Archives for category: Reviews

We seem to be racing down the slope leading to our never being able to trust anything we read online. Of course we’ve always known, haven’t we, that much of what we read in print may not be exactly true, but the move into the digital world has vastly increased the potential for this nonsense. Last year The Scholarly Kitchen, in the person of Rick Anderson, described a rather formalized scam:

  • The Company would supply me with scholarly books in my area of expertise.
  • I would write reviews of the books.
  • The company would provide me the name of a “co-author.” The Company’s preference is that this person be listed as as the sole author of the review, but if I insisted I could be listed as the second (and corresponding) author.
  • For each ghostwritten review I succeeded at publishing under that person’s name in a Web of Science-indexed journal, I would be paid an honorarium of $800.

In a way it’s a bit surprising that “The Company” bothers with books and real reviews of the books —what after all’s so wrong with purely fictitious reviews of purely fictitious works — but I guess their business model is to bolster academics who need to show that they have managed to get published, even if it’s only as a book reviewer. A fee of $800 sounds like there must be quite a bit of desperation out there.

I wonder if “The Company” is still making this offer to ghostwriters — one might think that an AI-powered chatbot might be able to write a nice fictitious review for a good deal less than $800.

See also Sock puppetry.

Jane Friedman’s story about two TikTok successes is full of good advice about promoting your books on TikTok. She tells us “more authors than ever are wondering if they ought to join for the sake of book marketing and promotion.” Of course self-promotion isn’t for everyone: if it’s not for you, perhaps you can get your family to help —

People Magazine (link via BookRiot) brings us an account of the success generated for a twelve-year-old book, Stone Maidens by Lloyd Devereaux Richards, by a new TikTok account opened by the author’s daughter. “The first TikTok she created about her father’s story was viewed more than 43 million times, and received more than 9.6 million likes.”

Sales of Stone Maidens had been pretty desultory upon first publication but now they’ve taken off. Let’s hope Thomas & Mercer, an Amazon imprint, can keep up with demand for their number 1 bestseller. Presumably they are banging them out at CreateSpace using their POD capabilities.

LitHub has a piece by Leigh Stein scolding us for ignoring BookTok: at a recent conference apparently of 120 writers in attendance, only one had previously heard of Colleen Hoover who just three days before had published her latest romance which sold 800,000 on its first day out. Apparently in 2022 fiction was the book category with the largest increase in sales, 21% — without Colleen Hoover that would have been 3%. If she hadn’t had a BookTok presence Ms Hoover would of course have sold some books, but how many fewer? “The hype, and the backlash to that hype, have helped to make BookTok into the most powerful word-of-mouth engine the book publishing industry has ever seen. According to Publishers Lunch, the top 90 BookTok authors saw their cumulative sales go from nine million units in 2020 to 20 million in 2021.”

All this forces you to think “What is it about TikTok that sells books?” The word to use is “discoverability” apparently.* It seems unbelievable, but there are, it seems, lots of people out there who’d love books but are ignorant of their individual existence. If you like books about serial killers, it is apparently quite easy to remain ignorant of the publication of a new book about your subject. Of course there’s more to it than that. You can’t just have Simon & Schuster’s marketing department take to social media, and blast out stories — even an idiot can figure out that the publisher might have a vested interest in trying to contact you. To my mind rather embarrassingly some publishers are employing “influencers” to talk up their books on social media, disguising the fact that they are shilling for the publisher. By its very nature the success or otherwise of this sort of commercial flim-flam is unlikely ever to be revealed, but I suspect readers can discriminate to some extent at least. The secret seems to hover around hearing someone you trust enthuse about the book. But it’s got to feel real; not the George Burns joke version of “Sincerity — if you can fake that, you’ve got it made”!

See also Social media lessons.


*The other new discoverability route is SVOD (streaming video on demand) which not only has a voracious appetite for book content, but is vigorously motivating its viewers to seek out such material, whether the book the video was based on or related content.

