August 3, 2011

Shame on you, Dan Poynter!

I am not one to write letters to the editor. Instead, I usually just vent by talking my husband’s ear off until he gets a wild look in his eye and wanders out of the room. But I felt compelled to respond to the comments attributed to self-publishing guru Dan Poynter in a recent newsletter put out by the Colorado author resource group, Author U.

The article was headlined “Crowd Sourcing Replaces Professional Book Reviewers.” It went on to say the following:

Advisory Board Member Dan Poynter shares that the publishing industry can no longer support book review pages in newspapers and magazines. Advertising dollars are following the eyeballs to online media.

“Professional reviewers (many of whom prefer to be called ‘book critics’) rarely read the book anyway. Amazon is where books are reviewed by people who actually read them. Reviews today are often much better and contain less fluff.

“At Amazon, each book is reviewed by several people, so you get a variety of views. This is ‘crowd sourcing,’ book reviews by consumers.”

Where to begin?

First, let me say that Poynter is right in his observation that the publishing industry can no longer support book review pages in newspapers and magazines. He is wrong, though, in assuming that they ever did. Publishers are notorious for letting newspapers and magazines—aside from a few major publications, such as the New Yorker or the New York Times Book Review—fund their own book coverage without submitting so much as a classified ad to help. At the Rocky Mountain News, where I served as books editor,  I can’t recall a single ad running from a publishing house in 12 years.
That fact aside, it’s true that newspapers and magazines are failing as ad dollars move to online media, or even leave media altogether for social marketing. So it is more difficult than ever to get books reviewed.

Poynter’s next line, however, made my jaw drop. (Had my husband noticed, I’m pretty sure he would have started edging out of the room immediately!) This is where Poynter notes that “professional reviewers…rarely read the book anyway.” If only I had known that, I could have saved myself endless hours of late night reading in my job of critiquing books for the Rocky. In my 12 years as books editor, I never—repeat NEVER—wrote a review of a book I had not read from start to finish (usually including the book jacket copy and any press releases to boot).

I have no doubt that the freelance critics who wrote for me did the same. This was the most dedicated group of people I have ever met. Many not only read the book they were assigned to review, but went to the library and checked out the author’s entire oeuvre to make sure they were well informed before writing the review. If my operation was an anomaly, I would eat all 29 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica—that is, if you can still find them in print somewhere.

As for crowd sourcing being a more reliable form of book review, come on. We all know what authors can accomplish with a Facebook post and an email blast to all their friends: Voila! Twenty 5-star reviews on Amazon. Can you trust those reviews to adequately reflect the quality of the book? About as much as you can trust Andrew Weiner to keep his underwear off Twitter.

During my tenure at the Rocky, I did a story on the number of “fake” reviews on Amazon—some written by the authors themselves. Ask any author who has ever dreamed of selling a book, and he’ll tell you that he asked at least 3 of his best friends to get on Amazon and rave about his book. And what’s more, he won’t be ashamed of it. He’ll tell you everybody does it.

As for “less fluff,” how does this Amazon review of the popular Southern novel The Help strike you?

“I found this book to be offensive. When it was suggested by a friend of mine to read, I was very hesistant (sic). She told me to read it and we would compare our thoughts. I was still hesitant after skimming through a few pages. I did not want to feel like I just watched Roots or Mississippi Burning. I hated that I finished this book. And they are comparing this book to Classics?!? Are you kidding me?”

And the reviewer’s criticism is…uh…what exactly?

Professional reviews are a critical cog in the book business. While not infallible, they offer informed, reasoned assessments that put the book into the greater context of literature. They are not replaceable with this sort of sophomoric review. They do, however, provide a nice complement and reality check to crowd sourced reviews.

At BlueInk Review, we use professional reviewers who know their genres and offer opinions that are more than thinly supported snap judgments. I am proud of our roster and would never use reviewers who weren’t committed to reading the entire book.

And now that I’ve ranted, I’ll sign off. The steam coming out of my ears is warping the book I’m currently reading. Er, by the way, I plan to read the whole thing. From cover to cover.

Patti Thorn is the former book review editor of the Rocky Mountain News and co-founder of BlueInk Review, a service devoted to providing honest, objective book reviews of self-published work.

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