Book reviews and when not to care about them
August 15, 2008 3:28 PM   Subscribe

Question about small presses and book reviews.

So I wrote a nonfiction hardcover book that I'm pretty proud of. Then it came out and it didn't get reviewed anywhere.

While this sucks, I have no illusions about how hard it is to sell a book these days. Still, just out of curiosity, I'm trying to determine how common it is to get no reviews.

Some factors: The company, which is small but enjoys wide distribution at places like Barnes and Noble, packaged and presented the book in a way that I suspect was a turn-off to potential reviewers. The product came off as musty, arcane, and irrelevant; the press release that went out was awful; and the cover didn't match my goal of writing a cool book; now I know how Kilgore Trout felt.

Mostly, I'm just curious: Does anyone out there, either as an author or in the publishing industry, have first-hand insights into how this all works? Do certain companies, by dint of their relationship with Publishers Weekly, etc., have a better chance of being reviewed? This company, for some reason, has a track record of consistently not getting their books reviewed, despite buying table space at bookstores.

The second part of my question is: I've also been weighing whether I should try to solicit reviews myself, all this time later. Not having my own shipping and handling department, and tired from a long book tour, and soooo over the book itself, I've been of a mind to cut my losses, chalk it up to experience, be glad I'm on library shelves, and move on.

Is that crazy? The way my royalties are set up, I see no chance of meaningful profit, just the slim possibility of some modest recognition, a review somewhere saying my book isn't half bad. But I'd rather let it go than grub around for reviews this late in the game, if it's not worth it.

Or maybe someone out there has had success turning around a dead-horse book that flopped on launch? I just want to get some perspective on how I should look at all this. Thanks...
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
packaged and presented the book in a way that I suspect was a turn-off to potential reviewers. The product came off as musty, arcane, and irrelevant; the press release that went out was awful; and the cover didn't match my goal of writing a cool book;

you answered your own question. let it go, unless not too much time has passed since the book came out and you have a personal connection to someone at a magazine -- or wherever you want to see it reviewed -- who can make the review happen. keep in mind that only a very, very tiny percentage of all the books that come out gets actually reviewed by any meaningful media -- the market is just too large.

next time, choose a different publisher.

the only thing that might happen is that by sheer dumb luck your book gets somehow connected to a news event -- suppose you wrote a biography of Miss X and she suddendly gets selected as Obama's running mate or she citizen-arrests Osama Bin Laden in a mall in Minnesota where he worked at Abercrombie & Fitch, or maybe you wrote a book about a certain rare disease that suddendly spreads like wildfire in Asia or something.

and anyway, drop your publisher next time.
posted by matteo at 3:45 PM on August 15, 2008

It might be too late for print reviews--you don't mention how much time has passed since the book launched, so we can't judge--but what about online reviews? Is the topic pertinent to any blogs that might be willing to review it? Blogs seem much more willing to do right by small-press books than major review institutions. You have nothing to lose, really. No one, unless they are insane, will think less of you for trying to get your work reviewed, and a few people may actually read your book because of it.

Everything I've read and heard about small-press publishing suggests that "grubbing around for reviews" is absolutely essential. If your press isn't willing to do it, you have to do it yourself. Do you have a blog? I know, I know--this whole post goes blog blog blog, but there's nothing wrong with setting up a space to promote your book. Unless this book is somehow time-sensitive, unless it's called May 3rd 2007: Things That Might Happen on This Day, it is probably still relevant to people interested in the subject.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 3:57 PM on August 15, 2008

Take solace in the fact that reviews don't sell books very well unless they achive a kind of critical mass, or unless, as mentioned above, it becomes unexpectedly newsworthy.

Some publishing companies have great PR people, some buy tons of advertising in the right places. This helps, obviously. Some publishers don't try very hard with reviews, preferring instead to buy front space at the big booksellers . . . personally, I'd suspect the latter works better sales-wise a greater percentage of the time.

And few books make any money, so your chances of profit were always slim.

Modest recognition is a worthy goal. It's hard to know how common it is to get no reviews. Most books don't get reviews. You hint at reasons which imply more should have come of this book (most books aren't supported by "a long book tour" or sold in B&N or have the luxury of paid shelf space). But even with those advantages some books don't receive reviews.