While we may legitimately be concerned about the continuing reduction of review space in the popular media, the book review remains a fixture in academic discourse, especially in the humanities.* And while newspapers and magazines have reduced their space for book coverage the loss has been more than made up for by the advent of a massive amount of online reviewing. Now of course, as with all online writing, it is difficult to assess the quality of the overall output, but individual readers will tend to follow sites which suit them and in which they develop a confidence — not altogether different from deciding to take out a subscription to The Times Literary Supplement.

When did book reviewing originate? The Bryn Mawr Classical Review carries a piece entitled On Reviewing Books in Classical Antiquity by Ralph Rosen in which Professor Rosen tells us that the invention has usually been attributed to Photius, the ninth-century patriarch of Constantinople, who wrote his Bibliotheca as “an offering and consolation to his brother Tarasius, a summary of books that he had read over a long period of time” — a summary yes, but of 279 books! However Professor Rosen himself attributes the invention to Socrates as recorded by Plato; he is caught in Phaedo trashing a book by Anaxagoras.

Now of course we may not wish to attribute “review” status to discussions of books in other books. (Academic discourse might be a better term!) We may legitimately require the existence of a publication whose purpose is the reviewing of recent books. If so, we really need to wait till the mid-eighteenth century when The Monthly Review (1749-1844) and Critical Review (1756-1817) started up. Their growth was dependent on the simultaneous expansion of the London publishing market, plus no doubt increasing literacy. Many early book review journals were owned by book publishers and inevitably there developed a tendency for puffery of the proprietor’s publications to preponderate.

The nineteenth century saw the origin of quarterly review media: a new form of intellectual journal. The pioneer was the Edinburgh Review (1802-1929), closely followed by the Quarterly Review (1809-1967). The quarterlies tended to be conservative in their taste. With increases in output of books facilitated by the invention of the rotary press and the mechanization of paper making, more and more weekly review journals were published. Quite soon the monthly reviews began to publish serialized novels alongside their criticism, and by mid-century this practice was quite common. Is it odd that this hasn’t caught on again? By the middle of the century newspapers had started to include book reviews regularly, and this applied to local publications as well as the London-based papers.

Thus the state of book reviewing continued into the last decades of the twentieth century: not until the growth of online media did much in the way of change come to pass. Will the TLS and the New York Review of Books be around as we move into the next century? I’d incline to a Yes. What about the likes of say The Sewanee Review? More of a Maybe, maybe. But of the making of book reviews there is no end. A good review from an important publication will sell books. TikTok is a new and powerful review medium. A good review on an NPR program will also drive people into their bookshop. A controversial review is better than no review. No review is undesirable — well, a real panning might be an exception to that rule.

Thanks to Jeremy Mynott for the link to Professor Rosen’s essay.


* Though some academic journals have already abandoned the reviewing of books.

Peter Brooks’ Seduced by Story: The Uses and Abuses of Narrative is one of the dark horses of 2022’s best books listings. But having read it I can see why it gets recommended. It reaches into the back of your mind, and asks you to examine what it is that you get from reading novels.

“There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.” says Tyrion Lannister at the end of Game of Thrones. Professor Brooks warns us particularly about the last bit of that: stories are everywhere in our lives, and propel commercial, legal, and political narratives. A convincing story told by an unscrupulous and dishonest politician can grip the imagination of its hearers and propel a nation down an unanticipated back alley. I first drafted this on January the sixth — need one say more? (Two days later the Brazilians confirm that truth.) Almost unnecessary for Professor Brooks to suggest that we need more work on our critical reactions to narrative.

