Thursday, July 28, 2005

The way things are

Well, I would have started posting again yesterday, but I had a little trouble with what turns out to be the browser cache. I'm sure you understand...

Anyway, what with one thing and another, I lost an hour's work yesterday, so here is a shortened version of what I said then. And who knows, this version may even be better.

The question that I want to address is this: Why is it that some books get reviewed in every newspaper? And not only reviewed, but favourably reviewed.

A case in point is Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days -- a book that I wrote about myself a while back. Using the review-search facility on Publishers Marketplace (for which you have to subscribe) I can find 26 reviews in major US newspapers. Of these, 16 are favourable and 2 are negative; the rest are in the middle.

The negative ones echo my own opinion that the book really isn't very good. The New York Times describes it as 'a clunky and precious literary exercise... self-important and ham-handed.' But most other reviewers are impressed (or claim to be), including one who declares that Specimen Days is a work of genius.

Let us separate the particular from the general and go back to my question. Why is it that some books get reviewed everywhere? Even when they are written by first-time authors. And why is it that, when they are so widely reviewed, such books are mostly greeted with enthusiasm?

In thinking about this circumstance, over the last few days, I came up with three possible explanations.

1. Bribery.
2. You can fool some of the people some of the time.
3. A vague concept to which I gave the preliminary name The System.

Let's look at each of these.

First, bribery. Now before you get all huffy and puffy about me insulting a fine body of men and women, let us remember that it is quite normal in the book trade (and other trades) to purchase favourable treatment or a desired result.

For example, all publishers advertise. All big publishers pay money to the major bookselling chains to have their books prominently displayed or labelled 'Book of the Month'. And, nowadays, all major publishers entertain the big retailers at lavish functions (sometimes involving trips abroad) and introduce them to celebrity authors. All these things are just normal business practice.

But do I believe that reviewers are bribed, with used notes being handed over in brown-paper bags in supermarket car parks? No.

Second explanation: some people are stupid enough to believe anything. Even, apparently, that Specimen Days is a work of genius.

Well, yes, some people certainly are stupid enough, but that does not explain the ubiquity of reviews of certain books, or their (mostly) unanimous insistence that really quite average books are examples of excellence.

Which leaves us with explanation 3. A vague concept called The System.

Fortunately I came across an article by Matthew Parris, in last Saturday's Times, which enabled me to see more clearly what I it was that I had in mind when I spoke of The System.

Matthew considers the press reports of the recent London bombings, and concludes that there is 'an unwitting conspiracy' between four groups which leads to a particular slant being given to the news. A slant which may or may not turn out to be supported by the facts, but which is certainly not so supported at the present time.

Four powerful groups have a vested interest in arguing that the worldwide al-Qaeda network is fiendishly clever, powerfully effective, and deeply involved in the London bombings. These groups are: the press; the Government; the security services; and the terrorists themselves.

The press love sensation. 'We are all going to die' is a headline which will sell far more copies than 'Another fine day again today'.

If we must have bombs in London, the Government would prefer that they were planted by fiendishly clever men, so that there is at least some excuse for politicians' failure to have prevented the resulting deaths.

Ditto the security services. If the bombers are clever, highly trained, and backed by endless money, then it is hardly the security services' fault if terrorists are able to carry out attacks. Furthermore, if the enemy are frightfully clever chaps, then any arrests, or other forms of progress, are brilliant achievements on the part of the security men.

And finally, of course, the terrorists themselves very much hope that everyone will regard them as powerful and clever. That spreads terror, and it aids recruitment.

Thus, Matthew Parris argues, there is no wicked and malevolent conspiracy to distort the truth about the London bombings. But there is a 'line' on the news which suits the purposes of at least four groups with powerful vested interests. In the absence of firm evidence and reliable facts, it is that line which tends to be followed.

Let us take Matthew Parris's analysis and apply it to publishing.

In publishing there are four powerful groups with a vested interest in seeing to it that certain 'big' books are not only widely reviewed but also favourably reviewed. These groups are: the big publishers; the retail chains; the newspapers and those who write reviews for them; and the writers of books.

Every analyst of the modern book trade tells us that the trade lives or dies on the big sellers. A thousand small books, each with low individual sales, are not (apparently) any good to anyone. The trade lives or dies on the monsters.

Thus it is that the big publishers each select one or two books a month which will be given huge publicity budgets and a big push into the media. Often such books come from established authors or celebrity authors (ghosted if need be); but occasionally a completely unknown newcomer is touched by the magic wand. It is absolutely essential for the big publishers' financial health that most such books should succeed.

Ditto the booksellers. They do not want a thousand books a week which sit on the shelf for a year and then sell one or two copies each. What they want is one or two books a week which sell in thousands, pretty much as fast as they can unpack them.

The newspapers want a number of things. They want advertisements, which are paid for; and they want interesting stuff to fill up the white space. If need be, they will buy the serial rights to certain books, but they prefer to get review copies for free, and to be offered interview subjects for free. Free is so much more cost-effective.