I wish you'd e-mail me your book info. Unless it were something beyond my comprehension, I'd certainly check it out. (Confidentiality promised.) These days, books sell by word-of-mouth as much as planned promotion, and even a dozen good Amazon reviews could make a difference.

If a description of a non-fiction book project by a MeFite member appeared on the Projects page in the next day or two, it wouldn't be a bad thing. This is a forum of mostly intelligent and supportive people with diverse interests and a pretty good place to start that word of mouth.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:47 PM on August 15, 2008

Midwest Book Review, which was a respected reviewer when I worked for a small publisher five years ago, covers lots of small press titles. But really, your publisher should be doing this.

There are still marketing opportunities for you and your book (beyond the blog). Use the book to help get published in relevant periodicals ("Hi! My name is anonymous and I have written a book about topic. Attached is a 600 article about topic and how it relates to stuff the periodical covers.") When the periodical writes back and offers to take your article, ask that the author byline reference your book. Bingo! Book provides credentials to get published in periodicals which prompts readers to buy more books...
posted by notyou at 5:18 PM on August 15, 2008

re blogs: it must be very common for publishers to send out books to bloggers for reviews. i had a review published in slashdot, for example, and got several offers of free books from that. so don't feel shy about contacting people (although i am not sure how cost efficient this is, since it costs you a book every time, and you have no guarantee anything will be published).
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 6:39 PM on August 15, 2008

(oh, and i certainly wouldn't care when it was published, but in my experience slashdot only publishes reviews of books that are either new or "classics")
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 6:40 PM on August 15, 2008

Library Thing gives out review copies with the caveat that they want you to review it somewhere -- anywhere! -- but that's it. Mind, LT sdiscussion groups and swap groups ave sprung up pretty promptly, and most reviews also go to Amazon (I think). Just a thought.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:44 PM on August 15, 2008

A good friend of mine had a very successful first novel with a major publisher. The publisher spent almost nothing on marketing, and my friend did pretty much all online and offline publicity by himself (the publisher did set up a multi-city book tour, but did little to promote it). I think this is, sadly, pretty standard. But I think it's entirely possible to promote yourself, and this is made easier online. Build yourself a site, start a blog, join some discussions on related topics on other sites, and begin to build some buzz yourself.
posted by judith at 7:10 PM on August 15, 2008

Random House published my book. I didn't get any reviews that I know about.

Investing your time and your advance into publicity is never a bad idea. If I were to give one piece of "so you're going to be published" advice, that's what I'd give, and I'd underline it just in case.

However, once a book has been out for a few weeks, it's going to be really tough -- nearly impossible -- to get press or bookstore attention. Sad to say, this ship may have sailed.
posted by lore at 7:32 PM on August 15, 2008

If you looked at what PW has been reviewing lately you'd see 95% of the titles are Big Trade imprints and only rarely do they expand that horizon. I wouldn't sweat it. I think they get something like 1,000 books a week and only review about 40. And even if you do get a review, who reads PW? Really only other publishers and primarily they are looking for mentions of their own books. A lot of navel gazing with that publication.

That said, nothing wrong with a little self-promotion. But be smart and target. Blogs, Amazon, LibraryThing, are all good venues to get an opinion from. And there's nothing wrong with you trying to do a bit of that yourself. But do it smart. Find folks who understand and appreciate the kind of thing you write, and see if you can't persuade them to have a look at your book. Just be prepared to deal with the consequences. They may have problems with it.

Another thing to be aware of is lag time may be longer than you think. For small publishers, it's not uncommon for it to take 2 or 3 years for reviews to show up. Last week I received a review for a book we published 7 years ago. Everyone wants to review the hot book, those who review the little book that could have a big pile on their desk and they're slowly going through it.

Finally, be aware of the fact that every year the number of titles published has increased, while the number of review outlets has decreased. The Los Angles Times, for example, has just shut down their book review section, and they aren't the first this year. More on that is available at the National Book Critics Circle Board blog. It's not just you or your book. The book review itself is changing. Places like Amazon and LibraryThing are most likely a new manifestation of what it's evolving into.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:39 PM on August 15, 2008

On a sort of tangent, if you haven't seen this little video yet, you might enjoy it. And in a back handed way, it kind of offers good advice.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:52 PM on August 15, 2008

I review books in a large metropolitan newspaper in Sydney. Some books for review are sent to me by my editor, others come direct from the publisher. I don't distinguish, which is to say that if I got a book I liked enough to review I wouldn't care if it was sent by a publicity service, a starving artist or Joe Bloggs's Aunt Mabel. Next time — because there is an aspect of timeliness to these things, it's a newspaper, we need news — scope out some critics who have some interest your subject area and fire them off a copy. It really can't hurt.
posted by Wolof at 8:15 PM on August 15, 2008

QUick update on LibraryThing - the promise is that we review the book on LibraryThing, but also a lot of us post reviews elsewhere - on our own blogs, on Amazon, etc etc.