Hardly surprisingly for an Emeritus Professor of Comparative Literature, Professor Brooks deploys an astoundingly wide array of reference in support of his compact study: Balzac, Barthes, Borges, Brontë (Charlotte), Cardozo and other Supreme Court justices, Conrad, Constant, Defoe, Diderot, Doyle (Conan), Eliot, Faulkner, Flaubert, Freud, Hawkins (Paula), Hugo, James, Keats, Lafayette (Madame de), Maupassant, Poe, Proust, Richardson, Rousseau, Saki, Sartre, Thackeray, Tolstoy, Winnicott, Woolf, inter alia. I rather liked Friedrich Schiller’s telling me that art, including fictional narrative, comes from the urge to play, the Spieltrieb. Our author concludes that “fiction-making is a form of play that is crucial to our survival because it is crucial to our capacity to understand our place in the world.” The novel, once story had been released from its duty as myth and divine intercession, gives free rein to our playfulness, though it may be said to have its ultimate justification in more serious territory; in Professor Brooks’ formulation, “We have fictions in order not to die of the forlornness of our condition in the world”. Narrative enables us to learn about death, and this is one reason the author spends so much space debunking The Girl on the Train, in which a dead person gets to address us although the author isn’t adopting the stance of an omniscient narrator which might “explain” and justify this, as for example Tolstoy does in The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

And why does the cover feature Paolo and Francesca in Ingres’ rendition? Well, they make a hell of a story, which Owlcation tells here. In his Divine Commedia Dante encounters them in Hell (Canto V), where Francesca seeks to mitigate their sin (as if it needed any mitigation when you know the details) by reporting, in yet another exemplification of the importance of narrative, that they were actually reading about Lancelot and Guinevere when the hotness of that tale lead them into osculation and more:

Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto
di Lancialotto come amor lo strinse;
soli eravamo e sanza alcun sospetto. 

Per più fïate li occhi ci sospinse
quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso;
ma solo un punto fu quel che ci vinse. 

Quando leggemmo il disïato riso
esser basciato da cotanto amante,
questi, che mai da me non fia diviso, 

la bocca mi basciò tutto tremante.
Galeotto fu ’l libro e chi lo scrisse:
quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante". 

* A Galeotto can be read as a synonym for a pandar.

Anyone who likes this blog will love Emma Smith’s Portable Magic: The History of Books and their Readers, Allen Lane, 2022; to be published in USA by Knopf in November with an appalling cover design.

Readers of this blog will find that almost all the subjects touched on in Dr Smith’s book have already been covered here, so they’ll be welcoming familiar tropes. I approached Portable Magic with considerable enthusiasm, assuming I’d find myriad topics to expand upon in this blog. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that not only were almost all the topics touched on by Dr Smith subjects which had already been discussed in Making Book, but Dr Smith had in fact covered them all in greater detail, at greater length, and much more skillfully than I had. If two people talk about the physical side of the book business inevitably they will end up talking about the same thing sooner or later.

As the author herself puts it “Portable Magic is an alternative, sometimes sideways, history of the book in human hands”. The title apparently originates from a memoir by Stephen King where he refers to the book as “a uniquely portable magic”. She adds, perhaps a bit contentiously, “And a book’s magic always inheres in its form, including that portability, as much as in its content”. She is not however in any way an enemy of ebooks and audiobooks.

The book has no illustrations; something which I regretted at several junctures.

Nevertheless I recommend the book unreservedly — it might turn out to be the sort of book which you will dip into from time to time, reading a chapter here and a chapter there. This disconnected connectedness is ultimately what appeals to me in the blog form. There’s no logical development required to take us from pixels to libraries, from book sales to paper supply; every day’s a fresh slate depending on little more than personal preference, even whim. Dr Smith’s book bounces about with a similar elan.

Publishers Weekly has asked Thad McIlroy to do a round-up review of books about publishing. A fuller version is available at his own blog. Go straight there.

