Where have all the reviewers gone?

Writers, in those yolky days of innocence, think they know how it works. They write a book. A publisher publishes it. Newspapers review it. Books that garner good reviews go on to attract the readership they deserve.

Yet, though writers write and publishers publish, reviews ain’t what they used to be. Even in the old days, it was rare for a book to be widely reviewed. Almost none of my novels have had proper reviews in national newspapers. I can think of a few little exceptions: a chippy little review of a novel in the New Statesman, a column-inch or two in The Times. My non-fiction has done slightly better. A history book got a one-page, proper review in the Mail. A book on economics scored two reviews (one baffling one in the Guardian, a warmer one in the Indy.) But basically, the rule has been that my sort of writing doesn’t get reviewed.

That’s true too of my most recent crime novel. It’s quite a good book, y’know. In the US, where book reviews have yet to die, Talking to the Dead has notched up starred reviews in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and a very kind review in the NY Daily News. (There may be horrible reviews too, but if there are no one has called my attention to them.)

In the UK, where I’m ably published by the country’s leading crime publisher, there hasn’t been a single review in a national newspaper. The Welsh press has, as far as I know, ignored the book, though it’s set in Cardiff. The Bookseller’s preview simply noted that the book was coming out. That’s not to say the book hasn’t been reviewed. It has. It had a delightful review in the York Press, gawd bless it, and it’s had unnumerable reviews from lovely crime bloggers (most of those reviews being very warm). But the fact is that the book has had not a single review in a national newspaper, nor, most likely, will it.

There’s nothing personal in these observations: the simple fact is that most British authors are in the same position, because our newspapers have largely given up book reviewing. The space that remains is largely allocated to non-fiction (because it makes for a decent short article) or to fiction by already well-known writers.

So what’s left? Peter Stothard, long the editor of the  TLS, has grumbled that bloggers are damaging literary criticism and leaving the industry worse off. (You can read an interview with him here.) And I have a half-measure of sympathy with him. Lit crit is not simply a matter of taste. There is truth and nonsense, and professional critics are somewhat less prone to nonsense than others.

But why blame the bloggers? If newspapers have simply vacated their place of eminence, and given that we also know the Amazon review system to be less than perect, it’s all the more important that bloggers and review sites gain muscle. These thing, indeed, grow from the grassroots and find the audiences that are right for them. Here, for example, is an email sent to me by Adam Kiesel, the moving force behind a newish review site, Goodkindles:

My name is Adam Kisiel, and I am a self published author. My two most popular books, self published on Amazon are “How to be an Attractive Man”, a self-help book for men, and a guidebook “A few days in Krakow”. When I started to promote my books, I came up with an idea that I will start a book review blog, where I was going to review interesting books, especially kindle self-published ones. So, I have set up Goodkindles in May 2011. However, it quickly became clear that somehow my site started to get an internet traffic much bigger than expected, and that amount of review requests was a lot bigger than my review capabilities. So, I transformed GoodKindles to a site where self-published authors write themselves about their books … I think that the reason of a bigger site popularity than expected is that most of my users come to my site via their own search in the web for an inspiration what kind of a book should they buy to their kindle reader. Goodkindles allows writers to write something they think readers will find the most interesting about their works, and tell about their books in an interesting way.

It’s notable, I think, that the growth of Adam’s site has been driven by web-users seeking out commentary that runs beyond the walls of Amazon – even if that commentary ends up coming straight from the mouths of authors, hardly the least biased group in the world. What’s notable, though, is that sites like Goodkindles emerge because readers themselves want a service that the newspapers don’t supply and that Amazon supplies only in a way that’s hard to trust.

Like Stothard, I’m sorry to see the disappearance of what was, in hindsight, a golden age of reviewing. I don’t think the new generation of web-review services is, even remotely, a like-for-like replacement. But which would I rather: no reviews at all, or reviews only from bloggers? Lumme, it’s no contest.

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