Friday, May 4, 2007

Melting Away

When my Dot Dead came out, I did the usual thing: tour with bookstore signings and radio and TV interviews. My expectations were low and at times those low expectations were met; at a Portland stop, two people showed up. But even for the highlights of the tour, 70 people at Kepler’s or a live interview on public radio in Seattle, it’s difficult to say the effect on sales overall. There might be a blip, but that’s it. What good is it to build a better mousetrap – or write a book people will enjoy – if no one knows about it?

I hate to say it, but the best and most cost-effective way to let people know about a good book is – drumroll – a newspaper review. When a review ran in the San Jose Mercury, Dot Dead leapt up the Amazon bestseller list. When Lora Robert’s Palo Alto Weekly review ran, local stores ran out of copies. There’s only one problem – reviews are harder to get than Norah Jones’s new album on eight-track.

Before publication, the PR people and I sent out around three dozen ARC’s (advance reader copies) to newspapers across the country. Except for the local papers mentioned, scarcely anything. (Exception: The Royse City Herald Banner, but then, they requested a copy.) Part of the problem certainly was that Midnight Ink has not been around for long and that it publishes in trade paper format, not hardback. Also, there’s the problem with me: Dot Dead was a first book and I wasn't known as an author. A reporter friend at the Wall Street Journal explained the dilemma to me: We will only give you coverage if you don’t need it.

But there’s a bigger macro issue at play here. Print newspapers are dying. Employment at U.S. papers is down by a third since 1990. As the papers cut back, the book review section is often first hit. Authors are fighting this trend but I fear they are, like Canute, ordering the tide not to come in. The National Books Critics Circle has started a campaign to save book reviews. The Circle reports book coverage has been cut back or eliminated recently at, among others, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Dallas Morning News, the Sun Sentinel, the New Mexican, the Village Voice, Boston Phoenix, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. As for the last-named, the New York Times reports that 120 authors have signed a petition to save the job of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s book editor.

Michael Connelly wrote a piece for his alma mater, the LA Times, that ran during the Book Festival last weekend. He attributes the success of his Harry Bosch series to reviews of his first book, The Black Echo. Michael then goes on to say, “I can't help but wonder, though, how long Harry would have lasted had he been born in today's newspaper environment.” Michael goes on to ask whether publishers and editors are being short-sighted as they practice a scorched earth policy on book review sections.

“In the past, newspaper executives understood the symbiotic relationship between their product and books. People who read books also read newspapers. From that basic tenet came a philosophy: If you foster books, you foster reading. If you foster reading, you foster newspapers. That loss-leader ends up helping you build and keep your base. What I fear is that this philosophy is disappearing from the boardrooms of our newspapers; that efforts to cut costs now will damage both books and newspapers in the future. Short-term gains will become long-term losses.”

Now Ed Champion offers a somewhat contrarian point of view, arguing that reviews will come increasingly from bloggers, podcasters, and other online participants. Who can argue with that? I’m a blogger myself and read 10 or 20 more every week. Pat Holt, the former editor of the Chronicle book reviewer who did some editing work on Dot Dead, wants to do something different, to take action: “Let's get out there and pound some tables about books; let's put our hearts and souls on the line, not to pander to base tastes but to start a true critical discourse with audiences and make book reviews in all their forms as riveting to read as they are essential.”

Still as a mystery writer who publishes in a format not much changed since Gutenberg, I can’t help but lament being caught in the sea change that’s going on. The blogosphere and online worlds do not have the wide reach of traditional newspapers, at least not yet. And the book review sections of those same papers, if not the papers themselves, are – like the Wicked Witch – melting away.


Julia Buckley said...

I sure hear that. In fact, I'm wondering how you even got a radio interview, since the extent of the PR I was able to summon up was perilously close to zero.

Anyone have any tips about how to try to get reviews of any sort?

Mark Terry said...


Two comments, and/or anecdotes that will probably serve to underscore your points.

