Each and every member of the publishing business wants to see books get reviewed. Today, reviews are, shall we say, the electronic or online version of a personal recommendation. We all know and trust the power of a person-to-person review. It just doesn’t get better.
Lately – meaning over the past few years – I’ve noticed a growing disparity between the reviews, (primarily on Amazon but also in advertising) the “Big Five” publishers put up (and perhaps cherry-pick from) and the reader reviews. The New York publishers’ book reviews are, of course, always stellar, garlanded with comments such as “instant bestseller” and even “#1 New York Times Bestseller” which are of course unprovable for Joe Q. Average Reader to verify. I’m not going to call anyone out here, but I’ve noted three recent examples of this abberance.
One, a nonfiction book by a newspaper journalist, published in August, advertised on page 2 of the New York Times Book Review section, as a “#1 New York Times Bestseller.” I went back through my issues, both paper and online, and could find no listing whatsoever for his book in the NYTBR “Best Sellers” tables, nor even a review.
Two, I bought a copy of a novel and began reading. Sentences were peppered with the word “that” used as a subordinate, in some cases two, three and even four times in one sentence. The author was also prolix at dropping red herrings, which ostensibly had occurred in the past or might possibly occur in the future, but were not mentioned again – at least in the first fifty-odd pages I suffered through. Now disgusted, I turned to the Amazon page and found many disgruntled readers, but over 25 glowing editorial reviews from notable authors and editors — yet the readers’ reviews barely topped 3 stars and their titles ranged from “ugh” to “diappointed” to “it’s awful.”
Three, another novelist I recently noticed touted in the pages of the New York Times Book Review was for a thriller, also a first novel. Once again intrigued but now somewhat more circumspect about buying on impulse baed upon laudatory clips from literary hoi polloi, I dived-bombed over to the book’s Amazon page and found pretty much the same critiques as book #2 above. Both books have a lot of reviews. Both have a disparity between editorial reviews and reader reviews as deep and wide as the Mariana Trench. The very first review of this book is that it’s one of the worst books they have ever read–they who is an Amazon Vine reviewer–with some additional, surprising insights into the book’s publishing journey to print.
Call me skeptical. I won’t deny it. Here’s how I see things. I am all in favor of growing new writers and I have no problem with some books having less legs than others. But what concerns me is advertising a book as being something it is not. If this were a toy or an electronic device, purported to be far, far greater that it truly is, that product (and likely its company) would be out of the market in a trice.
I won’t belabor my reactions on an ethical basis, but we are talking about trust. The saving grace as I see it for the Big 5 is that readers don’t keep a scorecard of good or bad books by publishing house, so any one of them can slip one to us and hardly anyone will be the wiser. The one who suffers here, obviously, is the author who takes the full brunt of the criticism. That’s a shame because, certainly from my own 48 years of publishing experience, I know your first book may not be your best, although your reputation may hang in the balance on it. There’s a story behind why this hanky-panky happens that I am certainly not privy to, but which I nevertheless believe should be rooted out of our majestic industry which has in so many respects turned away from the art of publishing “good” books to being mostly interested in books that make money.