Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Can a Review be TOO Good?

During the 1980s I wrote scores of book and software reviews, both standalone and in conjunction with magazine columns. For the most part I had positive things to say about what I reviewed because the products I was reviewing were good.

Only once was one of my reviews questioned. A week after I turned in a particularly glowing review of a game from a small publisher to one of the major computer magazines. the magazine’s editor phoned to ask whether the game was really that good.

“Yes, it is.” I told her.

“Do you mean you can’t say anything bad about it? Isn’t there anything wrong with the game?”

I thought about it. Why would she be asking this? Was my praise over the top? No. I knew it wasn't.

“No" I replied. "It really is that good! The game has a great plot. The artwork is excellent. Even the manual is good.”

“You can’t think of even one bad thing about it?” she persisted.

Now I started to become suspicious. “I'm sure I can find some really minor fault, if I look for it long enough.. But it would be irrelevant. Why do you want me to do this?”

“We had a call this morning. The publisher of this game has cut advertising down to bimonthly from monthly.”

Somewhere in the dim recesses of my brain, a metaphorical light bulb switched on. “Okay, I understand. I’ll E-mail a revision tomorrow.”

And I did indeed understand. Since the software publisher had reduced advertising, the magazine would reduce support to the publisher—in the form of making the product seem as if it were not as good as it really was. The American Way, I suppose.

To satisfy the editor's request, I cited some awkward passages in the game's manual. She wasn't satisfied with it, but she was on deadline and ended up cutting much of the manuscript anyway.

Naturally it occured to me that the bestselling status of some games was being bought, rather than earned. That would explain some really crummy games getting so much press ...

Yes, I was cynical, but I was a bit surprised, too. I had heard of payola, from the record company scandals of the 1950s and 1960s, all the way back to Vaudeville in the 1920s. But not in the 1980s—surely publishing was more enlightened than that.

But it wasn’t, and isn't. I can't cite any at the moment, but there are undoubtedly magazines today in which reviews are slanted one way or the other, depending on how much a publisher advertises.

Hence, some good books aren't reviewed because their publishers don't advertise. And sometimes useless books are reviewed and validated because the publisher advertises. And, now and then, bestsellers can be bought.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Signs that You've "Arrived" as a Writer?

By what benchmarks does one measure his success as a writer? Does selling over 100,000 copies of a book mean you've arrived? Or do you have to make the New York Times bestseller list to feel that you are really and truly a by-damn author?

Even though I have made the Times bestseller list and enjoyed six-figure sales, neither of those quite did it for me. The first time I felt I'd achieved the status of full-fledged author was when I saw one of my books in a used bookstore. It legitimized everything; here was proof that someone had actually bought my book, and thought enough of it to pass it along to someone else, rather than trash it.Of course there are downsides to this sort of validation. For one thing, I make no money on used-book sales. And it would be more flattering if more people kept the books.

Still, I really enjoy the idea of seeing my books available after they're out of print. And I know I can always find a copy of a book when I've given away all my copies.
Addendum: Another commentary on this subject will be found in an earlier post, "6 Ways to Know if You're a Successful Writer" (which also appeared in The Writer magazine in 2006).

* That book that made the bestseller list was my co-authored CROSLEY: Two Brothers and a Business Empire that Transformed the Nation (Clerisy Press, 2006).