Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Readers & Publishers, Awash in a Book Flood

By Carole Goldberg
Hartford Courant
Sunday, February 15, 2004; Page D06

Like an assembly line stuck in high gear, the U.S. publishing industry is churning out ever more books each year, an embarrassment of riches for publishers, reviewers and readers alike.

R.R. Bowker, the company that maintains the authoritative Books in Print database, says the most recent figures show that, in 2002, total output of new titles and editions in the United States grew by nearly 6 percent, to 150,000. General adult fiction exceeded 17,000 -- the strongest category. Juvenile titles topped 10,000, the highest total ever recorded. And there were more than 10,300 new publishers, mostly small or self-publishers.

No wonder we're all running out of shelf space.

Depending on whether you're a producer or a consumer, that's either good or frustrating.

"Year after year," says Pat Johnson, executive vice president of publishing for Alfred A. Knopf, "we gasp in horror at the numbers, knowing we have to fight for readers." But, Johnson says, "The industry has an amazing capacity for good books to find their way." Although there is intense competition for publicity, reviews and space in stores, "the cream usually rises to the top," she says.

Alexander Taylor, co-director of Curbstone Press in Willimantic, Conn., has a different perspective.

"You can never publish too many if they're of good quality, but for independent presses, it's getting more and more difficult" to compete, Taylor says. "We've learned that we have to communicate directly with our audience through our Web site and direct e-mails to our readers."

Jenny Minton Quigley of West Hartford, Conn., recently left Knopf, where she was a senior editor.

"Publishing is not a business driven by focus groups or market studies but by word of mouth. Every book is a gamble," Minton Quigley says. "Publishers rely on their editors, and sometimes they hit it right on the nose, and sometimes they miss. So the publisher puts out a big list," though only about 10 percent of books each year "earn out" what was invested in them.

It's all about "the risk-reward ratio," she says. "A small advance can lead to a big success, and to attract 'cash cow' authors, you must have a big assortment, a big list."

Laura Miller, whose take-no-prisoners reviews appear in the New York Times and on Salon.com, says a "throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks" mentality prevails.

"There's an economy of scale in the publishing industry. Editors are being urged to acquire books, even those they are not so enthusiastic about. The pressure comes from above -- one winner will pay for many losses," Miller says.

Minton Quigley says because of the dizzying avalanche of books, "as an individual reader, I've lost the capability to discover a good book for myself. There are just too many, so I rely on the media."

But reviewers feel just as overwhelmed.

Kyle Smith, book editor at People magazine whose own debut novel, "Love Monkey," was published earlier this month by HarperCollins, says, "To be a book review editor is to wade to work in hip boots every day. I get bombarded with books from self-published authors and tiny publishing houses that stand zero chance, considering how many books from the heavyweights I leave hopping up and down on the sidelines begging for a chance to get in the game.

"There are many worthy books that aren't going to make it, even though I do brief reviews, which affords me [the chance] to cram in two or three books per page of the magazine," Smith says.

"Everyone's in this business hoping to see the next 'Nanny Diaries' or 'Da Vinci Code,' but if the book is merely worthy, it's probably not going to make much of an impression."

Miller says she relies on a close community of reviewers, book scouts, editors and others in the business to help her decide what to review.

"I don't know that I could do my job without talking to others," she says.

"Even if I just read the first 50 pages of every reasonably serious fiction [book published each month], I'd have no time to do anything else," says Miller, who writes about 30 reviews a year. She spends about 15 percent of her time just sorting and storing the copies she receives for possible reviews.

And although reviewing can be like being a kid let loose in a candy store, Miller points out that "there are a million jars and packages in that store, and a lot of it is joke candy that tastes really bad."

Rebecca Skloot, a science writer for magazines who frequently reviews books on medical and scientific topics and is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, says managing the flow of review copies is "an organizational nightmare" and "endless joke" to her Manhattan apartment building's doormen.

"Reviewing is a labor of love," Skloot says, "but the sheer volume of books is so great that some get lost in the shuffle." Yet even though she wishes publishers would not send out "blanket mailings" of review copies, "the system does work. I can pass along books to others who may review them," she says.