The books he selects and comments on are

  • Shatzkin & Riger: The Book Business: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2019)
  • Woll: Publishing for Profit: Successful Bottom-Line Management for Book Publishers (5th edn, Chicago Review Press, 2014).
  • Biel: A People’s Guide to Publishing: Building a Successful, Sustainable, Meaningful Book Business from the Ground Up (Microcosm Publishing, 2018)
  • Clark & Phillips: Inside Book Publishing (6th edn, Routledge, 2019)
  • Greco, Milliot & Wharton: The Book Publishing Industry (3rd edn, Routledge, 2013)
  • Thompson: Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (2nd edn., Polity, 2012)  
  • Thompson: Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing (Polity, May, 2021)
  • Thompson: Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States (Polity, 2005)
  • Phillips & Bhaskar: Oxford Handbook of Publishing (Oxford University Press, 2019)
  • Handy & Harrison: Metadata Essentials: Proven Techniques for Book Marketing and Discovery (Ingram, 2018)
  • McIlroy & Register: The Metadata Handbook (2nd edn., DataCurate 2015)
  • Baverstock & Bowen: How to Market Books (6th edn., Routledge, 2019)
  • Holzberg-Call: The Lost World of the Craft Printer (University of Illinois Press, 1992)
  • Dana: Against the Grain: Interviews with Maverick American Publishers (University of Iowa Press, 1986)
  • Hunt: The Family Business: How Ingram Transformed the World of Books (West Margin Press, 2021)
  • Cerf: At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf (Penguin Random House, 1977, 2002)
  • Rosset: Rosset: My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship (OR Books, 2017)
  • Rosenthal: Barney: Grove Press and Barney Rosset, America’s Maverick Publisher and His Battle against Censorship (Arcade, 2017)
  • Goodings: A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago (Oxford University Press, 2020)
  • MacSkimming: The Perilous Trade: Book Publishing in Canada, 1946-2006 (McClelland & Stewart, 2007)
  • Dewar: The Handover: How Bigwigs and Bureaucrats Transferred Canada’s Best Publisher and the Best Part of Our Literary Heritage to a Foreign Multinational (Biblioasis, 2017)
  • Mount: Arrival: The Story of CanLit (Anansi, 2017) 
  • Harris: The Other Black Girl (Atria, 2021)
  • Gissing: New Grub Street (1891)
  • Gallenzi: Bestseller (Alma Books, 2011)
  • Waugh: Scoop (1938, Back Bay Books, 2012 edition)
  • Rachman: The Imperfectionists: A Novel (Dial Press, 2011)
  • Anderson: Scholarly Communication: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2018)
  • Greco: The Business of Scholarly Publishing: Managing in Turbulent Times (Oxford University Press, 2020)

He doesn’t include the seven-volume Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, comprehensive but of course localized, nor Raven: Oxford Illustrated History of the Book (2020), nor Suarez & Wouydhuysen: The Oxford Companion to the Book (2010)

When I was a lad we neophytes were set to reading Sir Stanley Unwin’s The Truth about Publishing, (George Allen & Unwin, 1926). Beth Luey’s Handbook for Academic Authors was an early entrant into the field of guides for authors when it was first published in 1987. It’s now available in its fifth edition — Cambridge University Press, 2010. And let us not ignore Peter Ginna’s What Do Editors Do? or Bill Germano’s Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books (University of Chicago Press, 3rd end., 2016).

Fiction may be more immediately impactful — Anthony Powell’s What’s Become of Waring? (1939) is one example not mentioned by McIlroy. And maybe Severance by Ling Ma counts — although it’s really about a pandemic, rather worse than the one we are going through — one hopes. Its protagonist is a production manager for bibles printed in China. She works for a book packaging operation, realistic in every way except perhaps in its obvious size and prosperity. The account of a plant tour rings true, with its final focus on an almost meaningless process which can be studied because simple and obsessively mechanical. We tend to get distracted when touring a plant, but each time it’ll be something different. That’s why it’s a good idea to go on plant tours as often as you can. I always found I learned something new every time I went, even up to the end of my career when “I’d seen it all”.

The ostensible reason for Isaac Azimov’s Foundation is the compilation of Encyclopedia Galactica, a complete record of humankind’s entire culture, compiled so that, when the inevitable chaos came to pass, survivors would have an instruction manual on how to get things going again quickly. In the course of the novel we are told of the writing process “It had been done. Five more years would see the publication of the first volume of the most monumental work the Galaxy had conceived. And then at ten year intervals — regularly — like clockwork — volume after volume. And with them there would be supplements; special articles on events of current interest, until —”

Mr Azimov published over 470 books in a 51-year writing career, so efficiency was clearly a strong suit, but anyone who could write those sentences obviously never worked in encyclopedia publishing! NOTHING in publishing works like clockwork, and collaborative volumes are among the least controllable (most chaotic, most off-schedule) projects. Getting one author to deliver a manuscript by the agreed date is rarely straightforward, and contributors to a collaborative work are no exception. The norm is that by the due date you may have half the manuscripts on hand, with another few arriving a few months late. But a few authors will (for perfectly reasonable and valid reasons) be unable to complete their contribution. For one or two this may turn out to be a permanent state, and you’ll need to start over with someone else. Others, perhaps the most tricky part of the whole, will be convinced, and will convince you, that they’ll be able to complete the work in a couple of months. Some may even manage this. Of course the Foundation has its writers on staff, and thus amenable to a bit more in the way of discipline, but surely even 12,000 years in the future it will still happen that writers fall ill, get writer’s block, get distracted, and discover bits of new fascinating information, and disappear down assorted rabbit holes. Whole new topics may be discovered which fundamentally alter something written decades ago for Volume 2, and that’ll require revisions to on-going projects.

One conceit in the Foundation series is the attribution given by the author (always quote your sources) when he quotes from the Encyclopedia: “All quotations from the Encyclopedia Galactica here reproduced are taken from the 116th Edition published in 1020 F.E. by the Encyclopedia Galactica Publishing Co., Terminus, with permission of the publishers.”

Perhaps one might say that the book/film readers in this series seem rather crude for 12,000 years of development. In 1951 they were of course ridiculously futuristic, but I have the impression that my iPhone can give me a rather similar experience today. I fully expect things to have evolved beyond the wildest dreams of Trantor if we manage to make it to the end of this century.

When I was in my (very) early twenties, I drove half a dozen young ladies from London to Llansa on the Costa Brava, where we had rented a villa for a couple of weeks. We had one of these VW vans, which I’ve no idea how we acquired. It was dark blue, as quite often en route was my mood: don’t address all your niggles at me please! I don’t recall how or where we got the van from. Maybe one of the girls’ parents stumped up for it — these were solidly middle class girls — but this was obviously the cheapest way of moving seven or eight people through France. No doubt the vehicle would be sold upon our return. Parking in London back then was nothing like today, but it was no picnic, especially with a mini bus.

The only specific thing I remember about the journey (apart from the never-before-encountered long-life milk of which we found a season’s supply on the porch of the villa) was that the ladies were all obsessed with Rogue Herries, a period romance by Hugh Walpole, set in Cumberland from 1730 till 1774. This incessant chatter was enough to put me off the book — I have finally broken down and opened the quite handsome first 1930 US edition which I picked up many years ago for what looks like $2.50. It was published by Doubleday Doran and appears in the slightly odd trim size of 5⅛” x 7¼”. It has a gilded top, so the book block was trimmed at the top, but left untrimmed on the other two sides. There’s evidence that readers had to slit the vertical folds themselves as they read the story, which the publisher describes as a “massive, vital, full-blooded novel”.

The jacket features a drawing of Herries, facing away from us, gazing at the mountains while holding his whip behind his back ready to discipline any errant behavior. Walpole describes Francis Herries, “handsome beyond all ordinary men”, as “gay, charming, sullen, angry, kindly, cruel”. Why is it that so many young ladies love a transgressive hero? They all chose mild-mannered, utterly reliable spouses in the end.

Hugh Walpole was no relation of Horace Walpole (who apparently started out as Horatio), the son of Robert Walpole, and author of The Castle of Otranto and a notable correspondence. The Prime Minster does however crack a mention in Rogue Herries. Hugh Walpole was born in 1884 in New Zealand of missionary stock and came “home” to England as a child. Rogue Herries hit the bestseller list in America in 1930 at number seven for the year, and spawned a succession of Herries Chronicles; five more volumes including an unfinished one which Walpole was working on when he died in 1941.

