Saturday, March 28, 2009

Book Review Editors: Wake Up and Smell the Evanovich

By Karen Neches

Every year Publishers Weekly puts out a list of the years’ bestselling adult novels. The list is interesting for several reasons. First off, it actually lists the number of copies sold. Unlike film studios, publishers are often coy about numbers of copies sold. (even to their authors). So it’s fascinating to see the actual numbers in black and white.

Another interesting point: Bestselling authors, who regularly make the Times list, have wide differences in their sales records. Janet Evanovich’s Fearless Fourteen sold 1,058, 427 copies in 2008, making her the sixth bestselling author on the list (John Grisham is number one.) In contrast, John Updike sold 101,000 copies of Widows of Eastwick.

Genre fiction dominates the list. Americans love their thrillers, mysteries and love stories. But, and no surprise here, they don’t buy a whole lot literary fiction. Salman Rusdie, Andres Dubus, Gerald Brooks and Jhumpa Lahiri made appearances (all sold less 300,000 copies) but that was about it.

Which brings me to the point of this essay. Publishers Marketplace keeps an archive of book reviews from newspapers across the country. Guess how many reviews there were of Fearless Fourteen, a novel that sold over a million copies?


In contrast, Enchantress of Florence by Salam Rushdie sold 105,512. It garnered a whopping 21 reviews.

I can already hear the outrage. Janet Evanovich is no Salam Rushdie. Maybe she isn’t. But over a million people in this country laid down money for her book. Not so much for Salam.

People have been lamenting the loss of book review sections in newspaper recently. Is it possible that these sections have dug their own graves by being too pretentious, and consistently ignoring the tastes of the average reader?

Imagine if entertainment editors ran their sections the way book editors do:

Yes, dear readers, we refuse to review the latest blockbuster action flick or romantic comedy because we’ve decided they’re too trite and commercial. Instead we’ll be devoting all of our space to a few obscure yet important indie films.

Way to kill that section.

Book reviewers might defend their choice of books, by saying, “Our readers are sophisticated. They don’t care about the latest Janet Evanovich.”

Good point. I’m not saying book review sections should ignore literary books in favor of popular books. I’m saying the reviewers are shooting themselves in the foot by refusing to give any ink to novels that people actually read.

If they reviewed popular novels, maybe, instead of turning off their core readership, (the lit snobs can just skip the Evanovich review) they’d actually gain more readers. And isn’t that what every editor is looking for? More readers?

I’m not trying to make an argument about the merits of literary fiction versus popular fiction. I like them both. But I don’t enjoy reading most book review sections because they’re too heavily weighted towards obscure literary novels. If I, a voracious reader of both literary and mainstream fictions, don’t relate to most book review sections, I’m wondering how many people do.

And while I’m on the soapbox, studies show more women than men read novels. (Big shocker, right?) Yet, women’s novels get short shrift in review sections. In 2008, major book reviewers deigned to review John Grisham’s The Appeal five times. Nicholas Spark’s The Lucky One also got a few mentions. Most heavy hitter women novelists did not.

So who are book reviewers trying to please exactly? THEMSELVES, of course. When it comes down to it, they did not become reviewers to critique the antics of Stephanie Plum. (Janet Evanovich’s popular protag, if you’re not in the know.) And that’s why these sections are disappearing.

If book review sections want to survive, the editors need to take into consideration what the American is actually reading, and not what they’d like them to read.


Sybil said...

I think you make some very valid points here. Jennifer Weiner (author of In Her Shoes and Good In Bed) would agree with you--she writes in her blog from time to time about this very problem. I write fiction and teach literature--so I'm no enemy of literary book reviews, but I too am amazed at how male literary writers and their books dominate most book review sections. Good post.

Jayne Jaudon Ferrer said...

Well said, Karin. My book club periodically reads those books we "should" read, but those lofty tomes don't hold a candle to Stephanie Plum and Cassandra Moon and Mavis Loomis and Elner Shimfissle. I'm betting that books are here to stay, but it's not looking too promising for newspapers; perhaps a little less loft and a little more levity might serve them well.