From a bookseller's point of view, says Suzy Staubach, general manager of the University of Connecticut's Co-op Bookstore, "there can't be too many books," though it is getting harder for an author to break out and readers are relying more on "brand name" authors.

"It would be nice to be able to carry everything and to know what every book is about. But there are too many now," Staubach says.

"What people need is more quiet time to be able to focus and read."

Minton Quigley says that despite the intense competition, good books still sell.

"The wonderful thing is, quality books can find passionate audiences," she says.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

Readers & Publishers, Awash in a Book Flood (washingtonpost.com)

Monday, February 16, 2004

Amazon Glitch Unmasks War of Reviewers

Close observers of Amazon.com noticed something peculiar this week: the company's Canadian site had suddenly revealed the identities of thousands of people who had anonymously posted book reviews on the United States site under signatures like "a reader from New York."

The weeklong glitch, which Amazon fixed after outed reviewers complained, provided a rare glimpse at how writers and readers are wielding the online reviews as a tool to promote or pan a book — when they think no one is watching.

John Rechy, author of the best-selling 1963 novel "City of Night" and winner of the PEN-USA West lifetime achievement award, is one of several prominent authors who have apparently pseudonymously written themselves five-star reviews, Amazon's highest rating. Mr. Rechy, who laughed about it when approached, sees it as a means to survival when online stars mean sales.

"That anybody is allowed to come in and anonymously trash a book to me is absurd," said Mr. Rechy, who, having been caught, freely admitted to praising his new book, "The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens," on Amazon under the signature "a reader from Chicago." "How to strike back? Just go in and rebut every single one of them."

Mr. Rechy is in good company. Walt Whitman and Anthony Burgess both famously reviewed their own books under assumed names. But several modern-day writers said the Internet, where anyone from your mother to your ex-agent can anonymously broadcast an opinion of your work, has created a more urgent need for self-defense.

Under Amazon's system, any user may submit a review without publicly providing any personal information (or evidence of having read the book). The posting of real names on the Canadian site was for many a reminder that anonymity on the Internet is seldom a sure thing.

"It was an unfortunate error," said Patricia Smith, an Amazon spokeswoman. "We'll examine whatever happened and make sure it won't happen again."

But even with reviewer privacy restored, many people say Amazon's pages have turned into what one writer called "a rhetorical war," where friends and family members are regularly corralled to write glowing reviews and each negative one is scrutinized for the digital fingerprints of known enemies.

One well-known writer admitted privately — and gleefully — to anonymously criticizing a more prominent novelist who he felt had unfairly reaped critical praise for years. She regularly posts responses, or at least he thinks it is her, but the elegant rebuttals of his reviews are also written from behind a pseudonym.

Numbering 10 million and growing by tens of thousands each week, the reader reviews are the most popular feature of Amazon's sites, according to the company, which also culls reviews from more traditional critics like Publishers Weekly. Many authors applaud the democracy of allowing readers to voice their opinions, and rejoice when they see a new one posted — so long as it is positive.

But some authors say it is ironic that while they can for the first time face their critics on equal footing, so many people on both sides choose to remain anonymous. And some charge that the same anonymity that encourages more people to discuss books also spurs them to write reviews that they would never otherwise attach their names to.

Jonathan Franzen, author of "The Corrections," winner of the National Book Award, said that a first book by Tom Bissell last fall was "crudely and absurdly savaged" on Amazon in anonymous reviews he believed were posted by a group of writers whom Mr. Bissell had previously written about in the literary magazine The Believer.

"With the really flamingly negative reviews, I think it's always worth asking yourself what kind of person has time to write them," Mr. Franzen said. "I know that the times when I've been tempted to write a nasty review online, I have never had attractive motives." Mr. Franzen declined to say whether he had ever given in to such temptation.

The suspicion that the same group of writers, known as the Underground Literary Alliance, had anonymously attacked his friend Heidi Julavits prompted the novelist Dave Eggers to write a review last August calling Ms. Julavits's first novel "one of the best books of the year."

