Remember when viral was a bad thing…

I’m writing a book review right now, and it has me thinking about how much the world  of reviewing has changed.

Before the web (I’m not talking about centuries ago here, just a decade or so back, when I began to review books), you generally didn’t know what other reviewers thought about the book you were reviewing. You received a galley copy, blind, and you read it.  Sitting alone (remember alone?)  in Idaho or Maryland or wherever-you-were. Maybe someone else you knew had a copy, but usually not.  You were by yourself in a chair, with a book that DID NOT YET EXIST. Of course there were no online “best of” polls or blogs about  the “hot new books of next year.”  If you were a pre-pub reviewer, you were first (in your own mind, anyway).  It was nerve-wracking. You had to decide what you really thought about the book, all by your insecure self. You knew your review would be subjective, and you knew other people might disagree with you, and you only hoped you could make your case strong enough to convince people that you were right.  Because of this, reviews were often wildly different. People disagreed. One reviewer would LOVE a book that another LOATHED.    Remember that?

I have a sense that this is changing, that reviews today tend to be more… consistant.  Not that I think people are consciously manipulating their reviews. I don’t think anyone says, “Well, really I hated it, but Blogger X loved it and Blogger Y thinks it’ll win the Pulitzer, so I’ll say I liked it too.  No, I just think there’s a viral affect, of general excitement or displeasure.  And then, I suppose, sometimes backlash too.  Things tend to move in tides.

Another difference is that back before the web, unless you lived in NY or were a big shot reviewing a big shot, you were fairly unlikely to know the author of the book you were reviewing personally.  Now… everyone “knows” everyone. I “know” 4,000 people on Facebook.  Technically, I’m not supposed to review “friends” who write books.  So, does Facebook friendship count?  Can I review someone who is the sister of a friend of mine on Twitter, but whom I’ve never met in person?  What if we once had a drink in the same hotel lobby at a conference? What if I know her online, but I only pretend to like her?  What if I secretly like her boyfriend?

And now,  imagine a perfect storm.   What if I got a book to read for pre-pub review, and it was by someone who regularly annoyed me in Facebook by posting vaguely misogynistic pictures, but I didn’t really know him at all, and I was trying to rise above that, read the book with a clear head.  Still, I was on the fence about the book, halfway through, and not sure what I wanted to say, yet.  so then I was surfing Goodreads, and saw, just by chance, that some other people I know didn’t like the book at ALL.  In fact, one friend (Susie-Q)  thought the female characters were caricatures, stereotypes.

AHA!  Hmmm…  I am validated… for my dislike of his FB photostream.

So  then let’s imagine that the next day, in my daily trek through the web, I notice the book has been panned by a big trade journal.  Hmmm.  So that night I’m in a Twitter chat, and people are talking about the review, including Susie-Q.  And people are arguing about it, but I really find I’m agreeing with my friend, and so are some other folks. She’s super smart, after all. So in the end I damn the book with snarky faint praise, and feel confident that I’m not alone in my judgement.  Other smarter people think the same thing I think!

Now, let’s imagine it’s a year later, and I’m at a party with Suzy-Q, and it turns out that SHE WROTE the original pre-pub review that panned the book in the first place. And then I realize that she was both the start of the Goodreads conversation about the book being bad AND the Twitter chat about it. Hmmm… she really didn’t like that book!

But did I?  Hmmm. Maybe I go back and reread the book and find I like it after all.

Probably not! But just maybe…

All I’m saying is…

One wonders where we find our opinions.  Alone in a room, one wonders slightly less.

I have other thoughts too, but I want to mull them over.  I don’t have an OPINION or anything, and goodness knows I love the web. I’m obsessed with Twitter.  And I owe so much to friends online, who have reviewed and buzzed and hand sold my books.  I don’t mean to seem ungrateful, ever.  But this feels like a situation in which technology is changing the world faster than the rules which govern technology. And I can’t help thinking that with the web, a loud early voice or two can really make or break a book, possibly even affecting pre-pub reviews and in-house opinion.

