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Book reviews in published magazines, vs review aggregator sites

Dum-dah-dah…Another one bites the dust…♬ (Sorry, Queen.)

A few months ago I announced that my reviews will be published in the South African women’s magazine, FairLady. The relationship did not last as long as the previous four-year stint. After having had three reviews published, I was informed that as of May 2017, the “Books” section of the magazine will be used for publicity for a local bookseller, The Book Lounge. The Books section of the April issue of FairLady was the last featuring write-ups by individual reviewers, whose opinions were published with their bylines. So, it’s ¡Adiós, FairLady, from me. Why? Let me explain. The argument is long but the story is bigger than me and my obsession with reviewing books.

To their credit, The Book Lounge’s reviews in FairLady seem to be original, not reposted from some other site. On their website though, books that have been published overseas have the usual blurbs from publications like the New York Times, Vogue, Buzzfeed, and Harper’s Bazaar, that can be found in and on the back of the books themselves, as well as the endorsements of published and/or famous authors. Always, the praise is glowing. For books published locally, in South Africa, there are mostly just summaries. These types of reviews are intended to sell books, pure and simple. For the most part, book reviews are not about voicing independent opinions, but about getting readers to buy the next book. Magazines that let you read original reviews and other content for free in their online versions or in print for a small price, are getting fewer and fewer.

(Published reviews, below. Open link in new tab to see it in hi-res.)

These days, the most common solution to getting readers to “discover” their next book to buy, is not to print reviews in magazines, but to lure readers to review aggregator websites.

Dedicated literary supplements, reviews and magazines, like the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, or the Times Literary Supplement stand out since their reviews are not written by the masses, but by professional reviewers, authors and subject matter experts doing paid jobs. Moreover, they are subscription-based.

Review aggregators can be aggravating

Review aggregator sites, on the other hand, are for everybody, and they are free. This means that the users do the actual work, same as on Wikipedia, which means you get the bad with the good. A review aggregator collects reviews from publications, news sites, publishers and blogs, lets users write and read more reviews, stores all the reviews, rates the books based on all the reviews, and then sells all that information about the books and the readers to third parties. It’s all about the money. (Tol’ ya so.) The main ones are:

  • Goodreads – Biggest book aggregator site in the world.
  • iDreamBooks
  • Literary Hub
  • Complete Review – Not very good or up to date. Got the test of finding The City & The City (China Miéville) wrong. Just gives a Google-type list of other sites where reviews are of similar titles.

Other sites that are also review aggregators of sorts, but smaller, are:

  • Shelfjoy – Start-up site showing the favourite books on the virtual bookshelves of people. Somewhat entertaining if you can’t decide what to read for yourself and need celebrity endorsement. [Not working any more at Aug. 2019. Replaced by:]
  • ANobii – Community built by readers for readers allowing you to find, shelve, review and share books. Basically Italian. [Not working any more at Dec. 2018]
  • Bookish – A division of NetGalley LLC. Netgalley is a site where early or first reviews of galleys are published. Galley is another word for advanced copy, proof or pre-first edition, and is a limited print run copy that is printed before the first standard edition is published. Bookish is a general literary site about books, book lists, publishing and authors. No reviews, just blurbs. All super-happy and superficial.
  • Readgeek – Lots of German. Allows you to rate a book like you’d rate a hotel, with a slider from zero to ten. Reader reviews vary from no words to some words, all in German. Rating a book allows the site algorithm to suggest more books of the same kind as those you rated highly. Kind of idiotic really, since it sticks you into a kind of Groundhog Day-cycle. But there is deadly satisfaction in moving that slider back to zero.

Goodreads –  55 Million members; 1.5 Billion books added; 50 Million reviews…

While there are some badly written, extreme and unjustified comments by people on Goodreads, at least the site seems, on the whole, to have literate users and some passionate readers. And Goodreads has massive, simply massive reach. This is not a print magazine with a couple of thousand readers or subscribers. This involves millions of people. In 2013 Amazon acquired Goodreads, to which the New York Times responded that

“Goodreads was [note the past tense] a rival to Amazon as a place for discovering books” and that this deal “consolidates Amazon’s power to determine which authors get exposure for their work.”

