Tuesday, April 06, 2004

'The part I liked best was when...'
Amateur reviewers gain clout

By Renee Tawa
Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times

April 6, 2004

In the courtship of Rebecca Johnson -- who's No. 4 on Amazon.com's list of top customer book reviewers -- publishers and authors are told upfront how to land a spot on her dance card: Don't send novels or unpublished manuscripts, and please no books that include violence, nudity or swearing.

Not if you want to bedazzle Johnson, who gets 40 to 60 free books a month, along with checklists from publishers asking her to mark the upcoming titles she's interested in receiving at no charge. Play along, and your shot at a rave review is far better than it would be with professional critics.

No one is saying that the Harold Blooms and Dale Pecks and other literati should be looking over their shoulders, but professional critics are no longer the only game in town. These days, as the Internet continues to reshape our notion of community, amateur critics are posting reviews across the cultural spectrum -- from film to books and more -- on discussion boards, blogs and other sites.

"It's all part of this culture we're now seeing where, `My opinion is just as valid as the guys at the L.A. Times,' " said Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. "It may not be as informed or educated and is maybe wrongheaded, but there's no question that a reader has as much right to publish their own opinion."

Everyday readers also have a shot at building a potentially huge following of their own. On a mega-site such as Amazon, where amateur reviews are packaged with bells and whistles, the collective voice of the consumer sometimes is powerful enough to help sales soar or sputter. In fact, the opinions of people such as Johnson on Amazon and other sites are cutting into territory that once was the province of mainstream critics alone.

Johnson, 36, is a freelance writer from Yakima, Wash., with a master's in education. She is known for her relentlessly sunny reviews and once even provided a blurb on a book jacket; she'll send a book back to a publisher rather than write a bad review. In the realm of criticism, there's room for both Amazon reviewers, who weigh in with impunity, and the somber voices of professional critics, Johnson said.

"I tend to be able to analyze books really efficiently. Authors say I'm insightful and I have a gift for extracting the essence of a book," she said. "I feel like I'm part of the reviewing community."

Amazon readers provide early and almost instant signs of breakout success; writers tend to obsessively check up on their reviews and ranking.

Quirky small-press books, ones that rarely get any media attention, have a chance on Amazon, where readers love to hunt for and pluck out overlooked page-turners. In 1999, writer M.J. Rose landed a contract with Pocket Books after the publishing industry noticed the reader buzz on her self-published novel, "Lip Service."

And Amazon readers loved the offbeat, tender sensibility of Danny Gregory's "Everyday Matters," an illustrated memoir. The raves from customers, as well as blog readers, "definitely affected sales" following the book's release in January, said Katharine Myers, spokeswoman for the Princeton Architectural Press, the book's publisher.

By the same token, first-time novelist Allison Burnett watched his book ranking plummet last year after Amazon readers suddenly began panning "Christopher." Until then, the book consistently had received five-star ratings, the highest rank, and good press. Burnett, like many authors, regularly was checking his rankings and reviews. He began to notice a pattern in the anonymous, negative postings, which often used the same words or phrases. After complaining to Amazon about what appeared to be a coordinated attack, the posts were removed. But sales never fully recovered.

Flame campaigns notwithstanding, reader reviews on Amazon are "so much purer," said Caroline Leavitt, a book columnist for The Boston Globe. "They're really from the heart. It'll be, `Oh, I stayed up all night,' or `This is a piece of garbage.' It's a true response."

Leavitt, author of eight novels, including "Girls in Trouble," takes in both professional and amateur criticism. "I absolutely want and prize and love and revere every single media review I get, but if I got 50 reviews from major newspapers and one review from Amazon, I still would feel a little weird: `What's going on? Why aren't people responding?'"

A backlash

The site's customer feedback is taken so seriously by readers, writers and publishers that a recent glitch on the company's Canadian Web site triggered a backlash against the entire reviewing system and made headlines around the world. (The site accidentally revealed the names of anonymous reviewers who, in some cases, raved about their own books or those of friends.)

In a backhanded compliment to Amazon, Kunkel, the University of Maryland professor, noted that "authors wouldn't be forging reviews if they didn't think it would be doing some good."

Lack of credibility

By the same token, customer reviewers don't have the credibility of book critics at mainstream publications, said Kunkel, who is president of the American Journalism Review. "You have no real guarantee that the person is bringing any kind of knowledge or expertise to his opinion."

Since its launch in July 1995, Amazon has spun itself as a cyber-community, fueled by the notion of we-are-the-world democracy. Following its lead, other booksellers, such as Barnes & Noble, also post reader reviews, as do sites for book fans such as www.readerville.com and www.bookreporter.com.

Publishers are beginning to solicit reader opinions as well. Simon & Schuster posts both signed and anonymous comments on its books. Bantam Dell, a division of Random House, sponsors a regular contest in which randomly selected entrants receive an advance copy of a book. The winners' reviews are posted online.

In October, HarperCollins began a monthly contest called First Look, which offers readers the chance to receive and critique books before publication. "We thought there were probably a lot of people out there who want to get involved, who want to feel like they're participating rather than simply going out there and buying the book," said Andy Khazaei, the publisher's senior vice president of electronic media.

Excerpts from the reviews, edited for "clarity and accuracy," are posted on the publisher's Web site alongside blurbs from media critics. So far, it's hard to tell whether the reader reviews are influencing sales, Khazaei said, but "there were a couple of instances where I thought, `Wow, these reviews are saying this, maybe we should reconsider how we position a title.'"

Status differential

The fact that amateur reviewers are on publishers' mailing lists doesn't necessarily give them more credibility, said Laura Miller, a book columnist for The New York Times Book Review and a book critic at Salon.com.

"There have been so many cutbacks on coverage of books in the mainstream press, they're probably desperate for any coverage they can get," Miller said. "Ask an author, would they rather have positive reviews on Amazon or a positive review in The New York Times Book Review. The status is not the same."

Yet writer Beth Lordan took to heart the HarperCollins winners' opinions on her new novel, "But Come Ye Back." She listens to professional critics, but "I wanted to know from readers who aren't doing literary analysis: Does the story itself hold? Do you care about the characters?

"I was literally in tears that all these people in the middle of regular, ordinary, demanding lives took the time to read the book and respond to the characters and then say so. And they said, `This is a good story.' It's not about networking, or you give me a good review, and I'll give you a good review. It leaves all the parts that are a little bit tainted out of the mix."

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune | 'The part I liked best was when...'

No comments:

Search This Blog