decade. Highly respected weekly sections in newspapers such as the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune are now folded into other parts of the paper, and while the quality of the reviews can still be impressive, they no longer have the visibility they once did. The New York Times Book Review certainly has the most influence, but its page count is limited by the amount of book advertising it attracts. Recently, the section editors decided to turn over six pages to bestseller lists: print hardcovers; print paperbacks; mass market; advice, how-to, and miscellaneous; print children's; print hardcover and paper combined; e-book bestsellers; and combined print and e-book bestsellers.

The challenge for authors and publishers is to catch the attention of the people at all these enterprises who choose among the cascade of books that arrive every day.

Is all that data what readers want? The editors clearly feel that it is, even though it is also featured on the paper's website. No matter what your view, the net effect would seem to be that fewer books can be featured in reviews. The newspaper also divides the daily and Sunday departments, so some books can be reviewed twice. A recent first book by a young historian got a daily, a Sunday, and a Sunday business review, a bonanza for the writer, but it could be argued more than its fair share. (Sales were, nonetheless, modest.)

So does the reduced space for reviews in so many publications mean that books are being covered less than they were? The answer, actually, is no. The New York Review of Books continues its unique blend of social, political, and literary criticism. The Wall Street Journal recently added a Saturday review section that is notable for its eclectic selection of titles and the quality of the pieces. Books are prominently featured in such magazines (and associated websites) as the Economist, The Atlantic, the New Yorker, Foreign Affairs, Harper's, the New Republic, and Foreign Policy. Every major digital publication provides significant book coverage, including Slate, the Huffington Post, and the Daily Beast. NPR.org has a lively book portal that complements the extensive play that books receive on programs such as All Things Considered, Fresh Air, the Diane Rehm Show, and many others. The Washington Independent Review of Books, which launched this winter, seems typical of efforts across the country to provide forums for meaningful book reviews and discussion. Galley Cat, a publishing newsletter that is part of Mediabistro, recently assembled a list of what it described as the "best book reviewers on Twitter," with dozens of names.

The challenge for authors and publishers--as with so much else in our information and entertainment environment--is to catch the attention of the people at all these enterprises who choose among the cascade of books that arrive every day. I am reminded of hearing Esther Dyson observe over a decade ago that we no longer live in the information age, we live in the attention age. The notion that merit alone assures acclaim was never really valid, especially in non-fiction, but it is certainly not true today.

I have watched with interest the trajectory of two books, both of which are by first-time authors whose ingenuity and determination made bestsellers out of stories that broke through the barriers to recognition. I can't remember the first time I heard of Rebecca Skloot, but it must have been months before her book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was published by Crown in February 2010. I  joined Facebook to find out what the networking site was, but have not used it. Nonetheless, Skloot started sending me messages through Facebook, which means that she had reached very far afield from her publisher to others in the business. By the time the book was released, Skloot had apparently built a platform that gave it liftoff, supported in time by universally positive reviews. According to Bookscan, which covers about 75 percent of the book market, the book sold over 300,000 hardcover copies and is currently number two on the New York Times paperback list.

A few months ago a friend asked me to meet with Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a former ABC producer, whose HarperCollins book The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe is about a woman who heroically managed life under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. In retrospect, the hour I spent providing advice to Lemmon must have seemed patronizing, since her own outreach turned out to be so extensive and positive, including multiple media appearances and a sophisticated campaign using the full range of social media tools. Still in its first weeks on sale, the book is a bestseller, but the biggest news may be HarperCollins report that the book is the first ever HarperCollins non-fiction title to sell more digital copies than printed ones in its initial release. According to the Wall Street Journal, the book's editor "credited an extensive Twitter campaign and various social media for the run-up in digital sales. 'The moms of America finally have Kindles and Nooks,' she said."

A good review is still a satisfying coda to all the hard work that went into getting a book done. But success in today's world takes much more than praise. Ask Ms. Skloot and Ms. Lemmon.

Image credit: Gruntzooki/flickr


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/04/good-book-reviews-are-no-longer-enough/237532/