Can the writer do anything to make that happen? No. So how do top reviewers decide which books to favor?
Recently the Mystery Writers of America Mid-Atlantic Chapter, of which I am a member, hosted three guests who told us how they work, what they love (and hate) in a crime novel, and why certain behavior by writers and publishers ticks them off.
Patrick said she receives 50-75 ARCs a week. Corrigan receives about 200 a week at her home address and 50 at her office. The Washington Post receives about 150 ARCs every day. Corrigan reviews a handful of mysteries every two or three months on NPR. The Post runs a single crime fiction review each Monday and occasionally devotes a Sunday column to a mystery roundup.
How are books chosen for review?
First off, self-published books are automatically excluded. Novels by “big names” rise to the top, but beyond that, Corrigan, Drabelle, and Patrick all keep an eye out for new and lesser known authors whose books offer something special.
The publisher’s name may persuade Patrick to give a book a closer look. “Some imprints,” she said, “are really reliable.” But the book itself has to win her over with superior writing. “It always comes back to the writing.” Corrigan said that “something unusual” will pique her interest and “open the door” but doesn’t guarantee a review. Drabelle is drawn to mysteries with exotic settings. Aside from his personal preferences, Drabelle started an occasional cozy mystery roundup column in the Post because he felt the paper should expand the range of crime fiction reviewed in its pages.
None of them is influenced by industry publications like Publishers Weekly or Kirkus Reviews. They also can’t be persuaded by a publicist’s pitch. The book itself is what counts.
“Authority of voice,” Corrigan said. Sometimes she’s drawn in by the plot and setting, but fully realized characters are essential. Most of all, she likes books that have the ring of authenticity rather than market-driven gimmicks—“not vampires living in Downton Abbey with dogs.” Patrick is attracted to a fresh voice or a fictional world that is “other”—and that doesn’t necessarily mean exotic. “Even a cozy,” she said, “can take you somewhere different.” Drabelle admires authors who are skillful at withholding information to build suspense.
How do they approach writing negative reviews?
Fairness is essential, Patrick said. She cited her review of Sara Gruen’s new book, At the Water’s Edge, as “almost totally negative, but fair.” She always backs up her negative comments with examples from the book.
“It’s never a pleasure to read a bad book,” Corrigan said, and she is annoyed when a major author publishes “schlock” and starts recycling plots. When she’s “really had it” with such an author, she doesn’t hold back in expressing her opinion.
Drabelle concurred, saying that a book review is “a consumer report” and it’s the reviewer’s job to inform the public when a major writer publishes a bad book. He believes in saving negativism for lower down in the review because if the hard shots are fired in the first sentence people may not read on.
Do they get a lot of flack when they review a book negatively?
Corrigan’s review of a book that had been praised by The New York Times drew angry letters and made her the target of online attacks. She was sufficiently concerned to tell Georgetown University security about what was happening.
Corrigan, Drabelle, and Patrick all said they prefer that authors not communicate with them about reviews, whether positive or negative. “It’s always a little strange” to hear from a writer, Drabelle said. “I didn’t do it for the writer. I did it for readers.” Patrick noted that several authors have told her they learned something about their writing from her reviews, but she believes “authors shouldn’t say anything to reviewers.” Corrigan doesn’t want any writer to think a positive review means he or she has found a champion who will review all future work favorably. If Corrigan thinks the next book from that writer is lousy, she’ll say so—or she won’t review it at all.
All three frown on the deceptive practice of publishers and writers taking pull quotes from a negative review and using them to give the impression the book was praised. Drabelle said that at the Post “we don’t take it lightly when a review is distorted,” and editors have expressed their displeasure to publishers.
Can any of them explain why some bad books, with a collection of negative reviews, attract hordes of readers?
No. Patrick mentioned The Memory Keeper’s Daughter as one book that was “review-proof” and seemed to come out of nowhere to take over the bestsellers lists. Those lists, Drabelle said, “are dominated by terrible books. You’re lucky if one is any good.”
Who are the people they hope to influence?
Readers. Their job is to help readers sift through the avalanche of books published every year and find something worth reading. They’re aware that they are speaking to a shrinking audience. “I don’t think writing is in trouble,” Patrick said. “There are many good writers. Reading is in trouble.” The world offers too many distractions, and people are reading less and less. Even a bookseller friend, Patrick added, confessed to watching more TV and reading less these days.
How much influence do they have in a world where traditional book reviews are fast disappearing and readers are turning to Amazon and amateur blogs for book information?
Patrick believes that some book bloggers are as good as or better than the professional reviewers and “can do great things for a book,” while others simply post reviews that “steal from the publisher’s synopsis” and offer no serious assessment. Veteran reviewers, Corrigan pointed out, still offer a special sensibility honed by years of critical reading. Drabelle sees internet competition as an incentive for traditional reviewers to “be better than ever.”
Whether you’re a writer or a reader, do you believe traditional reviewers still matter in today’s world? Do review quotes on a book jacket or in ads influence sales? Please leave a comment!