1. I used to review books for The Oakland Press in Michigan, a daily whose primary competitors are The Detroit News and The Detroit Free Press. Last summer the publisher brought on a new executive editor who promptly fired a slew of folks, including my editor. They then were told they were essentially cutting the book review section unless it handled books by local authors, ie., it's just part of the features page.

Either way, I was done. It seems they've kept some book reviews, at least intermittently, although they appear to be entirely written by staffers now. It appears they're trying to turn the OP into a daily-weekly, which is to say, it comes out every day, but seems to act like a local weekly paper. So this book review thing is hitting at all sorts of levels.

2. Before being published by MI, I was published by a small press out of North Carolina (or maybe South, I forget), called High Country Publishers, Ltd. In the one book I pubbed with them, Dirty Deeds, they sent the book off to a number of trade reviewers, and the only one to review it was Library Journal, which wrote a positive review.

The majority of sales of that book came through library sales or my handselling.

I would kill for a good review of an MI book by Library Journal. The Devil's Pitchfork was only published by Kirkus, which lived up to its reputation of hating everything. I was ignored by PW, LJ, although ForeWord (whom I also used to review for) gave it a favorable review as well as a superlative review by Mystery Scene Magazine (used to review and write for them, too).

I think reviews ARE a big deal to the sales of books, even though there are people who claim, "I've never bought a book based on a review."

To which I'm inclined to respond, "But you probably bought a book because you HEARD of it through a review." There's tended to be a strange symbiotic relationship between publishers-book reviewers-and-authors. A book review, positive or negative, does tend to be a great advertisement for a book. For instance, in the OP, often took up a third of the page. Can you even guess what a 1/3 page ad would cost me or my publisher?

I can guarantee you that were you to try to buy a little ad in something like the New York Times or USA Today, it would cost you thousands of dollars.

Mark Combes said...


I agree that book reviews are important - but ask yourself (everyone join in now) what is the single greatest determiner of whether you will buy a book? For most people the answer is "I've read something by the author and liked it." The second greatest determiner is "It was recommended to me by a friend or trusted source - as in bookseller or friend or family member." Industry stats suggest that these two reasons account for 80% of book sales. Yep. You read that right.

Word of mouth is what sells books. Getting people to talk about your book to as many people as possible is the key. Granted, reviews can help that word of mouth get spread by creating buzz but ultimatly it's the long haul of selling book after book after book that sells books. The old joke in publishing is "How do we sell more books? By selling more books." It's a marathon kiddies, lace up those running shoes....

Joe Moore said...

I had the opportunity to sit beside Oline Cogdill at lunch during SleuthFest. She reviews mysteries for the Sun-Sentinel. I mentioned that the recent restructuring of the paper’s format had cut the book section in half, and asked if it was due to lack of advertisers. She said publishers don’t advertise. That it was a result of the overall increased cost of doing business. So what was for many years a very generous book section has now grown quite slim making it even harder to get reviewed.

Keith Raffel said...

Julia, tips on getting reviews? Well, of course, the first step is getting the reviewers ARCs. Blurbs from big name authors who are not known for blurbing might help, too. After that, got me.

Joe & Mark T, yes, those book review sections do seem to have a bad case of anorexia.

Mark T, don't kill. I got a nice review from LJ. Now I might kill for a starred review in PW. But do we know of any MI book that was reviewed by PW at all?

Mark C, I agree that in aggregate that reviews may not be most important, but the effect of one review in a single major paper could be 100 times a single bookstore visit.

Nina Wright said...

Hi, Keith. In answer to your question about whether any MI book has been reviewed by PW, I can tell you that PW reviewed my first and third Whiskey Mattimoe books--and both reviews were positive. I just posted the one for WHISKEY AND TONIC on my blog.

Nina Wright

Keith Raffel said...

Fantastic, Nina! Big difference in the Crimespree and PW reviews though. One says Whiskey is 33 and the other 34.