Friday, April 17, 2009

There's Good News and There's Good News. Which Do You Want First?

EA, can you talk about reviews? How important are they to the success of a children's book? Do all the "big ones" (Horn Book, Kirkus, SLJ, Booklist?) count the same, or are some more influential than others? How about bloggers like Fuse #8? And does it matter how well the review is written? I've been a little shocked by the low quality of reviews written by many teachers and librarians--misused words, poor grammar, incorrect details, and a general miasma of vagueness and confusion.
So You've Gotten a Good Review. The Good News Is:
The "big ones" (Horn Book, Kirkus, SLJ, Booklist, NYT, PW, BCCB) do make a difference.
People read good reviews and tend to remember them. In the constant storm tide of new books, we're all looking for the ones that we should flag mentally as standing out.

Some review sources are read more by a certain demographic than others (more booksellers read PW; more teachers and librarians read SLJ). But it's hard to say that one is more influential than another. Any good review from the top reviewers gives the publisher's Sales and Marketing people a chance to go back to accounts (like B&N, eg) and say, "Hey, did you see this review? Are you sure you don't want to stock some more?" Good reviews can boost sales. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't but at the very least it's an opportunity.

Of course, we've all seen some books get terrific reviews and sell a paltry few thousand copies, which is hard and frustrating. But if the book added to the publisher's name and image with good reviews, that's some salve to the hurt of not earning out.


So You've Gotten a Bad Review. The Good News Is:
Nobody cares.

No, really. You're the only one.

It's all kinds of hard for authors to believe, but your editor sees a bad review and shrugs. No, not because she has other books that she now understands are more worthy of her love. Because every one of us has seen reviewers in pissy moods skewer a book that we know doesn't deserve it-- and most importantly because we know that bad reviews don't hurt sales.

This is because people read bad reviews and tend to forget all about them. In the constant storm tide of new books, we're all looking for the ones that we should flag mentally as standing out-- and we simply don't have the RAM to remember the ones that are not supposed to be stand-outs. What this has meant to more than one book is crappy reviews followed by a stint on the NYT bestseller list. Because the book turned out to appeal to a lot of people, and none of them could remember that they weren't supposed to like it.

Bad reviews don't matter.

25 comments:

BuffySquirrel said...

What does matter is the bad reputation the author can get from reacting badly to a bad review :).

Jo said...

Bless you, bless you, bless you for posting that about bad reviews. I was fortunate enough to get good reviews for my book although they did not translate into big sales. Maybe a really bad review would have done me more good?

Anonymous said...

EA,

Thank you so, so much for answering this question. It's sort of what I suspected but nice to hear from your point of view.

Note to Question Asker: you're spot-on regarding the often poorly written (and, thus, highly ironic) nature of children's book reviews. My favorite structural technique that I see over and over again in the journals: Plot, plot, plot, plot, plot, one sentence of actual analysis, end.

Anonymous said...

All true.

Sad, though, when a YA has star reviews and neither Borders nor Barnes and Noble picks them up.

How discouraging is that for the author? Bust their ass. Get Kirkus and Booklist star reviews and yet no one buys their book because they can't find it anywhere.

Damn shame. And unfair. Blech.

Sarah Miller said...

Booksellers and librarians also know which review journals most closely mirror their own tastes and that of their customers and patrons. I've heard some of the top journals variously described as:

highbrow
lowbrow
snarky
snobby
bland

We all pretend reviews are completely objective, but they're just not. Every journal has its own culture, tone, style, and -- dare I say it? -- favorite authors. Which is fine and dandy, because I don't know anyone who puts more faith in a reviewer's opinion than in their own.

L Violet said...

"I've been a little shocked by the low quality of reviews written by many teachers and librarians ... "

I think these only show up in small, seldom-seen publications put out by educational districts, like ones I used to review for. There's no editing, and, sad to say, not all teachers or even librarians are entirely literate.

That is not to say they don't know a good children's book when they read one, and they often put the books to the ultimate test: reading them to kids and seeing the reactions. But yes, it's dismaying to have your work stepped on by someone who hasn't even mastered basic English.

Ink said...

What a wonderfully relieving little tidbit...

My most gracious thanks.

Bryan Russell

thespectacleblog said...

Whew. Good to know for the future.

-Parker P

Sarah Laurenson said...

