Continuing the theme of the bits of publishing you may not see as a reader - this time: the fraught topic of trade reviews!
Part of the context for this is that traditional publishing (i.e. not self-publishing) puts out a HUGE quantity of books every year. You are probably thinking, oh, like, a few hundred a month? No. More. The top ten publishers combined put out 32,600 books in 2022. About 2700/month.
Now my previous post on book reps who help identify for bookstores what might suit their market makes sense, right? Every season, catalogues come out from each publisher with far more titles than an overworked bookseller can possibly digest. Book reps help navigate that tsunami.
Another tool to help identify books of interest: trade reviews. These are magazines (often just websites now) that exist to review books. Their target audience is not the general public, but book industry people. Booksellers, librarians, cultural critics, media.
The reviews are very very short, usually with one particularly quotable line that can be used by media, authors, and publishers. Review quotes get added to the book data and will show up in book listings on online retailers, they will be added to media pitches.
They can't review everything, so for a book to get a review at all is a fairly big deal. Reviews
can be bad, good, or "starred" which is how they identify the books they particularly loved or thought were noteworthy.
Each review is just the opinion of one person but, rightly or wrongly, the reviews can lend credibility to a book, suggesting that it's worth paying attention to more than others. Which can help land more media exposure. And they can give authors happy news to share in the lead-up to release day.
Some of the key trade reviewers that cover adult fiction: Kirkus Review, Library Journal, BookList (the review journal of the American Library Association), and Publisher's Weekly.
How do books come to be reviewed in these places?
it starts with the Book Editors. Publishers may submit books with a pitch letter or press release that highlights to the review editor why the book is worth covering. Or book editors are plugged-in in other ways. There is only time and space to review some books, so editors are looking for books that they feel are significant or promising in some way.
Book Editors select books and then feed them out to their own freelancer contacts for review. Sometimes the editor knows someone who is particularly interested in the topic of a book and will approach them for a review. Some places keep the reviewers anonymous, some name them.
What impact do these reviews have? Will they make or break a book?
Multiple positive, or even better, starred reviews can help draw attention to a book. Booksellers and librarians are more likely to notice it and order it. Media might take more notice. This is all part of the alchemy of building buzz around a book so it stands out from the thousands of others coming out that month. There are no guarantees - books can get multiple starred reviews and still appear in the world without much of a splash, but positive trade reviews help create conditions for something to become a breakout hit or a book that folks will talk about.
Bad reviews? No one wants to say what impact bad reviews have. They certainly don't help to build buzz. Bad trade reviews are hard on authors, particularly when the plot summary is incorrect, as it reveals the fallible and subjective nature of reviewers. Maybe they weren't the right target audience for the story, maybe the book featured a trope they hate, maybe they were having a bad week when they read it. Whatever the conditions, the bad review gets published and now the weight of that one opinion - that we're all happy to celebrate when it's positive - feels disproportionate in its ability to influence a book's future.
It's definitely not a perfect system. Stories are so varied in their intent - some are written to amuse or entertain, some to explore the human condition, some to be experiments in literary form - and every reader brings different understandings, assumptions, and openness when they read. The magic is when those two things align. And no review can tell you when that will happen, you just have to try a book out for yourself.
Self promo section:
Adrift got some notice in Library Journal and Booklist!