Book Reviews, Revamped: The New Review

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

Online book reviews don’t necessarily look like their print counterparts, nor do they necessarily cover the same books. At Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Sarah Wendell reviews romance, which, she points out, is “never reviewed in mainstream media publications.” She and her partner, Candy Tan, decided to start reviewing the genre because “we loved romance novels, we were so tired of taking crap for the fact that we did, and there weren’t enough reviews online and off. We wanted to talk about all of that, sex, the changing sexual politics in the genre, and throw our English degrees at it, and say, ‘You as a genre are very much worthy of any other genre we studied in college.’” Wendell and Tan actually review books; they don’t just make recommendations. “The longer I stick within this genre, the more my rubric, my scale of grading, become apparent,” Wendell says, “and it’s easier to figure out if people’s tastes align with mine. When authors ask me about blogging, I tell them the only currency you have online is credibility and consistency. You have to be a credible source. If you have a bias, say so. Inconsistency ruins your credibility.”

John Williams, editor of The Second Pass, models his site on a traditional book review. “The site’s not only looking to publish reviews of things it’s recommending. I consider it a traditional place where you can criticize things,” he says. I don’t think of online as being inherently better than print. “[But] I wish the New York Times Book Review considered books more variously. When I read the NYTBR I know it’s going to be a straight parade of smart takes on things, but all books that were released in the past several weeks. Because it’s so timely and so much about covering a mix of readers and a mix of houses, there’s something kind of dutiful about it. But [The Second Pass] lets people discuss books that are a little older, and lets them be more enthusiastic or more critical. There’s more of a sense of reading as people actually read.”

“Blogs can give books a second wind,” says Janice Harayda of One-Minute Book Reviews. “Newspapers plan so far in advance that sometimes even if a book starts gathering momentum three months after it comes out, there’s no way to get it in, because you have to put in The Lost Symbol. The great thing about blogs is that if a book starts gathering momentum, I can review it, and I will review it.” She is currently reviewing books that she think may be National Book Award finalists. Many of the titles came out last year, but she is able to take advantage of the fact that readers are interested in them now. “You can bring back books that are even just a few months old in a way newspapers can’t do.” Online reviewers can also take a second look at books—“say, gee, I was tough on that, or I wasn’t tough enough. I go back to books a lot.”

And online book reviews can move beyond type. “The web allows new thinking about how books may be presented,” says James Mustich, Editor-in-Chief of the Barnes & Noble Book Review and former publisher of A Common Reader. (The Review was Steve Riggio’s inspiration, but Mustich says Barnes & Noble has been “extraordinarily smart in allowing us to grow as an independent editorial vehicle.”) For example, the site has a feature called “Drawn to Read,” illustrated reviews by cartoonist Ward Sutton. “Children’s picture books, art books, and cookbooks are very poorly presented in most conventional book reviews,” Mustich says. “Online, you can present a gallery of images that go with your review and talk about the illustrations in a more immediate way than you can in a newspaper.”

James Meader, Director of Publicity at Picador, says blogs allow unique promotion opportunities. “If a blog runs a positive review of a Picador title, we might then ask if they’d like to post an audio interview with the author, or host a giveaway so that their readers can win free copies of the book, and much of this can be done essentially in real time,” he says. “When we work with an engaged blogger who really loves a particular book, these are the sorts of fun, original ideas we can work together on, and they’re good for publisher, author, blogger, and reader alike.”

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  1. [...] Publishing Trends has a multi-part series of articles examining how the web has changed book reviewing, and what it means for books, authors, and publishing in general. The writer, Laura Hazard Owen, did an interview with me for the article, and I’m quoted discussing my grading rubric, and what I like to call the “golden rules of blogging.” [...]

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