Tuesday, May 15, 2007

What to do with a review

So there was an interesting article in the New York Sun today about Joshua Ferris's book Then We Came to the End. In a nutshell, David Blum is wondering what the purpose of excellent reviews are if they don't translate into wider exposure for a book and its author.

He writes: "It used to be that books had the shelf-life of a container of yogurt. Nowadays it seems more like hamburger meat. If a book doesn't make it to the New York Times bestseller list within the first several days of arrival, it never will. Even "Heyday," Kurt Andersen's hugely hyped historical novel that also garnered cover-boy treatment in the Times, only lasted a couple of weeks on the list before falling away. Interestingly — and not coincidentally — much of the commercial fiction that lasts the longest on the Times's list doesn't get reviewed at all.

Part of the problem may be that bookstores don't pay close enough attention to reviews. I went to look for "Then We Came to the End" at the Lincoln Square Barnes & Noble the day after the Times review, and experienced the kind of scenario that leads authors into years of costly psychotherapy. No one knew where to find it. Three clerks and 10 minutes later, I'd bought one of the store's last three copies. At that moment it occurred to me: What if bookstores created sections devoted to that week's best-reviewed books? Or posted positive reviews alongside the books themselves? That way, book reviews (even those that appeared only online) would be easily accessible to those most likely to buy books — people already browsing in the bookstore. Right now, bookstores place all their marketing muscle behind bestseller lists, meaning that prize positions get awarded to those who've already won the horse race. Even movie theaters operate according to more democratic principles than that. Shouldn't good bookstore placement go to good books? Just a thought."

I'd like to address a couple of issues Mr. Blum brings up.

One, the shelf-life half-life of a book. In this he and I are in full agreement. I hate the current cultural climate that only allows for immediate successes. While I think this is most obvious in the movies and television, there is more and more of that feeling in my world as well.

Often I have very little time to allow a book to find its audience. Most publishers allow an unsold book to be returned to them after having been on the shelf for three months. Due to constraints of budget and space (sadly, primarily the former) not many books get to prove themselves much beyond their first trimester if they don't show some signs of early life. This is especially true of hardcovers and especially especially true of fiction and especially, especially, especially true of debut authors. I hate it, but that's the way it is. Since I'm the one making the decision to return a title sometimes I can let an extra month or two slide by, but eventually I can't justify holding onto a book that no one wants to take home.

Luckily, we have customers with awesome taste, so the things that last the longest at our store tend to be those whose invisibility Mr. Blum laments. We sold a number of Then We Came to the End and quite a few Heyday as well (hell, we even had Kurt Anderson at our store for a reading). I can promise that both titles are safe on our shelf until at least July, but then it's up to you all.

This leads me to Mr. Blum's second point, which is that bookstores hide their lights under a basket. Here I take some exception. I would say that most of us here at the bookstore are well aware of the titles reviewed in the Times (as well as the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and on NPR). Like I said, our customers' good taste often means that indeed our featured titles and bestsellers are the well-reviewed books of the season. And when he suggests that we post positive reviews alongside books, well, we already do that. I would say we do that one better as the reviews we post are those written by our own staff. And our bestsellers are only feet away from our staff picks--books we choose specifically because we want them to get the attention we feel they deserve and might otherwise not receive. Perhaps Mr. Blum needs to start shopping at the Brookline Booksmith, that's what I say.

No comments: