I am an odd mixture of idealist and cynic. I tend to think the best of people and believe them at face value (read: gullible) except for politicians, corporate executives, and celebrity gossipers. So imagine my surprise and horror at reading “Social Media Scamsters” by Laura Miller (full article can be found here: http://www.salon.com/2012/08/09/social_media_scamsters/). Apparently–and this never occurred to me for some inexplicable reason, authors will hire companies to write fake reviews: “In addition to services that will churn out fake five-star Amazon ‘reader’ reviews for a fee, an author can hire a company to produce his Twitter feed, faking a relationship with his fans (if he has any to begin with) in a medium that once promised a form of direct contact.” I was disillusioned. Why? Because I trust reader reviews and use them as a way to find new books to read. As Laura Miller’s friends agreed together, “‘You always have to read the reader reviews first, before you buy anything…'” Unfortunately, this was my approach, too. I would see a title in a magazine or a bookstore and then look it up online to see what other readers were saying. I don’t necessarily go to traditional reviewers from newspapers, because I’m at the whim of the personal opinions of the reviewer. I went for breadth rather than depth, quantity rather than quality, for my reviews. Browse through the reviews, see what they say, buy or not buy. A fairly simple process. Now I’m not so sure who I can trust.
Part of the problem is that I struggle enough as is just narrowing down the huge flood of books that come out every week. Yes, we always have obvious frontrunners appearing at the big display when we walk into the bookstore (but is based on the actual quality of the book or the size of the marketing budget?), and the New York Times bestseller list can give us a few suggestions. But the sheer volume of publication is staggering–not only do we have the titles from the dozens (if not hundreds) of publishers pouring out on every subject in every style, we also face the river rapids of self-published works. I don’t even know where to turn anymore or where to begin. I walk into a bookstore and feel almost paralyzed by the options. And online retailers are no longer very helpful. Unless you know the exact title and author of the book you’re searching for, online booksellers are fairly useless. For one thing, Amazon sells much more than books, so their welcome page is cluttered with ads for other items based on the cookies that your computer has accumulated. And believe you me, these cookies can be wildly inaccurate. I recently looked up what Google guessed about my interests, gender, and personality based on what I had browsed on the Internet, and apparently I’m a 65-year-old woman who enjoys hip-hop and the urban music scene.
Another problem with these recommendations is that they’re based on subject matter, not style. And Amazon also gives recommendations based just on what you’ve searched, not what you’ve actually bought. For example, I looked up a bunch of Western philosophy books for market research for a book I’m content editing, and now I have a bunch of recommendations for philosophy and metaphysics. Rather than giving me similar titles based on style, syntax, or author, I end up with a list that isn’t tailored to my taste, just my interests. Amazon lacks the sophisticated tools of recommendations in other media: Pandora, the online music radio, has devised a music “genome” so that the music it generates for you is based on over 2,000 focus traits such as syncopation, key, harmonies, etc. Amazon doesn’t provide suggestions based on the underlying features and architecture of the writing, just the superficial traits and characteristics.
Now I can’t even trust reviews. Stephen Leather, a British author, admitted, “‘As soon as my book is out I’m on Facebook and Twitter several times a day talking about it. I’ll go on to several forums, the well-known forums, and post there under my name and under various other names and various other characters. You build up this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself.'” Of course, you can sift through the many reviews from Publishers Weekly an mainstream newspapers, and a simple search of the book title plus “review” can yield some helpful search results.
I was talking to my boyfriend about this problem I have in finding new stuff to read. I feel so overwhelmed by the vast number of titles appearing weekly that I don’t know where to begin. As he has a BFA in film, I asked him why it seems so much easier to find movies you might like over books you might like. First, I mentioned that there’s no one reliable site for books like Rotten Tomatoes for movies. Yes, you can read the NY Times review, but again, that’s only one reviewer. Rotten Tomatoes is the consensus of hundreds or thousands of reviews. Yes, of course, some people could generate false reviews, but the number of people reviewing a movie far outweighs the number of people appearing on forums and reviewing books. You get a better picture of the quality of the movie because you have more input that might drown out the false reviews.
Second, the number of movies that are readily available to the public is much fewer than books. Yes, hundreds of movies come out a year, but the ones that appear in most movie theaters are limited. There’s a smaller selection, whereas books come out in the dozens from large publishers all yelling into the foray, creating white noise where reviews and recommendations once lived. This leads me to my third point that finding a possible movie to watch takes less time than checking out a book. Serious book browsers have to take the time to open the book, read the inside flap, then the first few pages to see if they like the subject and style. This process can take anywhere from 1 to 20 minutes. By contrast, movies come out in clips and trailers that usually last no longer than 2.5 minutes and require less brain activity to process. Also, these trailers are ubiquitous: on YouTube, on TV, in movie theaters. Books don’t receive the same level of advertising.
There are of course some similarities between the two media. Books are often sold based on author, just as movies are advertised based on director and/or the actors featured in the film. Yet, there are relatively few authors who have attained this household-name celebrity status–the first few that come off the top of my head are Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and so on. And these authors primarily write fiction. Try to think of three tremendously popular nonfiction writers. Can’t think of any? Me neither. Instead, books come out in mass quantities by lesser-known or new authors just trying to get a shout into the din.
When I walk into a bookstore or library, I’m at a loss. I don’t know which way to turn. I can trust the recommendation of a friend, check out what books are recommended by the staff, look at the featured titles on the display tables. But how am I going to know which book I will truly enjoy? At this point, I’ve decided that the best method is one of the oldest methods: guess and check. Pick a book up, read a few pages, then make a best estimate based on what I’ve read so far. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s what I have. I’m currently hoping for an invitation from the new site Riffle (more info at http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/retailing/article/52628-could-riffle-be-the-pinterest-of-book-discovery-.html) which seeks to whittle down the amount of people writing reviews for a more streamlined recommendation system. However, the site only admits users on invitation, so for now I’m out of luck.
No matter what method I use, I’m still an avid reader. I’ll never read everything. After all, there’s only so much you can consume. But perhaps it’s the journey of finding great books that makes the trip so worthwhile. You read good books, okay books, mediocre books, bad books until you find one that truly touches your heart and engages your mind. It gets a special place on your bookshelf and/or in your memory, because you have to read a few bad books to appreciate a truly spectacular one.