By and large, it is not in a newspaper's interest to be dismissive of a book in which a book publisher has made a major investment. True, the occasional controversial hatchet job arouses interest and discussion. But if Clapham & Irons's big books are always panned, Clapham & Irons are pretty soon going to cancel their advertising. And when Clapham & Irons, by the grace of God, stumble across Princess Diana's Secret Lesbian Love Diary, the newspaper which has been invariably unkind is not the newspaper which gets the exclusive.

Same goes for the critics who write reviews. They enjoy the prestige of having their name in a quality newspaper, and the prestige has spinoff benefits. But if they systematically knock the big publishers' big books, it will not be long before the managing editor reminds them of the benefits of advertising and keeping on good terms with said publishers.

And, finally, the writers of books. All writers imagine that the book they are working on now is the one which will make their name. So they too will then get the star treatment. And they can't wait. So they are not (usually) going to criticise the status quo while they are waiting for their turn to come.

OK. There you have it. My question is answered.

It is not that there is some wicked cabal of sinister men who bribe and bully reviewers into declaring that very ordinary books such as Specimen Days are incomparable masterpieces. Such opinions are not bought -- not directly, at least. But for those who live and work and have their being in the book trade, it makes no sense at all that a book which a big publisher has selected for a big push should be panned.

It's not a conspiracy. It's just the way things are.


Anonymous said...

I think there is definitely a lot of bribery going off. Not just in the book world, but in the music industry as well.

Anonymous said...

Bribery is as old as prostitution, and forms of both are, I'm sure, rampant in the industry. Why shouldn't they be when the motivator (money) is the same?

Anonymous said...

From my 35 years as a journalist/publisher in the U.S., I think you are quite right about reason No. 3 why some books are reviewed kindly over and over again. The System is what it is. As for reasons No. 1 and No. 2, I wouldn't know. Welcome back.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Great essay. This is something I myself have wondered about. Why, out of nowhere, do I suddenly see reviews (mostly favorable if not gushing) and interview/puff piece/ author profiles of a certain new book?

"By and large, it is not in a newspaper's interest to be dismissive of a book in which a book publisher has made a major investment.

Same goes for the critics who write reviews."

I think you nailed it. It is bribery, but the bribery is indirect. A few years ago I read an article online about that referenced an entire book that undertook a systematic study of the relationship between books that got major attention from mainstream newspapers like the New York Times and the advertising by the book's publishers and the evidence of a direct relationship was overwhelming.

It's like payola in the music business.

This is one of the reasons that I tend to automatically discount anything-books, movies, CDs-that get this kind of treatment. Reviews today are really just an extension of advertising, only they don't seem as transparently bought and sold as an ad.

Peter L. Winkler said...


Please take a look at this article. It's pertinent.

Anonymous said...

Let me offer my own experience as a cautionary tale. Last year, I was so unwise as to self-publish a novel. Knowing that reviews are essential, I sent out 40 review copies. I might as well have thrown them in the ocean.

Now it may be that my novel is so obviously dreadful that there never was any chance that it would be noticed, but you wouldn’t expect me to believe that, would you? The truth is that reviewers will never look at a self-published book by an unknown, and the more fool me for not realising it. Even if the author tries to disguise (as I did) the fact that he or she is a self-publisher, when the work of a nobody appears under an unknown imprint, the critics will never do more than yawn.

With more than 10,000 novels published annually in the UK (I don’t have the figure for the US, but I’d guess it’s comparable), it’s pretty blindingly obvious that they won’t all get reviewed. There simply has to be some system which tells the reviewers what to notice and what to ignore.

It’s not a lottery. You can in fact be pretty sure that most novels which attract reviews really are worth something. Publishers will generally give the biggest push to those books which they consider to be their best, or at least their most saleable, and it would be crazy to suggest that their opinion is valueless.

But here’s a thing. The Samplist, self-published last year by Francis Ellen, has been reviewed just about everywhere. And yet in spite of all this favourable attention, the author has tried and failed to interest the big publishers in his novel. Any offers?

Anne Weale said...

You've returned from your break on top form, hence the burst of comments.
I missed your blog as much as I should miss Arts & Letters Daily if it vanished.
I'm tempted by Francis Ellen's The Samplist which I see was launched at the London Book Fair. But I've had so many disappointments with highly-praised books this year that I'm reluctant to spend money on any author not borrowed from the public library and test-read.

I've been working my way through the book blogs in your sidebar and some are good, but not, like GOB, blogs I want to visit daily. Perhaps the secret of your blog's appeal is that it reminds me of the publishers I knew as a young writer, when publishing was still led by editorial directors rather than marketing and money people.

Anonymous said...

I’ve done reviews for three kinds of publication, none of which I got paid for. From my experience each reviews what they’ve been sent. The student’s newspaper didn’t start receiving review copies until just as the school year was ending and that was from Cannongate. Maybe publishers don’t think student’s read? The free entertainment magazine gets an eclectic mix from novels to historical non-fiction. And finally the poetry magazine. I got allocated the books by editor. The poetry mag I think has the highest standards and a love of poetry and values the honesty of it’s reviewers. The free mag will review anything and everything. The students newspaper, well, they’re free aren’t they.

