If you think getting an agent or getting published is hard, try getting a book reviewed. As most publications with significant circulation numbers have either slashed or removed their book review sections, only a few works enjoy the exposure — and implicit stamp that it matters — that a literary review provides. Even if the review is bad, the author receives what amounts to an advertisement of themselves and their work; if the review is good, that obviously bodes well for the ultimate success of the writer.
For this reason, many authors pay book clubs and literature blogs to review their work. In a piece I wrote for MadameNoire.com last year, Troy Johnson, founder of the African-American Literature Book Club (AALBC.com) told me, “Unfortunately, for a self-published author, the main way they get reviewed is if they pay for the commissioned service.”
And then there are those that enjoy multiple reviews. In the same (prestigious) publication.
A recent piece in the New York Times admits “It’s beginning to feel like Nathaniel Rich Month at The Times.” Referring to the author and son of former NYT columnist Frank Rich, writer Margaret Sullivan points out: “The author’s new novel was reviewed in the Arts section on April 10, then again in the Sunday Book Review on April 14. Mr. Rich also wrote an essay for the Sunday Book Review, with many references to that novel, “Odds Against Tomorrow.” In addition, the Editors’ Choice section of the Sunday Book Review listed Mr. Rich’s novel second on its list. Back in January, Mr. Rich and his brother were also the subjects of a feature story about literary families.”
When Sullivan questioned theater and books editor Scott Heller “about the frequent duplication and the amount of attention sometimes heaped on one author”, Heller told her the newspaper’s book critics — Michiko Kakutani, Janet Maslin and Dwight Garner — make their own decisions about what to review without collusion with the editors of the Sunday Book Review, or freelancers Heller may have hired to write a review.
Heller admits, “In the best of all worlds, it would be healthiest to spread the attention around… There are so many deserving writers out there, and it sends a wrong signal.” However, the piece concludes, Heller feels the system “seems to work.”
What exactly seems to work, and for whom, in Heller’s estimation is not clear. In March, VidaWeb.org posted 2012 stats on the number of women authors reviewed in relation to male writers, and the numbers were lopsided in favor of men. A piece posted on Poynter.org last June says 88% of books reviewed by the New York Times are written by white authors.
At the end of the day, the whole process is subjective — which can be frustrating for the writer that gets passed over, and gratifying for the writer who gets picked, over and over again. As I’ve noted in a previous post on some writer’s conundrum with self-publishing, getting the validation of the traditionally elitist and exclusive publishing apparatus (imprints, agents, reviewers) offers a sense of validation. “If X publishing imprint [or reviewer] can only publish [or review] an average of 10 to 20 titles a year and they choose you, it must mean you’re good, right? We writers, like most artists, crave that pat on the head, particularly from the hand that wears the signet ring.”
But new intel is challenging the validation logic. Writers are buying their way onto bestseller lists. Traditional publishers are getting into the self-publishing business. And respected review sources like the New York Times are admitting their system of choosing which books to review “sends a wrong signal.”
In other words, maybe it doesn’t mean as much as we think it means when we see a book lauded in our favorite lit journal or streaking to the top of the bestseller list. Maybe, we have to do the dirty work ourselves: read a few frogs to appreciate a (prince)(ss) piece of writing when we find it.