Mr. Eggers, whose memoir, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," made him a literary celebrity, chose to post his review as "a reader from St. Louis, MO." But the review appeared under the name "David K Eggers" on Amazon's Canadian site on Monday, and Mr. Eggers confirmed by e-mail that he had written it.

"I've done that one or two times before, when I like a book and the reviews on Amazon seem bizarre," Mr. Eggers said. "In this case I just tried to bring back some balance."

Michael Jackman of the Alliance, which champions "underground writing" and has been critical of contemporary writers' focus on themselves rather than the wider world, called the presumption that his group had written the anonymous reviews "the height of arrogance."

"It's interesting that they find some negative reviews and assume that the reason for it must be partisan ax-grinding and not real taste," Mr. Jackman said. "I mean, there's no accounting for taste, is there?" Whether it is arrogance, paranoia or simply common sense, positive reviews come under suspicion, too.

"Could the five-star reviews (so far all but one from NY, NY) be the work of the author's friends?" asked a one-star review by "A reader from Washington, DC" on the review page for Susan Braudy's "Family Circle," a biography of Kathy Boudin, the former member of the Weather Underground, and her family.

Reviews are not the only features writers take advantage of to improve their image on Amazon. Many have been known to list their own books as alternate recommendations for any given book, and to compile lists of favorite books with their own at the top. Not unlike authors who have manipulated newspaper best-seller lists by buying copies of their own books, one ordered books through Amazon to raise his ranking there.

Books are far from the only products subject to anonymous reviewing these days. The growth of electronic commerce has spawned a new kind of critical authority — one's peers. On Amazon alone, customers depend on one another for advice on CD's, DVD's, garden tools and electronic equipment. On dozens of other Web sites, average citizens anonymously review restaurants, software, even teachers.

The word-of-mouth advice is widely seen as empowering to consumers who no longer have to rely on privileged critics with access to a television station or printing press to disseminate their opinions. But the reliability of the new authorities is the subject of increasing debate, at least among active Amazon users.

As the Amazon sites expand their visitors are seen as an increasingly important. Mark Moskowitz, an independent filmmaker, sent an e-mail message to about 3,000 people this week asking them to review the DVD of his film "Stone Reader," which goes on sale soon.

"If you didn't see it but heard it was good, go ahead and post anyway, (what the heck)," Mr. Moskowitz told them. "It doesn't obligate you for anything, even the truth."

Despite the widespread presumption that the reviews are stacked, both readers and writers say they affect sales, especially for new writers whose books are not widely reviewed elsewhere.

To increase the credibility of the reader reviews, Amazon has introduced a means for users to vote on the quality of each review, and a corresponding ranking of the top 1,000 reviewers. But the site's discussion boards are full of carping about how people are trying to play that system, too. Many prolific reviewers speculate that Harriet Klausner, 55, who has long reigned as No. 1, cannot possible read all the books she reviews.

In a telephone interview, Ms. Klausner, in turn, accused the No. 2 reviewer of getting people to vote for him and against her in a "desperate attempt to be No. 1."

But such concerns among reviewers pale beside those shared by a range of naturally obsessive authors.

Late last month on her radio talk show, Dr. Laura Schlessinger used a call about an anonymous letter to vent her distress over some of her Amazon reviewers, who she described as "scummy, creepy people."

The feminist author Katha Pollitt mentioned in a recent New Yorker article that she had considered anonymously posting a nasty review on her ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend's Amazon page, but refrained from doing so. In an interview, however, she said she had chastised a friend whose book had no reviews on Amazon when it came out, telling her to have friends to post some. The friend followed her advice, but Ms. Pollitt was disappointed. "I'm thinking what kind of friends are these? They've only written one sentence."

The novelist A. M. Homes said the one Amazon review that had stuck in her mind was a negative one from someone who signed off "A reader from Chevy Chase," which is her hometown.

"The world of books is a very small world these days, and any time someone takes the time to share their opinion it's incredible," Ms. Homes said. "But I do want to know who that person from Chevy Chase was and what their problem with me really is."

