When Reviews Happen

I meant to write this up yesterday but didn’t; it’s a question from Lars, from the entry about my review in the San Antonio Express-News:

Hi John, whenever you mention a review it always gets me wondering about the reviewing process in general. Do books like yours usually just encounter a few waves of press after publication, or is it an ongoing process? Are you still getting as many reviews for OMW as you are for TGB? I was just wondering if you could give me a bird’s eye view on it.

My experience in this regard has been like this, in terms of my novels:

Prior to publication date: Reviews from trade mags (Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, Kirkus, etc)

At or immediately after publication date: short-lead magazines (like Entertainment Weekly) and newspapers, SF reviewing Web sites

Within several months of publication date: long-lead magazines (most of the science fiction monthlies), SF reviewing Web sites

Whenever: Personal Web sites. “Whenever” in this case means anywhere from at or near publication date to a number of years later, depending on whenever that person gets around to the book.

In my experience, the window for newspapers and large magazines to review your book is fairly small, because they tend to focus on new releases and also because there’s always something new being released. One of the nice things about the San Antonio review is that it comes even after The Ghost Brigades has been out for four months. Why a review came so relatively late in a major newspaper could be because of a number of reasons: The reviewer could have been particularly fired-up about the book, for example, or it may be, inasmuch as SF is not hugely reviewed in newspapers in any event, some allowances were made. Whatever the reason, I’m happy. The Express-News’ Sunday circulation is 350,000. It’s nice to get in front of that many people.

Old Man’s War has had a slightly unusual review “life” in that it popped up some additional newspaper reviews when it hit trade paperback, and the Hugo nomination has also put it back into the spotlight. The Ghost Brigades, as far as I can tell, has had a fairly standard review life. One nice thing is that it’s been reasonably well-reviewed in the non-SF media despite being a sequel, (indeed, at this point it’s been more extensively reviewed in the non-SF media then in it, although that might be a factor of longer lead times) and sequels are to my understanding somewhat less likely to be reviewed. I suspect it certainly did help in that case that most the reviews of Old Man’s War were positive ones, so the same reviewers were more likely to revisit the universe a second time. Ghost’s reviews were also generally positive, so I think that bodes well for The Android’s Dream getting coverage. But you never know. Publishing can be capricious and cruel.

It’s worth mentioning, incidentally, that I’ve been very fortunate that the books have been reviewed at all in the mainstream press. There are several hundred science fiction novels released each year, the majority of which will get one or two print/mainstream reviews if they get any at all. In this regard they are like every other sort of book out there. I can speak to this with some experience, since I currently have six other books out there aside from OME and TGB, and combined those books have gotten six and a quarter reviews in the print media (the quarter review is of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies, which was reviewed with three other books in its series). As far as I know, neither The Book of the Dumb or its sequel have been reviewed at all. Ironically, they are my best-selling books. Admittedly, when an entire book can be described in one sentence — “makes fun of stupid people doing stupid things” — there’s really no reason it should get any reviews. Nevertheless, no reviews or just one or two is par for the course.

Of the types of reviews noted above, it’s difficult to say which matter more. Is a review in the San Antonio News-Express, Sunday circulation 350k, more useful than a review from, say, Fantasy & Science Fiction, whose circulation is 26k? The News-Express gets to more people, but we know that every subscriber of F&SF magazine is a science fiction reader, almost by definition. Or is it better to get a good review from Instapundit, who gets 120k readers a day, most of whom probably aren’t SF readers but at least some of whom (anecdotally speaking) seem willing to take a chance on a book on his recommendation? Or from Boing Boing, with 250k a day? I have my own thoughts on the matter, based on personal experience, but I don’t know if my anecdotal experience would be useful or accurate for others. It’s probably safe to say that a good range of reviews from all sorts of places can be useful.

Leaving behind the print media and the high-traffic Web sites, I think that discussions of books on personal Web sites and also SF-enthusiast sites are very important in a “long tail” sense. Someone writing about OMW or TGB on their blog or LiveJournal is the equivalent of a personal recommendation (or pan) of the book to the friends who read that blog; it’s handselling the book in a small audience, and in aggregate I think that adds up. And as personal sites get to the books when they get to them, it keeps the book in circulation, as it were. These are not the reviews that Tor is going to slap on the book cover (that honor goes to the print media), but in aggregate I suspect they can be just as important over the long run of a book. Likewise, I think Amazon reviews can be important aggregate handsellers, so long as the reviews are actually cogent (which is sometimes the case, sometimes not).

Coming back to pro criticism and reviews, I’ve been fortunate that most of the reviews that I’ve gotten have been pretty good, but I don’t pretend that I will live in this sort of blessed state forever. Inevitably something I write will clang against the general critical rim for whatever reason, whether it’s because people gotten used to what I write and how and the bloom is off the rose, or because someone decides that it’s time to pick a fight (critics do that from time to time, sometimes for cause, sometimes not), or because (yikes) I genuinely write a clunker.

