Thursday, January 12, 2006

Razzle Dazzle 'em

If you’ve ever seen the musical (or the movie) Chicago, you know that the title refers to the courtroom scene where Billy tells Roxie,

“Give 'em the old razzle dazzle
Razzle dazzle 'em
Give 'em act with lots of flash in it
And the reaction will be passionate
Give 'em the old hocus pocus
Bread and feather 'em
How can they see with sequins in their eyes?”

The Razzle Dazzle in this case has to do with reviews. I was going to start on the whole “What I think works and doesn’t work at the bookstore level” marketing/publicity column when I noticed there seemed to be some uproar going on. Something about authors having their friends and followers pad their reviews on Amazon with glowing words of praise, while negative reviews are taken down.

Now I cannot say anything about Amazon’s policy on negative reviews, but the idea of padding a book’s reviews with positive ones? As far as I know that’s an industry-wide practice. I used to be involved with a small press, and it was common practice for the editor or someone at the company to post reviews on Amazon. We were even instructed to not make them too glow-y, to go ahead and point out some faults, but to make the overall review a positive one.

And it’s not only review sites like Amazon that you have to be careful of; those little blurbs from other authors on the backs (and sometimes the front) of books? For every author that really means what they write for the blurb, there is one who just jots off some off-hand response. I’m not saying that every author does it, or that your favorite author does, simply that it is done. It’s only twenty to twenty-five words, and the publisher/agent/friend says that they would love it, so it’s okay, right? They’re just doing someone a favor.

Kind makes you feel dirty, huh?

The thing is that you’d never be able to tell and who’d want to believe that of your favorite author. Look at the blurbs from other authors on the back of some of your newest books. What to other authors say about the story, the author? What does that tell you?

Not a whole hell of a lot. There’s not a lot of room to say much, people tune out during long blurbs. Short and to the point sells books. It’s the same reason that whole reviews by newspaper reviewers aren’t included, just salient points broken with ellipses.

Ah, ellipses. They make for some nice creative excerpting. Oops.

Are all blurbs lies? Of course not. People can check reviews. A lot of authors out there genuinely mean what they write for others.

Are all Amazon reviews biased love for the author left by one of their fangirl/boy followers? No, take a look at Harriet Klausner.

Blurbs and reviews are just part of the Razzle Dazzle show that publicists and marketers put on for readers. They serve two purposes:

  • to reassure those readers who need the reassurance that someone else loves this book (so obviously they’ll love it too)

  • and to piggyback off the other author’s following (for example, if author X writes a glowing review on author Y’s book, then author X’s readers might think that author Y is like author X. It’s a form of branding really with author X acting as the brand). Take a look at the Freakonomics cover again. Levitt and Dubner are using Gladwell’s name prominently for a reason.

And bad reviews and scandals don’t necessarily mean bad sales, look at Frey. It all depends on how you spin it, or who you’re paying to spin it for you.

While I do read reviews in print or on the net and blurbs on books, I tend to take it all with a little salt (a slice of lime, and a shot of tequila). They’re a tool, one I use to gage customer interest and actual book content. Any review, positive or negative, that backs up its statements is a good review in my opinion because it allows me to distill the information that I need.

I try not to let the sequins get in the way.

"Give 'em the old three ring circus
Stun and stagger 'em
When you're in trouble, go into your dance
Though you are stiffer than a girder
They'll let you get away with murder

Razzle dazzle 'em
And you've got a romance


Kate R said...

did you read the whole Romancing the Blog bushwa about this? I thought it was a lot of fun. . .break out the brewskis, as ferfe said.

Anonymous said...

Jason Evans says...Bookseller Chick's blog is more life-giving to the bleary-eyed internet than Starbucks in the morning. Frothed with edge and humor and just a sprinkle of mischieviousness, she serves it straight. Bring your own sugar.

Bookseller Chick said...

Kate, I did. What amuses me is that whole "Authors should only be reviewed other authors" argument, completely discounts that whole incident Curtis Sittenfeld ripped Melissa Banks (and her book, the Wonder Spot) a new one. Ms. Curtis "My book is not Chick-Lit" Sittenfeld clearly had an ax to grind. Would you want her to review your book?