Should someone be able to review a book online, months before it’s out, in an informal way?   Should they be out there, making chatter, in so many corners of the world at once? Should people review books by a friend? Is an online friend the same as a rel-life friend?  Should different rules govern the big journals and the blogs?  Do Goodreads and Amazon reviews “count?” And if so, should the same rules apply to them that apply to, say, newspapers and pre-pub journals?  So many things to consider…

I’m inclined to say that if you know you can’t say something BAD about a book, for fear of how the author will feel, you shouldn’t review that book.  Friend or no.  If you fear the viral connections will bring you into contact with them, and make your life uncomfortable, it’s better to stay away…

And I’m inclined to say that we should be open and transparent in a blog review, when we DO know someone.  Like, “Today I want to tell you about this amazing new book by my friend, Jo Rowling!”  Rather than creating the illusion of impartiality.  Because of course we all want to use our blogs to talka bout books we love, and sometimes we love books by our friends!


I don’t know…  Because I just don’t know what a review is anymore.

That said, I need to get offline now, and write mine.

**I want to add here that I truly mean no criticism of people who read and review, because they love books and have something to say.  The beauty of the web is that we should all use our voices. What I’m puzzling over is the way we should structure this new world.  The speed with which these formats have arisen suggests, I think, that we might need a new way to arrange everything.  Perhaps, for instance, trade pubs should get early copies before the floods of Amazon and Goodreads early-reviewer programs, before ALA and BEA, and be required to submit their reviews by a set deadline.  Perhaps  bloggers should post their rules for reviewing people they know personally.  I don’t know, really. But I think there’s a conversation to be had. That’s all I’m saying.


22 Responses to “Remember when viral was a bad thing…”

  1. A.S. King Says:

    Well said.

  2. Debbie Duncan Says:

    I’ve “reviewed” (more like recommended, since I only write about books I love) children’s books for a regional newspaper since 1997. I do my DARNDEST to avoid reading even bits of other reviews of books I might include, but I am not averse to writing about books who were written by people I know in real life (I’m even encouraged to promote local authors if their books are worthy) or online. Why should I exclude their books if I want my newspaper’s readers to know about them?

  3. Sarah Sullivan Says:

    This is a great post, and it makes me think really carefully about the way I review. As a book blogger, and one who is somewhat new to the world of online reviewing, I’ve never really thought about reviews OUTSIDE of the context of the internet, social media, etc. Without a doubt, twitter has transformed the way I am able build readership on my blog, extend traffic outside of my immediate circle of IRL friends.

    However, I definitely read other reviews when I am reviewing a book. I follow a lot of book blogs and publications, and I know what I’m reviewing and I pay attention to what other people think about them. I wonder how much it does impact my own opinions and reviews. Often I’ve read reviews before I’ve started a book. Is it even possible to separate them out?

    I don’t know if I have any answers, but it is good to consider both the positive and negative implications of our widespread book-reading internet community.

  4. laurel Says:

    Debbie, you are both transparent about being part of that community, and also you have huge integrity about not wanting to be influenced by other reviews. I have great admiration for the way you approach these things, mindfully. But maybe the difference is that you started reviewing before the influence of the web was so strong, and you review for a traditional format. I think this is part of my point– that we think about these things more carefully when we’re held accountable by an outside set of rules.

  5. Jenn's Bookshelves Says:

    Well said!

    On the note of opinions of books going viral: I don’t read a review of a book until I’ve finished reading the book & writing my own review. I do want to keep my opinion my own, without the influence of others. That said, if someone asks for a recommendation of a book I haven’t read, but I know and trust the judgement of another blogger that has read the book, I will say “I haven’t read the book personally, but so-and-so has.” I don’t go as far as to say that because this individual loves this book, so must I.

    Since I’ve been a blogger for three years now, attended BEA three times, attend several author events, and I’m active on social media, I do feel I “know” a lot of authors. Therefore, if I form a friendship with an author, if I do review their book I do state my relationship with the author. There are some books I won’t review because I have such a close friendship with the author. I will promote the book by retweeting other reviews of the book, but won’t review it myself. That way, readers won’t think my friendship with that author influenced my feelings about the book.

    Great post. Lots of food for thought.

  6. Billy Bones Says:

    Transparent and honest is all anyone can ask, no matter how intertwined the environment.

