The Value, or Not, of Reviews

There was a time, when legacy publishing houses decided what the public read, that legacy review periodicals ruled the publishing marketplace. Then print on demand technologies happened and vanity press took a back seat when indie authors sought economic and environmental options for their publications. Lulu, CreateSpace, BookSurge and others burgeoned. Last year in the US over 500,000 new titles were released, of which over half of those were from indie-authors. Quite staggering statistics.

And as those indie authors released books, (many of which, it pains me to write, still remain ripe compost) so the demand for reviews exploded.

While all that terra-formed the landscape of publishing, online booksellers recognized a marketing strategy that would allow buyers to interact, comment and review books in an online book-club format. Websites dedicated solely to readers sprouted like weeds at the side of a country road. Amazon and Chapters created their forums. Goodreads and LibraryThing created theirs. As reader reviews exploded, so did purchases of favourably reviewed publications, while others, which received opprobrium, tanked. I’d call that consumer-power at its most effective.

Now, let it be understood that just like stigma attached to self-publishing, many of my peers also attach a stigma to reader reviews. Some go to the extent of calling them ‘sock-puppet’ reviews, a term which, frankly, causes me to arch an eyebrow and consider the blinkered perspective of that comment and terminology.

Why? Allow me to continue.

Now add to the mix the demise of one of the publishing world’s long-standing bastions of literary comment, Kirkus Review. Earlier this month Nielsen Company announced it would be closing down not only Kirkus, but Editor and Publisher. Like newspapers and publishing houses, the critical review periodicals are tumbling.

I predict in this rapidly morphing world of publishing, other legacy literary review periodicals like Publishers Weekly and Canada’s Quill and Quire may face similar fates or have to consider sweeping changes to their editorial mandates.

Pretty strong, even radical, opinion. But consider the statistics I noted previously, regarding the number of independently published books being released. Those very same books are, for the most part, accessing the same global marketplace via the Internet. They are, however, denied access to critical review from the recognized periodicals I’ve noted, and rely heavily upon reader reviews in order to gain reader support.

And it’s pretty effective what the indies are doing, going after a grassroots, honest response from readers. Agreed, the reviews aren’t always couched in the language of the literati and academia. But the language used is plain and understandable by the average person looking to release credit card information to an online bookseller. “I liked this book. Buy it,” or “This book sucked. Waste of time.” And the more reviews there are, the more weight they carry because it indicates a readership, a following outside of friends and family. You can’t necessarily look for hundreds of reviews for indie publications. But anything over five should start to catch your attention. Moreover, if those five actually have valuable information, even critical comment, then you should most definitely pay attention.

For myself and my wee publishing house, we will continue to seek out and encourage reader reviews, because, in the end it’s the reader we set out to please, not a reviewer with a corporate agenda and a job to protect.