Hm. Not so sure I agree, EA. A friend of mine got one bad review - after receiving a few good ones - and her sales plummeted to nothing. The crappy part is her theme was about alcoholism and it seemed like that touched a nerve in the reviewer (who happened to be a librarian and probably in denial about other things). Her editor still believes in her, but a second book is not coming out any time soon.

Gregory Frost... said...

This is a relief. The reviews of Ellen Datlow's POE anthology (disclaimer: I'm in it) have been so weird we don't know what to make of them. One reviewer will single out a handful of stories as the most exceptional. The next reviewer will pillory the same stories and hail others as the best. Me, I'm of the mind that this means Ellen did her job and the anthology has something to please everyone...but then there's the side of me that goes "Thanks to the internet, every pillock on the planet now gets equal weight for their opinions right alongside the actual, learned, thoughtful reviewers." (Of course you know which I think are which, now don't you?)

Tess said...

Oooo, that is good news.

Melinda Szymanik said...

Yowza - this is really good to know. Its a relief to think any bad reviews won't sink the book. Its a hard enough battle getting them into the books shops. Thanks for posting this

ae said...

If I got a nice review from Roger specifically for the pb/art biography I dream to sell...I think I would die and go to heaven. And then feel like I hit sainthood. Really. :)

working illustrator said...

I think the important distinction is less between 'good' reveiews and 'bad' reviews than between starred reviews and everything else.

To know whether a review is good or bad, someone actually has to read it.

A starred review gets read - even by someone who ignores the others - because it's only given to books that the review editors find especially noteworthy. Result: automatic elevated profile, which can be key for people who aren't already well-known.

Editors, marketers, booksellers out there, here's a supplementary question: can you think of any major-award-winning books whose trajectory to success didn't include starred reviews - as opposed to merely good ones - in major publications?

Anonymous said...

Thanks EA!

A bad review can feel so devastating, and lead to so much self doubt that you think your career is over. It's good to know that there is still hope after a bad review :)

Alps said...

Thank you, EA. This is an interesting, illuminating post.

Anonymous said...

L Violet:

Booklist.

Erin Cabatingan said...

To add to the part about bad reviews--I was at a SCBWI conference and they had a panel of booksellers and librarians who talked about how they picked books to put in their store/library. The librarian (who worked at a large library) said that she had a big enough budget that she was able to buy all the books that got reviewed by a top reviewer (sorry can't remember which one or if it was more than one) --whether or not the review was good or bad. So just getting the review helped to sell at least one book.

playingwithchildren.blogspot.com

Chris Eldin said...

As a reader, I've never read or paid attention to reviews. But I do look closely at blurbs. More recently, the blurbs on The Story of Edgar Sawtelle made me take it to the counter and buy it, versus buying two paperbacks for the same amount.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

As a reader and a longtime subscriber to 4 different review publications, I've noticed (as has a friend, who subscribes to one of the same pubs) that once we're in the bookstore, we can often only remember that we've seen a book reviewed, not whether the review was positive or negative. Just the fact that I'm familiar with the title from the reviews will often make me pick up a book and start reading it (but it's the first page that helps me decide whether I'll buy it). As a reviewer, I am fully aware of how biased I am, despite how hard I try not to be!

Editorial Anonymous said...

Roger Sutton weighs in:
http://www.hbook.com/blog/2009/04/conspiracy-theory-of-reviewing.html

Leslie said...

First: Star-struck attack: THE Gregory Frost?? OMG, I just started reading your work (Tain) and that makes me happy because there's more books to be read! Hooray!!

Second: as the former editor of an all-volunteer book review journal let me say this: Book reviewing is *hard work* because a book review is not a book report.

Anonymous said...

Leslie,

So true about the book reports and many of the journal reviews strike me as borderline book reports, as if (come and get me, librarians and teachers!) some of the reviewers are actually uncomfortable commenting critically about writing and art. It's the only reason why I can imagine there is often so little interesting or even outright analysis.

This only seems to be more evident when the author or illustrator is a heavy hitter.

Anonymous said...

As an editor, when one of my books gets reviewed, my reponse is usually, 'We got a review?! Hot Damn!'. Any review is a good review. As one of the Anons has commented, people often remember seeing a book reviewed, but not what the reviewer said. Book buyers might be interested in a book when the reviewer is lukewarm, or even negative, if something about that book appeals to them. And before they saw the review, they had no idea the book existed. Just getting some attention is a wonderful, difficult thing in this industry.
Suzanne

Beth Kephart said...

I love this post. It covers me with calm.