What’s the optimal number of book reviews?

by on May 7, 2007 at 7:03 am in Books | Permalink

Virginia Postrel writes:

As an author, I want more book reviews; quantity matters more than
quality when you’re going for sheer exposure.  But as a reader, I only
want more interesting reviews, particularly of books I’m not likely to
learn about otherwise.

Newspaper book reviews, of course, are declining in number.  Here is New York Times coverage of the phenomenon.

I can think of three functions for book reviews:

1. They help people learn about good books.  If this is true, we should expect a market optimum.

2. No one much uses book reviews, but they make newspapers feel like more prestigious products.  In this case book reviews would be an inefficient form of product differentiation by making The New York Times appear more different from The New York Post than readers ideally would like.  There would be too many book reviews.

3. People use book reviews as a substitute for reading the books themselves.  I call this "book reviews as signaling."  Abolish the reviews and either a) people will have to go read the books (an even more wasteful form of signalling), or b) people will forget about literary matters altogether, which lowers signalling costs.

I use book reviews as I would use ads for books and blurbs for books.  I just want the bottom line.  I would be happier if newspapers published many more one-paragraph book reviews, but with very clear and definite evaluations.  Entertainment Weekly does just this, although I find their taste in books unreliable.  Nonetheless I am not alone in my preference, and I believe that few people read long book reviews.  That makes me think there is something to #2.

1 blink May 7, 2007 at 7:51 am

I see long book reviews as signaling reviewer quality: in order to write a longer, coherent review, one must actually read the book. I give more weight to a long review (even one I do not read) than to a blurb (assuming similar repulations of reviewers).

Don’t forget, too, that reviews can be read for entertainment, sort of like gossiping about movies. (I often read movie reviews after seeing a movie, but rarely before.) To the extent that one prefers short, pointed reviews, does Amazon’s system suffice? The system has a builit in reputational mechanism and even requires a “bottom line” assessment in terms of stars!

2 RWB May 7, 2007 at 8:05 am

One function of a book review that sort of combines 1 and 3 is to warn you against investing time and money in a bad book. If a book comes with a reputation attached to because of the author’s past work or prepublication hype, a review that shows why that prepublication reputation was undeserved serves a really valuable function for the reader (but not the author or publisher).

3 Paul McMahon May 7, 2007 at 8:37 am

Sometimes the review is itself newsworthy. For example, there was last Friday’s review of Tenet’s book by Douglas Feith (available at Opinionjournal.com). As such, should this be an additional reason to see a review?

4 thom May 7, 2007 at 8:48 am

The problem with book reviews is that the reviewer doesn’t have much incentive to read the book. Payment is typically very low and monitoring costs fairly high (the whole point of getting someone to write the review is so you don’t have to yourself).

When payment for copy is on a per word basis, more, shorter, book reviews will certainly mean poor quality.

5 Bill Harshaw May 7, 2007 at 9:16 am

Books are just one of the competitors for my time. If I see a good review in the NYTimes, Wpost, NYReview or in a blog, fine. I’ll get it from the library and try it. But if I don’t see reviews, I may spend more time surfing blogs, or gardening, or whatever.

6 jonm May 7, 2007 at 10:12 am

Films, albums and restaurants are generally reviewed and previewed with a star or grade rating, but the same is not true of books, plays, art exhibits, and live music. I find this frustrating, and my suspicion is that there is a tight and cosy relationship between the producers, promoters and reviewers of plays and the like, but I can’t see why most book reviews should not use a simple rating.

The folks at The Complete Review, who collate and grade other reviews, are a welcome exception here.

7 Sean May 7, 2007 at 11:23 am

Book reviews, like newspapers, simply do not have the same relevance they once did. With the instant information provided by the internet we are able to access reviews that more succinctly align with our specific interests. Using Amazon.com as an example, I can read reviews by people who tastes closely align with my own. As well, with Amazon suggestions I am often informed of books I will like without the trouble of having to research and find news books on my own.

8 Robert Book May 7, 2007 at 1:00 pm

I read book reviews in part because I don’t have time to read all the books. I don’t see how that involves “signaling” — who would I be signalling?

9 srp May 7, 2007 at 7:32 pm

Reading reviews as substitutes for reading books is not a scam, but a time-saver. I always note that I’ve only read the reviews if that is the case when I discuss it with someone. It’s not like there’s something to prove.

10 Paul N May 7, 2007 at 10:02 pm

When I get to the book reviews in Reason then I toss it in the trash and go to bed.

11 Zubon May 8, 2007 at 8:20 am

srp: Then you are not using the reviews to signal. Kevin B. O’Reilly expresses much the same view. Instead of getting the bottom line about the book, you want the bottom line from the book. This seems like a viable strategy for much non-fiction.

12 knackeredhack May 8, 2007 at 4:27 pm

“I see long book reviews as signaling reviewer quality:”

I had just posted a long book review on my blog when I read this comment. Gee, thanks!

13 Matthew Tiffany May 9, 2007 at 4:46 pm

Three.

What irks the most is when big-name authors get mountains of reviews in every publication there is – as though Stephen King aficionados might not know he’s got a new book coming – or we get sucked into Pessl “let’s all review the attractive author” – when really, a few reviews would suffice and perhaps leave room for more diversity.

14 Outsourced Product Development Center May 30, 2007 at 7:24 am

More the brand is marketed or talked about it gives an idea that this thing is good nad important.So these kinds of reviews make you to come accros some really good stuff.

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