What is it that makes John Cleese want cheese when he’s been reading Rogue Herries? Well, when all’s said and done Rogue Herries is a bit cheesy. I still don’t really know why my young friends were so keen on it. There’s a lot of marking time, telling us how lovely the Lake District is. The hero doesn’t really do anything much wrong — most of his “wickedness” happens off stage, though he is definitely rather selfish. He does have a brief meeting with Bonnie Prince Charlie: can this have explained Scots maidens’ enthusiasm? Cheese doesn’t feature. The one murder (by his goody-goody lump of a son) happens almost casually and without consequence. People walk prodigious distances. It rains a lot. Wensleydale remains a long way off.

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This sort of thing just gets my goat. If you are going to allow your author to display his learning by letting us know that the German for thought experiment is Gedankenexperiment, at least insist that he get it right. Nobody is helped by the gratuitous interpolation at the end of the third line, but if you, publisher, are going to indulge the author here, do save him from error. German nouns start with a capital letter, and while the author’s native language does form its plurals by adding an -s, this is not the case in German. Make it Gedankenexperimenten, (and break the word properly, between its two component parts, not just at random because your text processing system doesn’t contain rules for German word breaks); or preferably delete the two words altogether. And who refers to thought experiments as “thought” experiments anyway? It’s hardly a controversial coinage. The rest of the paragraph is pretty much redundant too — not only do we not need to be told the German for the word, but we don’t need that tortuous last sentence either.

The author fails in what I’d have thought a primary requirement for a general account of the development of quantum theory — the requirement that he make a difficult topic comprehensible. His technique seems to be just to baldly state the mathematics and move on — that footnote is typical of his style of explanation. Don’t waste your time leafing back to find out just what the significance of h/4π is. You’ll just find more of the same.*

The culprits in all this inadequacy — and they really should know better — are Oxford University Press, UK. The book is The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments by Jim Baggott, 2011. (While they were at it they might have ditched that subtitle too. “Wittily” the book does contain 40 chapters. Duh!) When academic publishers get hold of what they think of as a trade book, they seem to lose their minds. Just because you hope to sell it to a lot of non-specialist, general readers, does not mean that you don’t have to edit the book to make sure it’s accurate and appropriate. Sure they’ll never know, but isn’t that the point? Aren’t you publishing the book so they may learn. OUP has a longish history of publishing trade books — maybe they are determined to abandon this strand of their publishing program? If you just want a narrative account of the development of quantum theory, which is effectively all Mr Baggott at great length gives you, you’ll be better served by the much shorter, slightly fictionalized account by Chilean author Benjamin Labatut, When we cease to understand the world (Translated by Adrian Nathan West, and published by Pushkin Press 2020, New York Review Books 2021).


*Years ago I read a Cambridge University Press book which did a much better job of explaining this sort of stuff to the layman: David Mermin’s Boojums all the way through (1990).

  1. The Dumas Club by Arturo Perez-Reverte
  2. Lila, Lila by Martin Suter
  3. A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
  4. In Praise of Lies by Patricia Melo
  5. Death by Publication by Jean-Jacques Fiechter
  6. The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester
  7. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
  8. Hocus Bogus by Émile Ajar
  9. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  10. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Well, one of them isn’t actually a novel, it’s true-crime, but this is Antoine Laurain’s list of the top ten books about books, published in The Guardian. Mr Laurain is the author of another one, The Reader’s Room, which modestly he doesn’t include in his list. (Link via LitHub.)

Of course one might argue that any (serious) novel is to some extent about the way to write a novel. A notable recent full-frontal example is Martin Amis’ latest, Inside Story: A Novel, a very conscious meditation on life-writing and fiction. It took reading the Economist review for me to realize that Inside Story actually has a proper subtitle. The jacket carries only the quasi-subtitle/catchline A Novel, as does the title page, but buried away on the half title page and nowhere else is the full title + subtitle, Inside Story: How to Write. Even the CIP information calls it Inside Story: A Novel, though the Canadian version omits A Novel. This coyness about the subtitle has to be significant* doesn’t it?

