Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Newspaper reviews: SO last year - Nicola Morgan

There was one Thing You Shouldn't Say to an Author which I quite forgot: "I haven't seen any reviews of Deathwatch anywhere," said a certain author's elderly acquaintance (possibly related) who lives in a tiny village in Scotland, skims "the" newspaper and doesn't use the internet because, although he technically has broadband, you'd never know, and because his computer is perched in a gloomy corner of a poorly designed room which gives him a crick in his neck after ten minutes peering at the screen. And ten minutes is how long it takes his computer to boot. On a good day, with the wind in the west and the fish beginning to bite.

No, well, you wouldn't have seen any, would you? Yes, there were lovely reviews, even in newspapers, even in a few decent ones, but with 10,000 children's books published every year in the UK, the chances of your young* acquaintance's book just happening to be reviewed in the Pittenweem Telegraph are about as slim as a very slim thing. Slimmer even than the Pittenweem Telegraph. (*artistic licence. Anyway, age is all relative.)

Thing is, we've moved on from a thralled reliance on newsprint and so much grubby ink, haven't we? Not that we'd turn our noses up at a review in the Guardian or the Book of the Week spot in the Sunday Times, of course - far from it: crikey, I'd have a party if that happened, or at least open the bottle of fizz which is waiting in the fridge for such moments and rapidly becoming vintage. But we don't rely on them because we have many more, and equally well-written and important, sources of reviews.

No, no, not Amazon, silly! Everyone knows that Amazon reviews are tainted. Lovely as it is to get four or five-star reviews there, we also know that they can be trusted about as far as a strawberry plant in the Sahara: the good reviews are as likely to be written by our mothers or publishers as the bad ones are to be written by an idiot / enemy / someone who was a bit pissed and bored at 3am. (I hasten to add that as far as I know neither my mother nor publisher has ever done this, but we can never be entirely sure what our mothers get up to at 3am.)

I'm talking about the growing number of increasingly respected and valued websites and blogs where sensible and knowledgeable people write sensible and knowledgeable reviews. Places like Achuka and WriteAway and the Bookbag and the Bookwitch. It feels to me as though, a few years back, readers moved from grovelling reliance on newsprint (when that was all there was) to a gluttonous and undiscerning vox-pop-fest of democratisation (when Amazon felt like the only place you could buy and comment on books), and that now we have something more useful and adaptable: a healthy array of places where serious, knowledgeable, passionate readers can give serious, knowledgeable, passionate views and share them with the like-minded. Because, after all, what's the point of a review by someone who's not like-minded?

I'm doing an article for the Author on this subject soon (like, er, rather horribly soon ...) and I'd love your views on that phrase in red above. "Increasingly respected and valued" - do you agree? How and why are some of them respected? Which ones do you (as readers or writers) value? Or don't you? As a writer, do you still blush with extra pride when you find yourself reviewed on scrunchable paper? As a reader, do you take more notice of a printed review than an on-line one? Do we care whether reviews are by "ordinary" readers, as opposed to "professional" reviewers. (Deliberately provocative adjectives there.)

Seems to me that people have been talking about the review being dead (and that link is only one example amongst vast numbers that you'll find by googling "review is dead") when in fact it's merely shedding its skin. And, though I don't claim to be an expert on snakes, I do know that when a snake is shedding its skin it looks pretty grotty and acts as though its not feeling very well at all. (I apologise for the technical lingo there.) But then it appears all sleek and gorgeous (for a snake), bigger and better and stronger than before.

The review is not dead at all. It's beginning to hiss loudly. And people are listening.


catdownunder said...

Ah Nicola, as the author of an unrespected and (rightly) under-valued blog I do mention books occasionally. Perhaps I should mention them more often? But why would anyone take any notice of me? They do not know me. They have no idea what my qualifications for writing a review are. Is it sufficient just to have read the book? I can say I like or dislike it. I can even say why. I can say it all in plain language but is that what people want? Come to that, and here is the big question for you, what do authors want in a book review - apart from, "I like it and reckon you ought to go out and buy it and read it too."??????
(Yes, I can see I need to work harder at my blog posts - and keep my cat hair out of the keyboard.)