  7. Laura Pauling Says:

    As a writer, I only push book on Twitter and my blog, that I truly feel I can honestly support and that I liked! Or I say nothing. But I’ve also become less picky. It’s not just about what I like to read. But I look at what the author was trying to accomplish. I know how hard it is to get everything right.

    With big book blog reviewers I’m not sure. But I agree, I mostly see reviewers loving books with minor criticisms. But after I read a book, I love checking out the reviews on Goodreads because I usually find I’m not alone in the way I feel about a book. I look to the 3 star reviews for complete honesty.

  8. Tabatha Says:

    Very nice piece. As humans, we can’t help but be swayed by other people’s opinions (OPO). Perhaps legal concepts might be helpful, like “sequestering” yourself from OPO if you know you will be reviewing a book. “Recusing” yourself if you have a conflict of interest. After all, you are making a judgment.

  9. david e Says:

    i’ve got a slightly different bend on this, which i imagine you won’t be surprised by. i started reviewing by writing about books as a way to better understand them. my background had been in a different form of narrative (film) and so writing about children’s books was, for me, the beginning of an education that led me to both reviewing for publications and an mfa in writing for children.

    over time the tone and tenor of my reviews has changed and evolved. i began to notice trends, make connections between old and new, started seeing what i thought were problems or issues, and in general began to find a critical voice. i still think that voice is evolving.

    but as a matter of being so public about the process i have come to grow a list of friends and acquaintances in the industry, many of them writers. in my grad program i read workshop pieces that have since been published to great acclaim, watched classmates land major publishing deals, and worked with award-winning faculty. in a relatively short time i have gone from a guy talking about what interested him in a casual way to a learned reviewer who is torn by the issues surrounding what, if anything, i felt comfortable saying about books. as a writer still hoping for a break of his own, do i dare speak critically of friends whom i one day might need for support of my own work? isn’t it a bit presumptuous to be critical of my “elders” who trained me to point out flaws in their work? or worse, not being sure that i like their work based on the merits and worrying people might see my opinions as being colored by favoritism.

    all that aside, i try as much as possible to go into a book as blind to the rest of the world as possible. at the same time, i feel the need to stay on top of what is current and cannot avoid seeing certain new titles popping up as people’s shoo-ins for awards and best-of lists. what i usually end up doing, if i can’t get to a new title early is deliberately come to it late enough that i have forgotten all but a general sense of buzz. if i come across a book that confounds me in some way, either i can’t imagine why it received effusive enthusiasm or don’t understand its controversy, then i will seek out reviews from a handful of trusted sources (trusted by me, not some industry source-of-record thing) and see if there was something i missed.

    and occasionally, i get it wrong. and when that happens, if my review is already out there, i do nothing. the review, the criticism, is a record of my thoughts in that moment, a document of an object frozen in time.

    in a previous incarnation of this life, i was a film reviewer for radio. one of my mantras, my catch phrase that i gave people, was “see everything and judge for yourself. it’s what the critics do.” and it was true, as a film reviewer i would see hundreds (yes, literally) of movies every year and that gave me the breadth and scope to make me comfortable and confident in my opinion. but that was all it was, an opinion, and i had many good friends with whom i never saw eye-to-eye when it came to those opinions. and yet they remained good friends. i see no reason why the civilized world of writing for children’s books cannot be the same way.

    everyone read everything.

  10. Melissa Sarno Says:

    This is so interesting and its really making me think. I don’t review books but I do share thoughts about the books I like on my blog. And I do notice that a book can be on every blog’s radar suddenly, everyone’s buzzing and talking about it, but no one is actually ‘saying’ anything new. I think book bloggers are tremendously important. I often trust and admire them more than traditional reviewers for newspapers. But, I do have to say, whether the reviews are influenced by other bloggers or by being friends with the author or not (and I need more time to think about that because I think it is really interesting), I see a lot of the same books being reviewed over and over and that’s more of a concern for me.

  11. laurel Says:

    These comments are really helpful. I think they illustrate how people have very different projects with their blogs. I think that’s a very very good thing.

