Book Reviews

Around the time of its publication, Avi Steinberg’s biography Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian received press and reviews from many of the major American literary media units, including NPR, Salon, The San Francisco ChronicleThe New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Economist,  and many others according to the author’s own website.

I will refer to these units (along with The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and if you’d like The New York Review of Books) collectively as the gatekeepers. Also, I’d like to make it clear that although I’m using Mr. Steinbeck’s book as the focal point around which to build the discussion, I’m ambitiously making the case that what I say about Running the Books applies to many other books on the market.

The first thing I want to point out is that press/reviews are a crucial tool in generating sales for a book, and hence are much sought after by the authors and their publishers. Doesn’t that cause us to pause and ask how is it that Running the Books managed to get so many highly desirable reviews from so many places while some books struggle to get even one? Running the Books, after all, is Mr. Steinberg’s first full-length book. So unlike, say, Sylvia Nasar, who’s an established name with her A Beautiful Mind being an award winning book, a NY Times #1 bestseller, and made into a movie, it cannot be taken for granted that any book produced by Mr. Steinberg would receive the star treatment with the media.

Equivalently, we can ask why it is that so many gatekeepers devote limited and expensive “real estate”, be that space on their newspapers or air time on the radio, to featuring Mr. Steinberg’s book. The newspapers surely know that their competitors are already covering Running the Books; don’t they hope to stand out (and out sell)? As many of the reviews hit on similar points, another piece on the book is hardly likely to add new information, and so can’t be considered justified from a public service point of view.

What can it be? What explains the success Running the Books had in generating publicityI think there are three possible answers. First, Running the Books can be such a well-written, important book that not to review it would be negligence on the part of the gatekeepers. While I believe that the book is indeed well written, I don’t know if it is so amazingly well written as to be a notch above other jostling books published around the same time. As for it being an important book, I’m a librarian-in-training and so tend of think all of all books about libraries or written by librarians as interesting and important. However, even I am able to recognize that a personal memoir about a prison library is not going to be a book of huge impact. Finally, it could be the case that the competition Running the Books faced was particularly weak, so its combination of high style and good content was enough to get it reviewed. I’m not particularly convinced by this explanation as the pool of newly published books is exceedingly deep. Moreover, reviews can be written both in advance of a book’s publication and after-the-fact, so the window of time is wide enough for plenty of challengers to present themselves.

The second explanation is that the success of Running the Books is attributable, not to the book itself, but to who Mr. Steinberg is. From his About page, we learn that Mr. Steinberg’s “work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Boston Globe, New York Review of Books, Salon, the Paris Review and the Daily Beast and others”. Not coincidentally, many of these publications (The New York Times, Salon, the Paris Review, and the Daily Beast) reviewed Mr. Steinberg’s book when it came out. This is fair enough; it’s probably an implicit part of reporters’ and writers’ compensation package that they can expect increased media attention from their employers or from contacts they’ve made on the job when they publish. It may seem contrary to the democratic, pull-ourselves-up-from-our-shoelaces American ethos that who one knows matters, but I don’t think this is going to change, least of all in the publishing world, any time soon.

Third, and somewhat related to the second point, is the possibility that Mr. Steinberg’s success has to do who Mr. Steinberg’s publisher is. After all, part of a publisher’s job is to push his writers, and this includes calling up reviewers to persuade/pressure/cajole them into reviewing the authors on the publisher’s list. In this regard, Mr. Steinberg is in good hands, as his publisher is Nan A. Talese. Ms. Talese is a long-time publisher and has her own imprint under Random House (who owns Kopft Doubleday). (As an aside, Nan Talese is also the wife of Gay Talese, a writer whom I much admire. Their marriage has been described as “public” and “scandalous”, & Mr. Talese is currently writing a book whose subject matter is his marriage to Nan. I can’t wait!) I have the impression that Ms. Talese is a very capable and formidable publisher, and I would guess that her influence got Running the Books not a small share of the press it received.