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi Catdownunder - what do authors want apart from "I like it ... etc"? Well, I reckon they want something that shows what sort of book it is, what it *feels* like to read it, and therefore shows the reader whether it might be the sort of book they'd like. But really it's what the reader wants, not the writer, that's important. Luckily, however, what readers want is just the same!!

Readers begin to trust your opinion when they see a consistency in what you like and how you talk about it. And they want to engage and respond - that's what the biggest / most popular blogs do, I think. You have to have a voice (which you do!). But i also think you can't be all things to all people in a blog - if it's not primarily a review blog, it probably doesn't make much sense to do reviews.

Careful of those cat hairs - they can really clog up a keyboard.

catdownunder said...

Miaou! (Thankyou for the kind comments!) Yes, I would rather write than write reviews. (Laziness - writing a review is not as easy as it looks.)
Our local independent bookshop has the nice traditon of putting out a "thought for the day" on a small blackboard easel. Monday's thought was "No two people read the same book". It sounds trite - but it is also very true.
I think it might also explain why the attempt of some libraries to suggest "if you like X author then you might also like Y" does not always succeed. Reviewing is an inexact science but all the more challenging because of that fact.
Good luck with the paper - I'll be interested to read it.
Off to dust the cat hairs out of the keyboard.

Nick Green said...

By the way, catdownunder, I'd love to know what you think of my cat books (what a chancer I am...) :-)

Chicklish said...

One of the main reasons my writing friends and I set up a review blog was that our favourite type of fiction (light-hearted, aimed at girls) is almost *never* reviewed. Well, it is now, thanks to the great leveller of the blogging world.

We have a mixture of reviewers on our site, aged from 10 to adult, and I think we've created a place girls come to for advice on what's out there. We get comments a long time after we post our reviews - even years later - and I think internet reviews have the edge for this reason. Teenaged readers are likely to finish a book they love and look it up online to find out more about it.

I'm also a writer and my books are the kind that don't get reviewed in papers. (It's not really a coincidence!) I've had some wonderful online reviews, though, and I agree that online reviewers are increasingly respected and valued.


Nicola Morgan said...

Chicklish - nice to hear from you. Yours is one of the blogs I'd heard about and I'll be taking a look while writing the piece - thanks for reminding me!

Nick - catdownunder is way too experienced a blogger to take any notice of you hijacking a blog post like that! Go check out and comment on her blog, if you want ...

Col said...

Which book reviewers online do I value? For "adult" books - primarily John Self's Asylum and Dovegreyreader; and Vulpes Libris sometimes. As co-admin there with John Self, I can only recommend as a good general source of intelligent book (and film) reviews.

For children's reviews, no one place in particular, but I follow Charles Butler's blog, Achuka for its round-ups of reviews, and a series of individual blogs in the UK/States/Australia.

I am not that keen on peer-reviews of books, such as appear in the Guardian. But every website, equally, has its angle - whether it's Green Man reviews or a blogger who favours fantasy YA over other kinds. I pay more attention to the online reviews.

Anonymous said...

I'm respected?? Oh, thank you, Nicola. Your book has come on holiday with me. I'll have to see if I can entice it away from swimming too much. Or eating too much cake.

Catdownunder - you WILL like Nick's cat books. Or else. Anyway, when you find someone who's blogging style you like, then you might trust their opinion on books they've read.

I find lots of my readers have simply googled an author or book title, because they want to read more about whatever subject they have an interest in.

Book Maven said...

As both a book-blogger (The Book Maven; see below) and someone who "peer-reviews" for the Guardian, I want to say that, at the present time, it is precisely BECAUSE of the tiny numbers out of the 10,000 -12,000 children's books published each year, that are reviewed in the serious press that makes the paper review still highly valued.

That doesn't mean it's not a lottery; it might not be the best fraction that is reviewed in this way. And yes, I think it will change over time.

People need to get used to the proliferation of websites which review children's books.Reviewing like so much else is in a state of flux at the moment.