I’ve been reading the reviews of both the Inde and Guardian for the past couple of years and as much as I enjoy them they don’t really tell me much about what is good to read, more what the publishers want you to read.

Reviews tend to be extended promotions, as in they only tell you what the books is about and not if it is any good. (A little promotion) That’s why I’m trying to set up a different kind of review site ( Watch this that space.

Anonymous said...

I noticed this discussion and as it concerned me on two fronts: my self-published novel; The Samplist, and the apparent “desire” to create the appearance of a mastermind behind terrorism. I couldn't help but comment.

I self-published and yes, I got reviewed up the wazoo. The earliest reviews were horrendous, beyond rude. Two reviewers didn’t even read the back cover; they simply misquoted it (by sticking in their words and leaving out some of my words) and brandished their own rewrite as evidence of my lack of ability. (This was a ‘legitimately’ published novelist; trust no one!)

I did get a couple of great reviews early on as well but the turning point was a review in the Times Literary Supplement.

After that, things changed. The last two reviews of The Samplist (BBC Music Magazine and the British Science Fiction Association's Vector Magazine) were out of this world.


A word to self-publishers; every time you get a good review, send it to the next reviewer WITH the novel. My guess is that it's the ‘sheep’ effect; gradually, the reviews get better and better (the BBC Music Mag review trashed earlier reviewers for comparing me to Dickens, Heller and Flann O' Brien and then compared me to Tom Sharpe - well, Tom Sharpe'll do me thanks very much).

On the ‘intelligent’ terrorist: The reviews helped to get me two offers from agents. I rejected a heavy hitter and settled for a guy who seemed ‘in-tune’ with my writing. I recently sent off the first 10,000 words of my latest novel to him and he told me that he wouldn’t try to sell it “In this climate” and that “no editor would touch it.”


Because I used to work for a company that did the software security for a lot of government agencies that use three-letter acronyms and I know where the real holes are in the security AND I paint both the security agencies AND the terrorists as dimwits.

So, nobody wants my first novel because only two out of five people who read it love it and the other three hate it so there’s “no market,” and I’m being censored because nobody wants to hear ‘some’ truth about the dreadful world in which we live. My writing is callous and offensive. My latest novel has a Muslim as the lead character. The whole terrorist ‘thing’ is viewed from the perspective of the kind of Muslim that doesn’t really care about religion. The book also is about the new slaves of the American Empire: The H1 Niggers, and about the accelerated demise of the U.S. and the rise of China (as unwittingly promulgated by idiot politicians and deliberately by smart speculators).

I grew up reading, and reading about, writers on the edge. People who challenged the mass hypnosis of the day, but now I find that if I don’t wear a silly hat I don’t get to create a narrator who lives and thinks differently from me. I thought this was the point of fiction, of literature, of entertainment?

I don’t even get the chance to become the victim of the first American Fatwa. My subject-matter is to be strangled at birth before my ham-fisted attempts to bring my feeble story to life are even completed.

As to publishers; a few more words: I have feedback from dockworkers and postmen and laborers; people who tell me they haven’t read a book in thirty years and they loved my book but an endless list of publishers has turned me down (although in each company there was at least one person who loved the book – if only I could get them all into the same company?).

I grew up in the roughest part of the roughest part of my country. I was perhaps the first person in my family to get an education. But every publisher I speak to is a ‘literary’ type. I’m writing for a completely different audience but I won’t write ‘about’ druggies on housing estates so I lose my natural ‘edge’. I write for people who normally watch TV. I write for an audience that is huge but the publishers don’t ‘get’ them beyond patronizing celebrity tripe that they stuff down their throats (at great marketing cost).

Why can’t I understand the market? Who are they to say, “I loved the characters, the color….. but I didn’t warm to the story.” Didn’t warm to the story?


Who cares? You know that others have “warmed” to the story. Don’t you have stock holders who want you to sell books? Sell the product. There is a demand but every single shopkeeper I try is as hard as trying to get a bloody agent. One store manager asked me to send a synopsis after the book was reviewed by the TLS.

Now I have 30,000 words of a great story that I have to write (another year at the day job) and I’ve already been told I’m wasting my time because I’ll offend Americans (and the French) by suggesting that the security services are as dumb as the terrorists (and all of them are as monstrous as they are incompetent).

The TLS said The Samplist was “saying something important”. I wrote the book as a pure entertainment. If The Samplist said anything important then this book really IS important.

But I cannot argue with the genius of the publishing industry. Should an executive hand over a million dollars to a politician for a book that reads like the author wrote it after he got hit in the ass by a tranquilizer gun… well, he did the right thing because nobody can predict the ‘market’.

I can predict MY bloody market. Publishers should start hiring people with some commercial acumen and keep their opinions out of it.

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