In sum, my speculation is that a book gets press based on who the author and publisher are. As for why reviewers seem to favor the same books, I’d venture that this is a combination of professional courtesy, personal relationships, and horsetrading. Furthermore, reviewers don’t exactly replicate each other’s selection of books for reviews, so there is still scope for the exercise of individual judgement and room for differentiation in the literary pages. Readers can rest easy!

This entry was posted in Books and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Book Reviews

  1. O.G. says:

    You may find this to be of interest, in relation to the discussion above:

    It adds another dimension to your argument: a conscious effort is made to censor or curtail any negative press.

    • teasandbooks says:

      Thanks for the reference!

      Here is a piece from NPR that articulates their review policy. In it, NPR states, “Our philosophy is evolving with our success,” said Matazzoni [editor of NPR Arts & Life section]. “We started off a few years ago thinking our job was to try to find good books rather than cover the whole publishing world. We’ve gotten more ambitious about covering publishing and are doing more negative reviews.”

      I think this is a legitimate approach to book reviews, as long as reviewers are not pressured to be more positive about a book simply to get their reviews published. I would guess that at most big name publications (like NPR), any influence exerted on reviewers is, at most, subtle and not the actionable “Be positive, or we’re dropping your review” stance that Batya got. This is probably true for any organization whose reputation value exceeds any inducements made by authors/publishers.

    • teasandbooks says:

      Also, do you have any idea about the impact of a negative review relative to no review? How true is the statement “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”?

      • O.G. says:

        There was a study that showed that for unknown authors, bad publicity increased sales, but for popular authors had the opposite effect:

        Having some experience writing book reviews, I can say there is a certain amount of self-imposed etiquette at play, outside of whatever the publication’s policy is. You want to feel free to make critical comments, but you also feel a need to balance them or even lean toward the positive. So I can see that it might cause some discomfort if someone decided to deviate from what was generally considered appropriate and write a completely negative review. This is unfortunate; because it takes more courage to write a bad review, some of the most valid and important points can be lost, or relegated to the underground. And bad publicity, as you said, doesn’t necessarily hurt anything except somebody’s feelings.

        • teasandbooks says:

          Thanks for the excellent link! I’m always interested to see what hard data or empirical work has been done on questions of this type. Please (if you can, of course) drop me a line whenever you come upon cool studies like these. Thanks again.

        • teasandbooks says:

          As for your comment regarding reviewers’ “self-imposed etiquette”, I think that because reviewing is not a one-shot game, because reviewers interact repeatedly with editors, publishers, and authors, because reviewers have reputation that follow them, it makes sense that they come to internalize the values of the profession.

          I wonder why it is that the professional norm seems to be different in, say, academia where critical comments made at seminars/conferences/referee reports seem to be more expected and possibly more appreciated than the complimentary “I think you did that right.” Could it because reviewers are looking at final, finished products, while academics operate under the plausibility of critical, but constructive comments, i.e. “I’m telling you that you’re doing everything wrong, so that you can go back and fix things to make them better”?

          • O.G. says:

            That word “product” may be the key. A book from a mainstream publisher is indeed a product, and profit the bottom line. The reviews are part of the publicity material for the book, along with the blurbs and the press release; they are all expected to match up more or less. The largest publishers have enough pull to more or less commission reviews from the gatekeepers. The reviewers, significantly, are mostly published authors themselves, part of the same machine. So everyone falls in line. If you had a strong independent book reviewing profession you would probably see a lot more titles reviewed and a lot more variation in opinion. I think you do see this at the amateur and underground levels, in Amazon and Goodreads reviews and blogs, but of course with less quality control. In academia, the bottom line is the scholarship itself, so there is more freedom of expression, and the peer review process is the quality control.

            I’ll definitely look out for cool studies! I’ve been thinking of looking for one showing the decline in page count of periodicals. I read somewhere that the NYTBR has gone from 80+ pages to 20+ since the 1970s.

I think I'm getting addicted to comments. Please feed the addict & leave a reply.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s