Amazon Glitch Unmasks War of Reviewers

Report: Glitch IDs anonymous Amazon reviewers

NEW YORK (AP) --Many sign their names. Many don't.

They're the book reviewers on Amazon.com who use such words as "masterful," "page-turner" and "tear-jerker."

But the ones who sign their critiques only as "a reader from (fill in the city)" lost their anonymity this week when their identities were revealed on Amazon.com's Canadian Web site.

Among those named were authors who posted glowing reviews of their own work, apparently to boost sales.

The glitch, reported Saturday by The New York Times, replaced pseudonyms with reviewers' real names, laying bare a culture of self-promotion and potential for revenge among authors and users of the online retailer.

Amazon spokeswoman Patricia Smith told the Times the problem, fixed after a week, was "an unfortunate error."

"We'll examine whatever happened and make sure it won't happen again," she said.

Amazon allows readers to write reviews without providing their names or other personal data, an aspect of the sites that the company says is popular. About 10 million reader reviews have been posted, a number that continues to grow.

One writer, John Rechy, confessed to writing a review of his new book, "The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens," under the pseudonym "a reader from Chicago," the Times said.

"That anybody is allowed to come in and anonymously trash a book to me is absurd," Rechy told the Times. "How to strike back? Just go in and rebut every single one of them."

The author of "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," Dave Eggers, confirmed to the Times that he reviewed the first novel of friend Heidi Julavits, calling it "one of the best books of the year," after he suspected rivals had panned it anonymously.

"I've done that one or two times before, when I like a book and the reviews on Amazon seem bizarre," Eggers told the Times. "In this case I just tried to bring back some balance."


Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

CNN.com - Report: Glitch IDs anonymous Amazon reviewers - Feb. 14, 2004

February 9, 2004
'Girl' Appears Not to Have Same Glamour as 'Nanny'

Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, the young authors behind "The Nanny Diaries," which has sold two million copies in hardcover and paperback, appear to be suffering through a sophomore slump. Random House has turned down the latest rewrite of their second novel, tentatively titled "Citizen Girl,'' according to publishing executives told about the plans.

That novel was bought in 2002 by the Random House Trade Group, an imprint of the larger Random House division of Bertelsmann, along with a sequel to "The Nanny Diaries'' in a deal worth a reported $3 million.

"The Nanny Diaries," though a work of fiction, caused a stir with its seemingly true-to-life revelations about the wealthy people who employ others to take care of their children. An early 18-page sample of the prospective new novel suggests a quite different book, about a disgruntled young character named Girl who is fired from a dull job. It starts with this introduction:

"In New York City, if you are of any age, denomination, or race, and own a penis, you can say anything that comes into your penis-owning head to anyone, of any age, denomination, or race, who does not own a penis."

The full manuscript of "Citizen Girl'' arrived at Random House last year after a shake-up that included the firing of its president and publisher, Ann Godoff (who then landed at the Penguin unit of Pearson). An intense period of editing on "Citizen Girl'' culminated in a letter to the writers describing the major changes that were thought needed to make the work publishable, according to one person briefed on the process; Ms. McLaughlin and Ms. Kraus did not agree with the prescribed changes, and sought other opinions through their latest agent, Suzanne Gluck of the William Morris Agency. Among those sent the novel were Kurt Andersen, the author of "Turn of the Century'' and a client of Ms. Gluck.

Ms. McLaughlin and Ms. Kraus, who received an advance of just $25,000 for "The Nanny Diaries," have not particularly endeared themselves to many in the publishing industry. After "The Nanny Diaries'' was finished, they shed two agents before hiring Ms. Gluck. Ms. Kraus, Ms. McLaughlin and Ms. Gluck could not be reached for comment. Executives at Random House declined to comment.

Editors at other major trade publishers said that there was doubt from the outset about the two authors' ability to duplicate their success, particularly with a book that was not a sequel.

St. Martin's, which published "The Nanny Diaries," tried to sign up the two authors again. "We had a positive, profitable experience," said Jennifer Weis, their editor at St Martin's. But, she added, "our editorial vision diverged from what was presented to us."

?Girl? Appears Not to Have Same Glamour as ?Nanny?

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