What can you do? Not a thing — except in that last case, in which case you try to make sure your next book doesn’t suck. But speaking as someone who has been a professional critic for a decade and a half — as someone who has made a pretty darn comfortable living passing judgement on other people’s critical endeavors — I’m here to tell you that the only worse thing you can do than worry too about what critics think is to attempt to write to please critics, particularly the professional sort. That’s folly, pure and simple, if only because there are simply too many critics to be able to please all of them. My philosophy is that I write a book I want to read, and if critics hate it, at least I have a book I like. Fortunately, my personal taste in SF seems to be of the saleable sort, so that’s nice.

Also, when it comes down to it, I’m not particularly intimidated by professional critics, which is helpful when it comes to putting reviews in perspective. That’s partly because, as noted, I am one, so the methods and manners of criticism and reviewing are not unknown to me; it’s partly because, frankly, I can’t be outsnobbed. I have a degree in philosophy of language from the University of Chicago and had Saul Bellow as my thesis advisor, at least until I dumped him to do something else. Any critic who thinks he can snob up on me can kiss my pompus ass. It takes a lot to impress me, is all I’m saying. And as long as I’m happy with what I write, people can say what they want to say.

Now, I realize not every writer comes to the game with my level of rampant egotism baked in, but the point is that critics are not people to be scared of or intimidated by; they’re just people with opinions, and hopefully are not too stuffed-shirt serious about them. The good news is that most critics and reviewers aren’t (and don’t want to be) irritating lit pricks; they’re largely people who like to share their enthusiasm of good stories with other people who are looking for good stories. Sometimes they’ll like what you do, sometimes they won’t. That’s how it goes.

So that’s the basics on reviews.

9 Comments on “When Reviews Happen”

  1. In my case Instapundit definitely helped me getting to buy a book of yours, although in avery roundabout way: I read some posting by Reynolds linked to your blog, looking around Whatever I got to your e-book of Agent to the Stars, started reading it and liked it (though not liking very much the process of reading it online). Happened to see a hard copy of Agent to the Stars at the local library, borrowed it and finished the book at one sitting, then went to a bookshop to buy OMW…

  2. Is there any special critics that you admire and take notice of…meaning that you would change a chapter because of what they said about it?

  3. “Any critic who thinks he can snob up on me can kiss my pompus ass.”

    This is why you’re my hero.

  4. Have you ever re-released a book, and have someone who sh*t on it the first time love it the second time?

  5. Wow, thanks. I wasn’t expecting such a complete overview. I always love how you’re willing to share your perspective with ‘industry’ outsiders.

    I’m also glad you don’t live in mortal fear of your critics, I’m sure that fear spoils things for a lot of writers out there.

  6. I started a book review site of what I read oh, a year and a half ago. Eventually, a few authors found it. The occasional author has sent me an ARC for review. Now in the past two days, I’ve gotten solicitations from three agents asking me to review books of theirs.

    I’m starting to get kind of baffled as to how I’m getting around to all these agents, somehow…

  7. I guess, just for fun purposes, that it should be pointed out that the first pro review of TGB came from a website: mine! Chuckle. So the above pattern of when reviews appear is general in nature, right?

    It also isn’t strictly true that only the print media gets blurbs on book covers. Publishers like ibooks and Ace have blurbed me on several covers, not just frontispieces. Of course, I don’t know if Tor has a strict policy like you describe. If they do it would seem counter-productive. You should always blurb the reviews that are most widely read and favorable to your promotional goals, whether the source is print or electronic. Google “ghost brigades john scalzi” and my review comes up 4th, right after your own release announcement. If that’s less worthwhile to Tor simply because it isn’t print media, it would be extremely silly. (Fortunately it doesn’t really seem to be the case. Tor’s publicists have been fantastic to deal with.)

    I agree that blogs and online reviews and discussion boards are proving far more important than print media, not only to book publishers, but all forms of entertainment media. For the first time in history creators and their publishers have this immediate feedback from their audience that they shield themselves from at their peril. Before the internets, publishers, record labels, movie studios could be entirely indifferent to the things their audiences didn’t like, because there was no forum for that kind of feedback (the kind you don’t want to hear) other than what letters to the editor the print media saw fit to publish. That shielding mechanism no longer exists. Do something that sucks, and 50 thousand people will let you know right away. Make people happy on the other hand, and bask in the love like you never dreamed possible.

  8. San Antonio News-Express

    Um. Express-News. I know, because every time I walk into an HEB or stop at a stop light they try to hawk it at me. “Free weekdays when you buy Sundays!” “Coupon worth $4 off Spurs merchandise if you buy this for $.50!” “Buy it, and we’ll do your laundry!”

    Okay. Not really. They might have gotten me with that last one.

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