Book Reviews, Revamped: Credibility and the Blog Blurb Question

This article is part of our series on how book reviews are changing. Introduction | The New Review | $$$ | Credibility and the Blog Blurb Question | Bloggers’ Frustrations | Meanwhile, in Consumer Book Reviews

Whether or not book reviews lead directly to increased sales, the fact is that online book reviewers have deep wells of passion about books for publishers to dip into. Liz Perl, SVP Marketing at Simon & Schuster, says that the company solicits book bloggers’ comments and tries to “identify the influential bloggers in various areas of literature and make sure they get access to the books.” Sorting out the good from the bad is challenging, but “with the right blogger [a book] can get a lot of eyeballs. Some of these blogs have huge traffic.”

Goodreads CEO Otis Chandler says professional book reviewers should start social networking if they aren’t already: “The role of social media lately has been to allow anyone to establish themselves as a reputable source of information online.  If you are a book reviewer you need to collect followers on Goodreads, on Twitter, on Facebook, and anywhere else potential readers are hanging out. The more a reviewer writes and posts, and the more followers they collect, the more pressure there is for them to write good, honest, accurate content.  Just as the New York Times has a reputation to uphold, so does anybody who publishes a lot of content online.  The role of the critic has gotten harder—now, instead of just starting a conversation, they actually have to participate in it.”

Bloggers’ experiences with publishers vary.  “I’ve received copies of books where [the publicist] says, we hope you review this so that we can continue our relationship with you,” says Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. “The attitude that exists on both sides is, ‘Don’t tell me what to do.’ It’s a little bit of a cranky relationship.” Maud Newton, who receives over two hundred books a month and a thousand queries and pitches, says follow-up queries “sometimes take on such a demanding tone that they begin to border on harassment. I am one person.” But Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation has found his interactions with publishers “uniformly pleasant and productive,” and Williams says publishers have “responded really well from the beginning. I was lucky in the sense that I already knew a lot of people from working in publishing and working on [with Daniel Menaker]. I think once [publishers] see something that looks serious online, they are willing to take it seriously and send copies. If I request things, people are very quick to get them to me.”

“Would we [blurb a blogger] on a major fiction release today?” asks Liz Perl, SVP Marketing at Simon & Schuster. “Well, it’s got to be a blog that’s recognizable, influential, and trustworthy. A random blog that doesn’t mean anything? I’d never want to see that on a book.”

James Meader, Director of Publicity at Picador, says Picador would “absolutely” quote a blogger on a jacket: “With both blogs and print the only criteria is whether the publication is good: thoughtful, insightful, well-written.”

“Publishers can do a number of things with me,” says Elizabeth Bird, editor of A Fuse #8 Production and New York Public Library Children’s Center librarian. “They can say I’m NYPL, which I don’t like them to do because that’s not where I reviewed it, but sometimes they think that’s the most important thing attached to me. At this point, [publishers] don’t know what to do with blog book reviews. I’ve seen them on ARCs, but very rarely on the final copy. I think this will change a little, but it’s going to be tough for publishers to justify blurbing a site if it’s not huge.”

“Looking at the blurbs on the inside cover of a romance novel, nine times out of ten it’s a website, but it’s not mentioned as a website,” says Wendell. “Publishers don’t credit blogs because they think that when you add ‘.com’ to something, it lessens its credibility.” But John Williams of The Second Pass thinks blogs will be cited regularly, the way Slate and Salon are—“those are online-only sites that have become accepted in the mainstream of publishing, and that will happen more and more with book blogs. They’ll have an authority that publishers will look to.”