Last week, I ran an article about one Librarian’s experiences as a buyer for a library chain. It was a nice look at a side of the industry that doesn’t receive a whole lot of coverage online, yet is a very powerful influence on everything from cover art to which books publishers are buying from authors.
* Professional Reviews: I spend time diligently going through Library Journal, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and other professional review journals. The majority of my selections come from there, and that’s probably what you’ll catch me perusing at the reference desk.
In the article, I was put off by the above comment, which seems to exclude reviewers like myself (bloggers/amateurs/essayist reviewers/etc…) from being useful to this librarian, citing capsule review (short, paragraph-long reviews) from publications like Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly as being part of the determining factors. This came as a surprise to me, as I’ve always felt these capsule reviews were more or less useless. A little egotistical of me? Sure. But a valid curiousity. One tongue-in-cheek comment from myself led to some interesting discussion in the comments section.
As one librarian points out, I’m far from an authority on book buying, with any influence I have swinging towards the enthusiast crowd, so I went to someone I knew had experience writing both as a long-form reviewer and a ‘capsule’ reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly. John Ottinger, from the lovely Grasping for the Wind to drop by and give his insight into how both styles of review benefit the industry in different ways.
About a week ago, Aidan linked to a librarian who posted an essay on how she chooses books for purchase at the local library. It was a fascinating read, but of even more interest were the comments that Aidan’s post generated from several librarians and reviewers on the effectiveness of capsule reviews versus the long and/or more in-depth reviews one can find online.
As someone who writes capsule reviews for Publisher’s Weekly, and who also writes more lengthy, semi-in-depth analyses of different books at my blog, I bridge the gap (at least in terms of what I write) between the two schools of thought, namely, that capsule reviews contain too little information to be of use and online reviews would be a better choice for finding out what readers really want, and that capsule reviews are essential to the industry and without them, librarians could not make decisions about what to buy.
Both types of reviews have value, or I wouldn’t write both. But each has a different sort of value and to expect one to perform as another does is to walk a path of frustration. To my mind, capsule reviews have more value to the librarian due to their format and nature and “online/lengthier reviews have more value to the reader.
Capsule reviews are essential for the librarian. As one commenter on Aidan’s post pointed out, librarians have time limits and large budgets to oversee, and reading trade magazines like Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, or Library Journal make choosing books to buy much easier and faster. Practically speaking, the two hundred words of a capsule review make a the rather difficult job of choosing from more than 1,000,000 English language titles published each year much, much easier. (Bowker Publishing Statics 1 — 2)
Two hundred words may not seem like enough space to write an in-depth or at least thorough analysis, but you would be surprised. After reading a book and sitting down to create a capsule review, I find that I am forced, by word count limitation, to really cut to the core of a book’s value, theme and content. Gone are the trappings of waxing rhapsodic about setting when the book is truly more about character. Themes tend to come to the forefront and all details mentioned serve to punctuate it. Failures in the novel must be carefully weighed against the rest of a book, and mentioned or not mentioned dependent on the book’s overall readability and potential interest to readers of a capsule review. To do this is hard work, and the reviewer chooses words carefully and for full effect, not just getting the gist of the novel across to the review reader, but also its value as the reviewer perceives it. Such careful word choice can often convey in one or two words as much as a online reviewer might take two paragraphs to cover. (Mea culpa: I too have spent far longer writing about a particular aspect of a book in my online reviews than it really needed. I could have said the same in a few well chosen words.)
Capsule reviews are also edited and cleaned up be a team of editors to ensure that the reviewer says more with less. While the reviewer does not have much say in the process once the review is sent off, I know that most of my reviews have retained their original meaning, only being edited to use better synonyms and less filler to make the same points. I think it is the editorial process that gives capsule reviews more value in the minds of professional book-buyers and librarians, because the pros know the reviews are opinions spot-checked by professional editors.
As a reviewer, I am also required to support any claim I make with evidence from the text. If I say there were unnecessary sex scenes, I have to point out the page numbers. If I say that the theme is one of good versus evil , I need to show where the text makes that clear. While those pages references never make it into the final publication, the editors use them to ensure that any claims or opinions I express about a book have a real and actual basis in the text.
And it deserves to be mentioned that many capsule reviews are also “online” reviews, in the sense that Amazon, the largest internet retailer, as well as others, post reviews from the trade magazinesin their content about the book . So it is not just librarians and book-buyers that see these reviews, but every reader who buys from pretty much any online retailer. In fact, Publisher’s Weekly has started releasing online only those reviews which did not find their way into the final edition of the magazine, and so these capsule reviews are becoming just one more style of online review.
Affecting the Reader
But that is not to denigrate the value that online reviews such as my own and Aidan’s have. Longer, critical reviews will be of use to the reader, or to a librarian or book-buyer that sees in the reviewer a voice to be trusted. Most online reviews are not truly critical and I will admit to believing that while my reviews have value to an audience or to a publisher in knowing what the reading community is thinking, I find that to librarians and book-buyers I am only one voice among many, limited by genre and lengthy enough to require more investment of time than a $10,000 – $20,000 book purchasing budget will allow. I’d love to think that I am leaving some sort of indelible mark on the genre with my reviews, and occasionally I do (such as when quoted on the dust jackets or interiors of a book), but the truth is, I am writing to primarily an audience of like-minded individuals who find that my tastes and preferences match their own.
This is a service I provide, and one my readers are grateful for (I hope), but to think that my online reviews have a greater effect than to my circle of regular readers is to delude myself. I am one voice among the exponentially growing multitudes. Through sweat and tears I have gained a significant following but I do not fool myself into thinking that I will have any real effect on professional book-buyers and librarians. If a library has specialists in my genre, perhaps I may, but my real effect is on readers, and usually only those readers who like sci-fi /fantasy enough to go looking online for reviews of their favorite books or books they are considering reading. Sure, some libraries may have added a book because a reader of one of my reviews asked for it to be added to their local system, but I don’t think librarians themselves make decisions based on my thoughts.
Both types of reviews have their place, both affect readers, but it is capsule reviews that really, truly affect the book-buying habits of librarians – or so I believe. Blog reviewers will only encounter frustration if they attempt to think they will influence such habits either now or in the future. Content yourself with the knowledge that your reviews help the waffling reader make a decision about what to buy, or cement and opinion already held, or cause a reader to re-look at a book they once found not to their liking. These are the things at which online blog reviews excel, much more so that capsule reviews ever can.