I think not. And there are numerous cases in the NYT Book Review alone where the author reviewing the other author is either super-gushy or hypercritical. I actually planned on writing about that, but the whole romancing the Blog issues made me restructure to include Amazon reviews (which I hate, by the way, I can't even count on them for music or movies, seriously pisses me off). If I'd had more time last night I would have gone in to the author reviewing author (badly) portion of the argument, but it was crime procedural night at my house and I was ignoring my friend. As it was I made him read over the blog entry to see if I was coherent. Poor guy.

Hey, Jason. You made me short. I'm so glad I wasn't drinking coffee because it would have been all over my keyboard and I wouldn't be typing this now (I'd be finding a repair shop and explaining how this wasn't my fault). I mean, wow, no man has told me I'm better than coffee, and that would make a great blurb for the top of my blog. (flutters lashes)

Anonymous said...

LOL! I've never been accused of making a woman "short" before. =D Those pesky typos....

I would be most honored to be a testimonial for the top of your blog!! Glad you liked it.

Bookseller Chick said...

Damn it. I meant snort, I know I did. Or maybe I did feel short, just a tall and not quite a grande cup of coffee.

Note to self: do not respond to comments unless you've consumed a cup or more of java or tea.

Ron Franscell said...

I'm an author, veteran newspaperman and book reviewer. Although I don't subscribe to the notion that only authors should review books, I'll stand up for author/reviewers who tend to have a perspective about the craft that nobody else truly can. Does that always lend depth and complexity to their criticism? Not necessarily, but it's nice when it does.

As far as blurbing (which is different from reviewing) ... I have never blurbed another writer's book sight-unseen nor with a pre-arranged tilt. And no author -- even friends -- have ever blurbed a book of mine without reading it fully and being satisfied it met their standards.

On the other hand, as a reviewer, I have -- alas -- given bad reviews to authors I like immensely, and good reviews to authors I have generally disliked (personally or professionally) in the past.

Do some authors "log-roll" -- or simply lend their names and endorsements to other authors/books without really judging the book itself? Hasn't happened to me, but I'd imagine so. Nonetheless, these days, reputation is a delicate beast for all but a handful of superstar writers (who seldom blurb books anyway.)

Don't be too cynical about blurbs. I truly don't think printed reviews outside of the New York Times Book Review hurt nor help a book as much as authors and editors think, and blurbs have even less impact. Anyway, the reader who buys a book simply because another author says "It's a heartbreaking work of staggering genius!" probably deserves to be separated from his money for such shallow standards.

Bookseller Chick said...

Ron, thanks for responding. I'm glad to hear that you and those you know do not participate in endorsements that you don't believe in, if only I could get reassurances with everyone. The instances I know of are all literary authors, although I think it happens more in other genres. Sadly, that blurb can make a lot of difference, more than you would think. I cannot tell you how many times I've had a customer come to buy a book, and when I asked them why they picked that new release they say, "(fill in the blank with name of choice) liked it, so they must be similar." The fact that an author/reviewer might be able or even want to review out of their chosen writing style doesn't even occur to them.

In the absence of a blurb, these are the same people who will ask the bookseller if they've read the book, and become angry if the bookseller says no. The other day a woman came up to our counter, and asked my coworker if she'd read some book (I can't remember the title). The coworker told her no, so the woman repeated her question to my other coworker standing next to her. When this coworker also answered no, the woman slammed the book down on the counter and asked, "Well then why should I read it?" before storming out the door. Her husband followed her, loudly complaining that my coworkers were not doing the jobs they were hired for.

Apparently we were hired to stand around and read books all day, and I just missed that memo.

We've created a society that--for the most part--thrives on the approval of others, while coveting what they have. For many of them, buying a book that doesn't come with good print reviews, blurbs, or friend recommendations would be completely out of the question.

These are not stupid people, they've just become so dependent on advertising in some form or another that they feel that they cannot make an informed decision about books or any other material product on their own. These are these are the people shaped by the mall culture that Paco Underhill writes about.