    I wonder if people are ever careful about making “too many friends” because they fear this conflict…

    I wonder if we could publish an online “contract” for people who want to be seen as more traditional reviewers, posting a set of standards. So then people could “sign” and then get a badge for their blog, like a hechsher ( for blogging book reviewers. Nothing fancy, just something like, “If I know an author, I’ll disclose that fact.”

  12. Gwenda Says:

    I think there may be a little bit of a danger of nostalgia for a time that never really existed. What I mean is, relationships have always played a role in reviewing–even in the traditional media. Publishing has ever been clubby; even if individual reviewers don’t necessarily know someone, editors who assign reviews may know publicists, editors, authors, booksellers, librarians, etc. and that can influence how and what they assign. Books that are lead titles are likely to be picked up for coverage, many others aren’t. And this has *always* been true, and is not necessarily even a bad thing. There are many worthy books that influential people can help get attention because of this fact (in kidlit definitely). When this becomes a problem for me, is when opinions are compromised by relationships–I believe this happens less often than we think, and is usually pretty obvious.

    That said, the main effect I see from people blogging about books*–especially in the genres and kidlit–is in some ways a correction of the top-down approach to deciding what books are worth talking about. Especially in those fields where few books have been covered at all traditionally (outside Kirkus, Horn Book, which most average people don’t subscribe to) there’s the possibility for adding more books to the discussion. And I believe this can only be a good thing, ultimately, even if it comes with problems. If ARCs only went out to bloggers after publication, then a lot of books would NEVER have a chance for any word of mouth at all, and I don’t see how that would help anybody.

    *I have actually grown to hate the term blogger because I feel it’s used to pigeonhole people. Blogging is an activity, not a primary identity, for most of us. :)

  13. david e Says:

    aw, laurel, you want to make us all kosher!

    seriously, i have no problem with this contract, but it think it gets slippery when we talk about “knowing” an author. i think you and i have hammered this out, but where was that moment when we went from author/critic to friends (who should be in charge of EVERYTHING)?

    i had an interesting situation early on where i loved a particular book, blogged a review, and the author wrote me directly to say they loved my review and that i was the first person in the world to review it. we had some back and forth emails, and later i had the opportunity to interview him for a charity event where he also provided me with unused sketches from his book. that, in very short order, was a lot of contact to have between author and reviewer, but did it make us friends? could i say i “knew” him? and later, he saw to it that his publisher of his next book got me an advance copy but we had no further contact beyond that or in the years since. should i have mentioned the spongy nature of our previous relationship when i reviewed later books even though that fellowship no longer existed?

    i’m not arguing, i’m just not sure where the line can get drawn in these situations. in the end, i think that because blogging is not reportage it carries none of the weight of objectivity, which in turn means that the blogger should in no way be penalized or thought less of their comments because of the nature of any relationship they may have with an author. personally, i do disclose when i know the author in question if for no other reason than to insure a level of transparency to what i am doing.

    that said, i am also afraid to give positive reviews of books by people i know for fear of having my review colored by perception that i am doing the author a favor.

  14. laurel Says:

    I’ve thought about this, Gwenda, and it’s true that we’ve always been clubby. But it’s different, it is.

    I remember the very first time I knew someone reviewing for Kirkus. I remember him talking about that experience. It did not have this quality of “people are looking over my shoulder.” There’s a difference between knowing that some books are destined for more of a push (imperfect, but historic) and having a book reviewed by someone you plan to buy a drink for at the next conference. There just is. How could you possibly say what you really think when you dislike it?

    I’m NOT opposed to the democratization, NOT AT ALL. I just think all us good democrats need to set fair standards for ourselves. I can think of some AWFUL books getting reviews from friends of mine, and when I asked about it they said, “I just couldn’t say anything mean, but they’d already sent me the copy and I felt bad about that, so I mostly just summarized.” Or something like that.

    And I know I do this too.

    I want my friends to know they can pan my book. They really can. I’ll still love them.

    So many different issues, and so many of them blurry.

    I didn’t mean nobody should get pre-pub copies, but if we’re going to set these journals on a pedestal, I think they should be reviewing first. maybe not releasing reviews, but getting the reviews finished before the marketing and viral stuff begins.

