Rigging Book Reviews

It’s impossible to understand what’s occurred with book reviews related to everything from relevancy to honesty without mentioning John Locke’s admission that he paid for somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 book reviews and found this perfectly all right. I’ve always believed that it’s easy to be enamored with something that’s successful, and by his apparent standard, since the book his “paid-for” reviews pitched sold a half-million (or is it a million?) copies that he self-published and shipped from his own firm, all is hunky dory.

If this sort of “rigging” of the system were allowed to continue unabated, most anyone with the wherewithal could theoretically have guaranteed success, as 3,000 reviews, at an average of $10 each, which has been sort of the going rate for “the best book I’ve ever read” to “I can’t wait to see the movie,” will sell a lot of books. How many I can only guess at, but I tend to believe $30,000 could produce $200,000, or even twice that, and likely has in numerous occasions. But then came the software patrol. And they took no prisoners!

What I’m referring to is both Panda and Penguin software engineering, by way of Google (Amazon will come later, so please hold on). These two Google programs in my opinion have virtually destroyed the ability to aggregate article distribution, and in accomplishing this–in such spectacular fashion–managed to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Hence, anyone who might have wanted to legitimately promote a book by having it picked by aggregators was pretty much left pounding sand. Worst of all, if caught using an aggregator, the author could end up having his or her site dropped from Google, which I believe most would agree is not a good thing to have happen.

Now Amazon enters the equation, as I have to think that Mr. Locke’s admission ruffled a few of the firm’s feathers, and I say this because I’ve noticed the reviewer numbers cut by as much as 90 percent in some instances. Although I haven’t done this with a book of my own, I see nothing at all wrong with giving a copy of a manuscript to someone and asking for an honest review. A number of ways exist to ethically acquire reviews, especially on the digital side, that won’t cost an author an arm and a leg. But the ability to send out a mass-mailing via a few of the aggregators who solely work with book clubbers (not the clubs themselves, but those who are legitimately voracious readers) has also become in many instances no less daunting than walking Death Valley. Services can be bought that do this, and they work, but they’re expensive.

I can’t say that comparing Google’s publicly stated algorithms to Amazon’s suspected software policing mechanics is a chicken or the egg scenario, but it seems to me that these monoliths have created a formidable barrier for writers who don’t already maintain a megablog, a la Meyer, Hocking, Howey, Green, and a handful of others and that’s about it. The real question in my mind is why any honest writer toiling to do her or his best, but who can’t spend 24/7 on a blog or hire a blogging team or possess James Patterson’s background as the CEO of the largest ad agency in the world or have personal deep pockets to nurture the review camps, can’t at least have a fighting chance.

I continue to say that I’m far from the moral compass for this industry. Frankly, I’m the first to admit that a zillion people are both more qualified and more capable than I to speak for an industry as nuanced as publishing. Yet I’m of the opinion that book reviews should be honestly acquired, and if someone is paying directly for a review, I’m of the belief this is not honorable. However, as I’ve said in a recent Newsletter, after reading the reviews published in the most respected newspapers and magazines in this country, I’m convinced that some reviewers never read the book they are citing. All anyone who has read THE GOLDFINCH needs to do is parse the reviews on the back of the softcover to understand why I’m making this statement. (Disclaimer: I loved THE GOLDFINCH and strongly believe Donna Tartt’s material worthy of The Pulitzer Prize for fiction. My remark is based solely on reviewers claiming a book’s excellence when their comments make it clear to me that these people did not read the book in a way that’s expected of a professional providing criticism; meaning, they scanned the material or used someone else’s review as a template.)

And, to add fodder to my contention that the entire review process is at a problematic stage like never before, how does one fit paying for a Kirkus Review–and other lesser but still well-known legacy names–into this equation? This scenario, in and of itself, makes reviews such a hard issue to get one’s arms around, as I don’t believe it’s particularly righteous to pay $400 for a review from an entity that seems to have been sold more times than Campbell’s has soups and whose founder died in the late ’70s. The current overall tomfoolery, as I see it, has caused a lot of legitimate options for reviews to become such a muddled mess that only a blogger team is capable of enabling a writer to accrue an audience “of size.” Maybe we all should hire a “brother” (or two or five) to do what John Green is doing, BEFORE pounding out the first word on a keyboard. I’m not impugning Mr. Green, as by all accounts he the real deal in every respect, but it this sort of effort is the requirement, Heaven help the rest of us, as prayer is all we have available.

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