I’ve wanted to talk about book reviews for a while. There are a couple of specific things on my mind, like the idea that book reviews are too positive, or that reviews must be critical, or diversity in book reviews. But, as my son would say, “put first things first*.” Do people even read book reviews?
Book reviews are dead. No one reads them and they don’t sell books.
This statement was (falsely) attributed to Edmonton author Todd Babiak by his former English professor, Ted Bishop. Todd was helping Ted launch his new book Ink at LitFest back in October. A vetern book-launcher, Todd’s advice was to forget trying to get the book reviewed, that he better create something shareable if he wants to get anywhere. And he did; Ted and Todd filmed a cooking-show-style demonstration of how to make your own ink and we served as the studio audience. We even got to use a mortar and pestle! Talk about reader engagement!
I laughed at the thought that no one reads book reviews, but I laughed because it’s true. The only people who comment on book blogs, reviews especially, are other book bloggers. And as for traditional reviews in the newspaper or literary journals? I don’t even read them. I’ve become a reverse-snob when it comes to book reviews; I find a lot of “straight” reviews boring. They’re all plot summary or this:
Lately, I just don’t care about the luminous prose etc. I want to know what a book did to the reviewer. If you cried, or laughed inappropriately, I want to know. I want to hear how a book reflects personal experience.
Despite my own misgivings about book reviews, I still thought Todd made a pretty bold statement, so I went to the source. Luckily Todd Babiak is super nice and accessible, and he immediately told me that he never said those words. Ted exaggerated. He has noticed that a prominent review in The Globe and Mail, though, doesn’t exactly give a book the lift it once did. Things are changing. Todd remembers when there were 19 professional reviewers employed by newspapers in Canada. Now there are just a handful.
There are plenty of people trying to make book reviews fresh and exciting. The National Post runs a weekly feature in The Afterword, where readers get a book to read and then fill out a survey. I did one earlier this year. It’s a nice feature, but it’s not really a review (plus their book choices are weird.) And there are all the almost-review formats we bloggers use: hauls and monthly wrap-ups and so on. But reviews they ain’t.
This isn’t news to book bloggers. James Reads Books blogged about this a couple months ago. I like his challenge to read more reviews, but, should we even need a challenge? Isn’t that why we’re all here?
So, dear readers (who I assume are all book bloggers,) I want to know: Do you read book reviews? Where do you read them: on other blogs, the newspaper, or somewhere else? How are your stats when you post a review?
As for Ink, I haven’t seen that video kicking around YouTube, but I did see a nice review in The Walrus. Maybe there’s hope for the book review after all.
*My son is in Kindergarten and they are learning the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, of which this is one. I have a five year old who tells me to “syngergize” and “be proactive.” This is weird, right?