In this post I’m relating a conversation that will give you a good insight into the book review business and prevailing attitudes.
Mike Tibby works for Quality Books Inc. For more than 4 decades Quality Books Inc. has been dedicated to being the premier supplier of small press titles and special interest non-print resources to the library community. They stock titles from nearly 1800 small and independent presses and are committed to bringing the voices of the vibrant small press community to a larger audience through libraries.
Rick Gelinas (an aspiring author): “How does a first-time, unknown self-publisher of a hardcover modern-day romance/adventure novel get a professional review?”
Mike Tibby (a publishing professional): I don’t think there is a simple answer to Rick’s question. A cynical–yet truthful–reply might be: Write in a less crowded field. There are so many “hardcover modern-day romance/adventure” novels out there that you are fighting some well-established authors and publishers for space and time.
Rick: “It seems to me that signed and well written reviews by honest ordinary folk–let’s say strangers one meets at the supermarket, or readers who respond to a notice at the public library–will look a lot better on my dust jacket than no reviews at all.”
Mike: They may look better but they may not read well at all. And when QBI (Quality Books Inc) considers a title for distribution, oodles of reviews by “honest ordinary” but unknown folk, no matter how warm and friendly to the book the reviews are, are considered less than meaningless.
Rick: “I’m more than a little put off by the ugly things being written every day by so-called professional reviewers whose grandiloquent prose reveals they write while drunk on self-love and with a universal disdain for all unknown writers. What do you call a thousand professional reviewers tied together at the bottom of the sea? A good beginning. Do I sound teed off at professional reviewers? Well gee whiz!”
Mike: Well, that diatribe is certainly a good start for getting professional reviews. As a professional, if freelance, reviewer, I am greatly put off by the drivel being written every day by so-called professional authors whose copious prose reveals an unmerited enthrallment with their writing style and subject matter. Yet I’m always eager to start–or at least browse–the next title. Do I sound teed off at authors? Well yes and no: I’ve never rejected reviewing a small press title for crappy writing, but I’ve rejected many titles from larger publishers for that very reason. (Disclaimer: I review only non-fiction.) This dichotomy probably reflects the more arduous path small press titles face in getting past my editor and his selectors rather than the relative merits of large-press authors’ abilities, but the big guys publish more bad books as well as more good ones. Golly gosh darn. Have you tried Midwest Book Review? Jim’s stable of reviewers are erudite and well thought of. Many librarians read MBR and once you get a reliable bibliographic and sales history, the prepublication reviewers may well fall in line. But seriously, the genre in which you say you are writing is a very crowded field. Review organs have only so much space.
Rick: “I hope you recognize the implicit Catch-22 here.”
Mike: I do. I hope you realize that the review publications don’t view their reason for existence as providing sales tools to any and all authors.
Rick: “If someone is a writer of literary–or even commercial–fiction, telling him that it’s easier to get nonfiction reviewed is only moderately helpful”
Mike: It may be only moderately helpful, but it’s definitely true. As I’ve frequently posted here and on the evil, alternate small press email discussion list, there are many other crowded fields in which it’s difficult to get reviews. For instance: guides to life that concentrate on getting on the right side of the Deity; personal finance be-all and end-alls; disease of the week biographies; personal journeys of self-fulfillment, etc. None of these fields are my cup of literary tea, to be sure, but whether they are or not, they’re crowded fields in which it’s tough for new authors to get recognized without Oprah’s indulgence. Personally I can’t get enough of biographies of important reggae musicians and singers, but other than works about Bob Marley there are virtually none out there. A book about Peter Tosh or Burning Spear would probably get lots of reviews; the 3,699th bio of Bob Marley might not. In any case, a little bit of a lit search to see what one will be competing with before writing is almost always a good idea. If one wants to be noticed, it helps to offer something new or different.
Rick: “for the dedicated novelist, it’s very discouraging to hear that, essentially, there are too many damn novels and you should go find some other way to spend your time because you’re never going to make a living this way.”
Mike: If an aspiring novelist is encountering this sort of thing for the first time in this forum, I wonder how prepared they are. I’ve heard the same thing from creative writing instructors, writers’ workshop profs, and sundry grizzled veterans of the publishing game for decades. Similarly, I remember in my freshman year in college, the professor for my section of Drama in Western Civilization (the intro course for drama majors) told the assembled would-be actors, directors, and playwrights that if we thought going to college would get us started in the theater or movie world we were kidding ourselves, and that if we wanted to do anything other than teach we should haul our sorry behinds to the Guthrie or some similar real world milieu. We didn’t want to hear it, but she was right. For every well-known Lawrence Ferlinghetti, there are several Larry Levises who were very good poets but remained largely unknown. (Levis was an instructor at the U of Iowa who I greatly enjoyed. He was well-known in the world of poetry, but largely a cipher to the broad commercial publishing market).
Rick: “at least in the small sample of authors I’ve encountered, the nonfiction authors have less need of exposure through reviews; they’ve already got a platform, either through their own speaking engagements (back of the room sales) or through an established Web business or fan base. I realize reviews can be helpful for many other categories of nonfiction authors, but as a group they tend to be better connected to alternative channels, whether they are professors writing textbooks or journalists writing political analyses or whatever.”
Mike: I don’t think this is a useful generalization. Books by authors who do a lot of speaking engagements which result in back of the room sales are also quite frequently non-starters for professional reviewers and library distributors like QBI since frequently, but definitely not always, these books tend to be more entrepreneurial than literary. Writers of true crime titles, for instance, may not “be better connected to alternative channels, whether they are professors writing textbooks or journalists writing political analyses or whatever,” though certainly some are. True crime is a thriving genre.
Rick: “Seems like a raw deal for the novelists, if you ask me.”
Mike: Perhaps it’s a raw deal for the novelists, but the review journals are not in business primarily to further novelists’ or any other writers’ career opportunities, they’re in business to advise consumers.
Rick: “Maybe the review pubs–at least some of them–would do well to concentrate on new fiction. What do you think?”
Mike: They’re also in business to make money. I think if concentrating on new fiction were a way to do so, they would have done it. As it is, Booklist at least, and I suspect the other review pubs, do run regular features concentrating on new fiction, science fiction, genre fiction, graphic novels, Christian fiction, and nearly every other identifiable sort of fiction imaginable. They just don’t do it every issue. No more than 5% of submissions to Booklist make it into the magazine. That’s fiction and non-fiction alike.
Mike Tibby is a Senior Cataloger for Quality Books Inc.