Guest blogger Seeley James on a Century Old Tradition.
After the New York Times wrote an article about a company offering ecstatic reviews for only $99, an uproar has ensued throughout the blogosphere. Salon wrote a particularly nasty piece about independent authors resorting to shills and paid reviews.
Last I checked, the NYT pays their reviewers to write reviews. Those would be paid reviews. The question is independence. Judging from the nastiness of some high-brow reviewers, I’d say they pay for making controversy not recommendations.
The problem that has arisen predates Amazon, the Kindle, and Goodreads. Back at the beginning of the century, Google stole advertising dollars from traditional newspapers. Large chains like Knight Ridder deflated so fast it was frightening. Some cities, like Seattle, no longer have printed newspapers. With that decline in advertising revenue went the payroll for professional reviewers. Only a few major metro areas still have them. Many of those are questionable in book choices. We, the people, do not want reams of irrelevant mattress ads from which we have to dig the comics every Sunday. We stopped responding to them. We stopped clipping those coupons. Those indiscriminate ads were the life blood of the 20th Century newspaper business. When we tossed out that bathwater, the baby (the professional book reviewer) was still in it. Gone now.
That leaves two issues:
1) How do readers find trustworthy book reviews on which they can base their purchasing decisions?
2) What is the ethical way for an author to make sure reasonable people (those without an axe to grind or a mental healthcare worker in full pursuit) review their book after having read it?
Not so long ago, I posted book reviews on my website, copied them to Goodreads, Amazon, Booktrib and other places, only to discover NO ONE CARES. Controversy creates views on blogs. Wild, unsubstantiated claims about anything for which readers can post virulent comments in reply will attract a lot more attention than book reviews. (I now understand the Fox News model; they’re after mass quantities of viewers to satisfy advertising rates, not journalistic excellence. It works.) Is there a fix for readers?
Goodreads would have you believe they are the answer to the reader’s dilemma. Not so. Their system is wide open to straw men and shills, just like Amazon. Likewise, Amazon will tout their reviews and sales rankings as worthwhile guide posts. Not even close. Am I the only one wondering how or why Amazon suggested I buy 50 Shades of Grey when I pre-ordered John Sandford’s new book? Are hardcore murder mystery readers really picking up an X-Rated revision of Beauty and the Beast?
Do we want to wade through the New York Times book reviews? They write great reviews. I have to look up at least one word for every NYT review I read. When I’m done, I feel like I learned something interesting—about a book I will never read. Why do they insist on reviewing the dreary literary pieces that are deep, meaningful, and use the English language in ways we never dreamed possible when the frickin book will never sell as many copies as my hamster’s memoir: Bondage for Their Enjoyment, the Caged Life.
As a reader, I would like to see a book reviewer’s seal of approval. We don’t even see it consciously, but the UL label on a toaster means something to us when we make our decision. I visualize a day when author-collectives use dues to support an impartial reviewing system. There are several online writing critique groups that do this today with mixed results but only for the author. Imagine reading a book review with a gold stamp next to the reviewer’s name that says, Indie Author Guild – Certified Independent Review. Or ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors), or any of the many great organizations cropping up these days.
As an author, I would like to have some method of distinguishing my hard work from the guy I met at a 10K run the other day. He said, “I wrote a book just for fun. It sucks ’cause I don’t know anything about writing. But I published it on Amazon and got three five star reviews the first day.” Indeed. I hired a professional editor, proofreader, formatter and designer. My book won’t hit the shelves until October but it will be fighting for attention with his literary masterpiece. Would it make a difference to readers if I had a similar seal? One that says, Amazon Certified to be a Halfway Serious Effort? Maybe my editors, The Editorial Department, should create an emblem that reads, Certified to have Met at Least a Minimum Standard of Effort. Would that make a difference to you?
Seeley is the author of short story collection Short Thrills, and his novel Geneva Convention will be released later this year. He was a Finalist for the DeMarini Award in fiction, and was short-listed for the Fish Publishing Award and the Debut Dagger Award.