Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Growing Value of Reader Reviews

Carrying on from where I left off yesterday, it has become increasingly apparent that with the mass influx of new reading material on the market the average reader is rapidly becoming overwhelmed with choices. In a sea of three million new titles sorting out what's good from what is utter dreck is getting harder every day. This is the primary reason people tend to read the same few authors and titles that everyone else is reading, which is to say, what's currently being promoted heavily by the major trades via talk shows and magazine ads. It helps us sort through the ever-growing pile of work of only minor value or peripheral interest, works for which in business terms the potential return does not justify a large investment to promote. Consequently, more mainstream books are promoted, and works of "lesser interest" are left behind to wallow in obscurity.

Of course, many of those "minor" works are truly great. Not every great book has a huge potential audience: some genres and subjects are by their very nature smaller than others. But that does not imply no good work can be written on those subjects. Young adult vampire novels, for example, have a very large audience, while stories about, say, Sumerian mythological deities do not. That does not imply that all vampire novels are inherently excellent, and all (if there are any) newly written fiction concerning ancient Mesopotamian myths and legends are inherently bad. The latter will just never be read (or likely even published) because no viable publisher would ever put much effort into promoting it (unless it's been turned into a modern-day archaeological thriller by a major author, that is). Because of this, subjects of significant literary interest have become very narrow and overburdened with replicated content (much of it utter rubbish), while subjects with just as much potential literary value have been ignored and overlooked, even while some of it is extremely good (and often more imaginative).

This has been the state of affairs for much of the modern era, with a few narrow subjects such as crime thrillers and horror stories being promoted with lavish budgets and high praise from mainstream book reviewers while the vast majority of subject categories go unnoticed, aside from a handful of literary book reviewers who might take a fancy to a work of a more quirky nature. There has been, for example, an earnest and heartfelt effort to support small press publishers who produce works of social or personal drama, with the occasional Oprah selection of the month gaining incandescent notoriety. In general, though, the bestseller lists are populated with the same old dreck just written with different words.

That condition has been exacerbated by the literal flood of unfiltered material now inundating the world through self-publishing venues, much of which is drivel, but some among it bound to be quite good, if not astounding (while also odd, unconventional, or geared toward a rather narrow audience). Until now, one could place at least some minor faith in the traditional system which gleans (however inefficiently) through a virtual mountain of submissions to filter out the "best" of what's been written. Or so we would like to think. Define "best" how you like, but for the major trades this means "most potential return on investment" since they are, after all, first and foremost a business. However that may be, the enforcement of that filter has now been removed altogether (or rather, bypassed, as it were), and a veritable landslide of literary muck has been unleashed upon an unsuspecting public.
The question then, is how do we now discern what is of value when the traditional system has been usurped? Of course, the traditional system is still there, slogging away, so one answer is simply to keep doing what we've always done, and read what everyone else is reading, which is to say, what the six main publishers promote. Eventually all this other stuff will go away if no one pays it any mind, and we can go about our business knowing greater minds are deciding what is best for us in a comfortably Brave New World (ironically, Huxley postulated a world in which "the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance,"* where the general populace, unable to distinguish literary value for themselves, are reduced to passively accepting what is given them) [*Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death, 1985]. Sadly, that is not too far from the truth today.

But there is an alternative. There is another system already in place that can help us with our burden. It is built upon that most sacred and cherished of all commodities we possess: our own opinions, and those of others like ourselves. This system is made functional and relevant via the vast network of reader reviews on public sites like Goodreads, LibraryThing, book review blogs, and most importantly, online book retailers such as Amazon, whose reader review and recommendation engine is unparalleled. The more you read, the more you rate and review, the better the recommendations you receive. Social circles such as Goodreads help you discover books by seeing what others with interests similar to your own have read and rated. And of course, blogs that review books are a fundamental source for learning what is good and why.

In a world where every reader rated or reviewed each book they've read no good book would ever go undiscovered. Even in a year with over three million titles published, very few of those will go entirely unread by someone. But a great many of them will remain unreviewed, leaving the rest of us to wonder as to their quality, and casually pass them by.

The value of a book review is difficult to understate (and here I should specify that I mean reviews by readers unaffiliated with, and thus uninfluenced by, the publishing world, which casts a wide shadow over the media empires they control, including periodicals and TV stations). Even a simple one-to-five star rating tells the next potential reader much, particularly when it's an average based on a larger number of ratings. It also helps the author quite considerably in determining how their writing is received, and thus in trying to decide whether or not to bother writing another. A book that has no stars and no reviews is a book that few will ever read. It's an unknown quantity, an unnecessary risk in a world of opportunity, a gamble with those two other great commodities most of us have in short supply: our time and our money. But a minute spent rating a book that you've just read can save another reader (or yourself when selecting a book that others have rated and reviewed) a week or more of wasted time reading something that should never have been released in the first place, self-published or otherwise.

The days of benevolent gatekeepers looking out for our literary welfare are long gone. Regardless of whether it's independent or traditional, there is no one now evaluating the actual merit of what is being published but ourselves. Trade publishers tend to look at monetary rather than literary value, and self-published works are released regardless of value. Any given book published today can span the gamut of value, both monetary and literary. There is no real way to know unless someone has actually read the book and made the effort to give it an honest review.

And lest you think perhaps nobody pays attention to reader reviews, let me offer this bit of wisdom from personal experience: when Amazon recently added U.S. reviews to their U.K. site, my sales multiplied virtually overnight. No one in the U.K. had bothered to add a single review or rating to my debut novel, even though I'd sold well over a hundred copies there last year. With my U.S. reviews now available on the U.K. site my sales increased sevenfold, and I am currently on track to sell 780 copies this year just in the U.K. alone. Of course, some of that increase is likely due to holiday Kindle gifts that would have occurred regardless, but the effect was immediate and obvious when the reviews first appeared: seeing the increase in my sales report is what caused me to go looking at my book page on Amazon UK in the first place, to see if they had put the book on sale or something. They hadn't, but by adding the reviews they were helping to promote it in a very significant way.

So please, for your own sake, and the sake of every dedicated reader out there, take two minutes to rate each book you read this year, so that all of us can gain a better sense of what is out there worth our time. Better, take ten minutes and write a short review, describing what you liked or disliked, and why. This is particularly important for books with few or no reviews, as your opinion will carry a lot of weight with future viewers of that page. That being said, the opposite is true: if there are already over a hundred reviews don't bother adding your own as it will only be drowned out by the cacophony of voices, and clearly one more opinion is not needed. Certainly write one if you feel you have something of value to add to the conversation. But one more review of The Hunger Games won't convince anybody one way or the other, so save that for the fan sites. Instead, spend the effort posting your reviews of lesser read material, whether good or bad. Who knows, maybe you'll discover the next great work and start a literary landslide.

P.S. To all the book review bloggers out there, my heartfelt thanks and keep up the good work. You're serving a critical social function that's becoming more important every day.