Nthing the blog thing. You'd be surprised how many people read even a small low-volume book review blog like mine.

Also try BookCrossing - brilliant word-of-mouth publicity there. Lots of authors really love it and although it looks like you get one sale then the book is passed around, actually you get a sale, the book is passed around, and other people buy it cos they have to pass the BC copy along and want one for themselves.

Heck - if you email me through MeFi and the book is not a) extremely technical in a field other than English lit/lang or b) about murders and horrible things, I'll review it on my blog and pass it round on BookCrossing - if you'd like. You can have your publisher send me a review copy or whatever.

Good luck with your writing career!
posted by LyzzyBee at 1:39 AM on August 16, 2008

My first general-audience popular-science book was published by a relatively small imprint (Atlantic) in the UK; they engaged a publicist from outside the company to push the book, and it seemed to do quite well in terms of garnering reviews (I think the two things are connected).
posted by gene_machine at 5:29 AM on August 16, 2008

Can you tell us more about your book? That might help us come up with suggestions on how to market it. Right now, it's very difficult to see how general your title's appeal actually is.

That being said, I'm a literary arts professional and here are some thoughts off the top of my head. This may be sort of obvious, but I have to say I haven't done all of these things myself--just observations from the field. I've found that reviews sell books less well than Type A dynamo authors.

1. Think about what audiences this book can attract, in terms of subject matter, academics, ethnic affiliation, professional groups, museums/cultural groups, fan clubs, etc. Are these groups organized? Google around and see if you can get a publication affiliated with one of these groups to review you or see if you can read at one of these groups' meetings or host a book club. Are there news outlets specific to this group? Be creative. Part of the goal is just to get these groups to like you and then pass you onto their friends or other contacts.

2. Go to your local bookstores and offer to read from your book. Also sign the copies they have, especially if it's Barnes & Nobles. Start a Facebook group (not a fan page) with information about your book and get your all your friends to join. Email them and have them ask their friends to join. Every time you read, send out an email a week in advance. Also send any reviews to your group. If you can, read at your local university. Google around for authors similar to you and see where they've read.

3. Call your publisher and talk to them about this, particularly if your publisher has a publicist you can sit down with. Don't be bitter. This is what the publishing industry is like. Even books from major publishers these days need the author to do a lot of work. Find out what connections and resources your publisher has, in the media, book review circles, or etc.

4. If you don't like your publisher's press release, send out another one. Instructions on how to write one are easily available online. The important thing here is (1) how can you write the press release so that it's useful for media outlets--what stories does your book tie into, what issues does it illuminate, etc. (2) What is the media list that you're sending this to? The best press release is irrelevant if you're not sending it to the right places.

5. Definitely send it to blogs. Treat this as a research assignment and make a list of blogs that can approach your books from different angles. Don't just send them the book: offer to do an interview with them or something else that makes it more engaging.

6. You may want to google reviewers and journalists who've written on your topic and send them letters with a copy of your book and saying you'd love to talk to them further.

7. Also, there are several small and/or online magazines that review more unusual titles all the time: Pleaides, American Book Review, The Complete Review's Literary Saloon, Bookslut, and Raintaxi spring to mind.
posted by johnasdf at 7:42 AM on August 16, 2008

I self-published a book, on a niche subject, that is now in its second printing.

Reviews are important, but so are author profiles, TV and radio interviews, article-length excerpts, by-lined articles that credit you as the author of [book name], quotes in news stories that use you as a source of expert commentary, etc. I did all of these, which helped build awareness of my book and generated sales and more coverage.

Don't be shy about promoting your work, or expect your publisher to do the heavy lifting. Polite but persistent is the key.
posted by quidividi at 2:44 PM on August 16, 2008

« Older Best international/world cell phone options?   |   Konichiwa, Baby! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.