  15. laurel Says:

    You have a willingness to be critical that most folks don’t, David. It’s one of the things I love about your blog.

  16. Kaethe Says:

    I started reviewing books professionally in 1988. I never found it nerve-wracking. I was deeply submersed in the local business of book publishing and selling, so I never felt isolated at all. In those old days I only once got feedback on a review: a friend paraphrased one of my reviews back to me, when she eventually got around to reading the book, long months later, having forgotten that I’d written the review. In sum, my experience was nothing whatsoever like yours.

    And I can’t help thinking that with the web, a loud early voice or two can really make or break a book, possibly even affecting pre-pub reviews and in-house opinion.

    Here’s what I think: thirty years ago a reader never saw a book review except those published by professionals in expected places. And no published review made any huge impact on sales for good or ill, compared to even a casual mention of a title on TV or radio in a context that didn’t review it at all. If Oprah mentioned your title, lots of people went looking for it; if the NYRB did a cover story on your title, one person per city, maybe, would seek it out. Maybe reviews do affect other reviewers, but none of that has anything to do with what readers do. If I say that characterization is weak, on GoodReads maybe one person will note and respond. Readers don’t care. If I say your book was funny and heartbreaking and named-checked lots of great books, ten people who have similar tastes will add it to the to-read lists.

    Because I just don’t know what a review is anymore

    The problem is we use the same word for an insider’s careful consideration written for other insiders (as in School Library Journal, or PW) and for a reader’s off-the cuff comments about gut reaction. Trying to make up rules for one group and applying them to the other won’t help.

  17. Gwenda Says:

    I really like what Kaethe is saying above.

    The other thing is, I’m honestly not sure how much any of this impacts sales of the books, so I don’t know if I believe a loud voice or two can make or break a book. There are plenty of examples of books that are reviewed well in the trade pubs that don’t sell well at all, and that are loved in the blogsphere ditto, and vice versa. So, I really do think it all still comes down to word of mouth and a bazillion other factors that play into that (including these things we’re talking about). Ultimately, direct reaction from readers is probably the most important, outside of winning a Newbery or Oprah putting you on speed dial.

    I guess I’d much rather have the Old West blogosphere than one where we set up “rules.”

    (Tiny little sidenote: There’s also the fact that Kirkus (and a few others) are anonymous, which may account for some of the difference. And, tangentially related, an interesting discussion on twitter awhile back about how little pro reviewers get paid and how that plays into the professionalism of reviews/reviewing or should play into how we weight this stuff.)

  18. Gwenda Says:

    Oh, but, also, in case I’m not being clear, I absolutely 100 percent agree that people should not lie in reviews to be nice. If authors or bloggers don’t feel they can be honest, they just shouldn’t review. Most people don’t, and there are other ways to support friends’ work. I recommend and review a fair amount of stuff by friends, but I try to make crystal clear the reasons why I believe something is fabulous and I never say I think it is when I really don’t.

    This has sometimes led friends to believe I must have hated their books because I didn’t talk about them, which is usually not true. It mostly means I haven’t had time to read them yet.

  19. laurel Says:

    You guys make a lot of sense. I’ll think about all of this.

  20. Venessa Ann Schwarz Says:

    Hey all! I consider myself to be the typical ignorant READER. Somebody who knows very little of the world you’re describing, honestly: When I decide to read a book, the review is inconsequential. It’s opening the book, flipping through the pages, getting a FEEl for the voice of the author and the beauty of the words. That’s what gets me. It’s good writing that gets me. It doesn’t matter what a reviewer says on the front cover.

    Yet, I take nothing away from the process. I know it’s in place and serves a purpose, that of a review and a reviewer. Just looking at it from my small pinhole view. Loved reading the comments!

  21. laurel Says:

    You seem like one smart cookie to me, Venessa!

  22. Stacey Says:

    So very interesting… And all the more so as I just found your site through a comment you left on Lindsey’s blog about reading with her daughter. I happen to know Lindsey in the ‘real world’ but only reacquainted with her when I stumbled upon her blog. And I love the fact that a real live author (I have to admit to getting a bit star struck by authors!) can find words about her book on the web and head right over to meet the one who wrote those words. Truly mind boggling to me, still….

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