Amazon, as we know, has been criticized for the fake reviews they have on many products, including books, and their agenda of pushing certain authors and publishers with whom they have deals, turning them into the so-called “enemy of literature”. Or rather, as some would have it, an enemy of self-published, new, unknown, and literary authors.

However, I can see the point of Amazon and Goodreads’ strategy: It is a successful way of growing the book market because without sales and advertising – in other words, monetizing and merchandizing – the publishing industry is as good as dead in any case, for famous and non-famous authors alike. And at least on Goodreads I can publish actual criticism. So on the whole, I cannot but agree with the direction that FairLady’s management has taken to monetize or have a commercial tie-in for their Books pages. Just sitting there, not even being available on a website, they were doing nothing. But writing plot summaries rather than putting my name with my opinion is not my style.

With the establishment of the Internet as the main source of information, the issue lately has not been so much the price of books, or the variety, or the availability – it has been discovery, allowing readers to find out by themselves what to read next. Because reading, like all consumer activities, has to be repeated, one book at a time.

Goodreads actually states quite plainly on their site what they are there for:

“Goodreads is the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations. Our mission is to help people find and share books they love.”

Management is also quite open about the fact that they want to drive the site users towards Amazon to buy books.

They even advertise jobs for doing just that:

“Drive the product vision and roadmap for our Goodreads advertising products to drive increased revenue. Work closely with internal Goodreads business leads and teams (engineering, design, sales, customer care), as well as cross-organizational Amazon partners to execute on product roadmap.”

On their jobs pages, they do not advertise for reviewers. They advertise for software engineers and programmers, and sales and merchandizing people, not for people with B.A. degrees in Literature. The link to the jobs page pretty much says where the emphasis is:

What’s the matter with review aggregator sites?

I have problems with all the review aggregator sites, to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly, it is because I have a sense that the reviews are badly written, are not about literary standards and are being manipulated to increase sales. I think it is the manner in which this is done that I object to, rather than the fact that it is done, and rather than the fact that, on the whole, they are a practical necessity and simply a fact of life.

My objections are that;

  1. A review is only as good as its source – in other words, who wrote it. If I don’t know a real person wrote it, I don’t care for it. Moreover, if I can see from the language and information that the person does not know their subject, I ignore the review altogether.
  2. Someone has to curate all the user feedback. Yes, everyone has an opinion but social media allows everyone, including the crazies, to get their opinions published. I suspect that Goodreads does not do much curating. The more clicks the merrier.
  3. The criteria for top books have to be something other than just clicks, hits or sales. It has to be, at least to some extent, about literary quality. Otherwise just more crap will end up in the market. Which will eventually kill the market stone dead.
  4. The review site has to allow for actual criticism. Not raving and ranting – justified, fact-based criticism of the work itself (not the author’s persona). Praising everything and not allowing for reasoned negative comment means that there is no way to differentiate between the good and the bad. Even good authors sometimes write bad books – and that has to be said. It is an insult to any author to be judged exactly the same, in other words, with glowing praise, regardless of what they’ve written. It’s an insult also to the intelligence and taste of readers.
  5. Reviews ought not to be machine-generated. Site owners or publishers that publish machine-aggregated or generated text as “reviews” (and yes, there are such things, sometimes called “robot journalism”), may know but probably do not care that a review is an intensely personal expression, from the mind and experience of one reader, to a community of readers. Readers will never experience any book in the same way. There will be positive and negative perceptions. Human reviews are highly differentiated and actually creative. Critical readers should be able to spot fake reviews on sight, and that basically makes nonsense of the review site as a whole.

I saw an interesting piece of spam caught in the spam filter of this site the other day. I had mentioned The Great Gatsby in a post, merely mentioned it. With reference to those three words, I got a “comment” back from the fan site of  – of all people – Carey Mulligan (?!), which gave “her” take on the movie and criticized reviewers for not correctly interpreting the original film with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. I should’ve kept it as an example of a machine-generated in-bound link or backlink, which is supposed to increase traffic to the other site and up its Google ranking. I said “supposed to”. It doesn’t really work, and the comment was pure hog-wash, in other words, spam disguised as comment disguised as criticism. Which is why it was caught in the spam filter in the first place.

So, I will continue with this blog by myself until I drop dead or lose my marbles, whichever comes first. Perhaps, one day, I’ll find another magazine to write for, but it’s not likely, considering the way the world is going.

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