Do I sometimes want to shake them, and force them to buy something out of their prescribed shopping habits? Oh Lordy yes. Instead I just staple on my best customer service smile ('cause staples make for the best and most natural cheek dimples), and talk them into buying a book they would have never touched by sighting reader testimonials, "Oh, we all just loved it. The writing was so (fill in your adjective), and the plot..." and layering on the reassurances, "but if you don't like it, feel free to return the book to us."

In five years, I've never had a book returned.

As for author/reviewers, reader/reviewers, and print reviewers, I do think that there are many who do their jobs and do their jobs well. Like I said, "Any review, positive or negative, that backs up its statements is a good review in my opinion because it allows me to distill the information that I need." By backing up those statements of hate or love, I'm able to gage whether I might agree with the reviewer. It's entirely possible (and has happened before) that a glowing, but well thought out and supported review, can turn me off a book because of my own personal history. What one person sees as loving characteristics, I might view as verging on stalking. Where one person doesn't get the motivation for a certain character action, I might empathize due to a similiar situation. We all bring something different to the table when we review, which is why we must support our positive or negative assertions.

Thank you for stopping by and leaving your comment, not only was it appreciated, but it got me thinking. I hope that I'm at least verging on coherent with my response, but I realize that I might be asking too much of myself--the coffee has yet to kick in. I look forward to reading what you think.

Ron Franscell said...

Are you kidding? You educated me! As an author (and newspaperman) I want to think the best of readers, but they often give me pause. My amateur observations about book-buying behavior pale in comparison to your front-line, professional observations.

The fact that John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" didn't sell more than a million copies between 1952 and 2003 is an interesting fact .... because when it was anointed by Oprah in 2003, it sold over a million within a couple weeks. God, it's a great book, but people only came to it on the recommendation of a flamboyant talk show host! I have always wondered exactly what percentage of Oprah readers read, finished, understood and appreciated the book fully ... and how many just bought it because Oprah said to buy it.

(Disclaimer: I'd love to be recommended by Oprah, but candidly she has transformed book marketing, not necessarily book reading.)

Many forces at work today -- blurbs, reviews, book-shelving, packaging, a major shift in book editing and publishing, etc. -- make a reader's choices very hard, so I appreciate every little "clue" that helps them purchase a book. At $27 a pop for hardcover, I think basing it on one blurb, one review or one TV talk show host is probably risky, but perhaps it doesn't matter.

(As an aside, I'm a regular NPR commentator and my commentary today on All Things Considered is about the James Frey/JT Leroy fooferaw.)

BS Chick, I love your thinking on all this. I'll be back ... a lot.

Ron Franscell

Bookseller Chick said...

Ron, I think that there are readers out there that do still take their time, browse the whole store, and make an educated decision. They are the ones who research their books--actually reading all the reviews as opposed to just taking the blurbs at face value--and they do this for whatever they are reading: literature, scifi/fantasy, romance, mystery, etc. Still the great majority of my buyers do not because that takes time, and as one of my customers told me once (because I was making him wait so that I could put change in my drawer), "Miss, my time is money."

For every reader that goes out and buys the corresponding CD so they can set the mood for Mozart's biography, there's the person who rushes in and has to make a split-second decision. Maybe they forgot the book they were reading at home, or the need something for the bus, or hell, who knew that waiting to picked for jury duty would take so long. They don't have time for the long browse, so they rely on their first impressions.

This doesn't make them any less intelligent or well read. They may save their browsing for the internet (because Amazon never closes) or for their local suburban store on the weekends when they have the time to really look around. People tend to look around a lot longer in suburban stores (from my experience) and make them the destination instead of just a stop along the way.

Re: Steinbeck. That was when I first realized the power of Oprah (and yes, given the possibility I would love for her to "sell" me too. I'm no Franzen). I had customers who didn't even realize he was dead, let alone that the book had been out for fifty years. They were just buying it because Oprah said to.

There are times when I think that if Oprah just put her name on the Presidential Ballot as an Independent, the established parties would have a real fight on their hands.

Please pardon my typos, I haven't had my caffeine yet.