Hate that logo!

In a charming note lower down the imprints page we learn “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental”. Boilerplate, but bullshit. Characters in the book include Martin Amis, his wife, disguised by the use her middle name only, Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and his wives, etc. etc. Lots of real people are there as large as life, however fictionalized some of what they say and do may be. Now it seems to me (and all dictionaries) that a novel is a work of fiction. And while I don’t really care what the author decides to designate his book as, I did feel a little bit curious about this one. I dare say I’d never have read a memoir by Martin Amis (never really warmed to him as the saying goes) so I guess I have to be grateful for the category shuffling as I’m glad I read the book. If this is really a memoir masquerading as a novel, is that as bad as James Frey‘s novel masquerading as a memoir? Not sure it matters in either case, but I keep wondering why Amis would do this. It can’t be, can it, that presenting his personal history as quasi-fiction makes it easier for him to be frank about things? The book copes with three deaths: the Essayist thread (Christopher Hitchens) is the most affecting: the Poet (Philip Larkin) and the Novelist (Saul Bellow) are less shattering. The heart of the book is a telling of Christopher Hitchens’ death. Little Keith (as the Hitch would call him) clearly loved his friend, and writes movingly about the awful. Maybe pretending this pain was fictitious is a mechanism enabling him to bear it. I’m not sure however that I can believe my suggestion here: Martin Amis is after all a very experienced writer, and such subterfuges are surely unnecessary for him.

At the start of Chapter 5 the author addresses us “The book in your hands calls itself a novel — and it is a novel, I maintain. So I want to assure the reader that everything that follows in this chapter is verifiably non-fiction.” Does a novel have to consist of fiction? I rather think it has to, and as I don’t know Martin Amis I find it hard to determine where fiction ends and non-fiction begins in this work. I assume Phoebe Phelps is fictitious — I hope she is — but of course I can’t be altogether sure M.A. didn’t hang out with something like this. The Daily Mail claims that she’s real: apparently someone called Antonella Gambotto-Burke claims she’s the pattern, but her claims seem too modest and restrained to match up to Phoebe Phelps. So here be fiction I suspect.

The book is structured as if we, the reader, had come round for a chat with the author, a chat which we appear to have solicited, and which is going to unfold in extenso: we’re going to stay the night. Amis chats directly with us in his introductory chapter and in his final chapter, pretentiously entitled “Preludial” and “Postludial”, promising to give us concrete advice on writing and then bidding us goodbye: “Goodbye, my reader, I said. Goodbye, my dear, my close, my gentle”. Advice he does indeed give us along the way: valuable insights like “don’t worry about splitting infinitives” and “everyone’s got a book in them” are fortunately accompanied by a whisky or two. That’s too harsh, and is actually unjust: his bits of advice, uniformly good, are set up perhaps more to demonstrate that it’s not so much the direct advice that’ll help, it’s more the surrounding story-telling and the thinking about books and writers and reading that are important. The index provides a list of his writing advice, and if you stick with those precepts you’ll do OK. Of course it’s the story-telling that’s the vital bit, and while we may indeed all have it in us, it’s tough to clear away the overlying debris in order to get at the novel buried in there.

I wonder if the two strands of writer’s manual on the one hand and the fiction/nonfiction issue on the other don’t in the end coalesce. Maybe showing us how to write a memoir which you can get the world of publishing and criticism to accept as a novel is the ne plus ultra of authorial cleverness. Follow my lead and you too can do anything you want: even write a novel which isn’t a novel. They say it’s not Amis’ best, but Inside Story is well worth a read.

A rather less obvious example of a novel as a book about writing a book is John Williams’ Stoner, which I wrote about in these terms a couple of years ago.


* In a footnote — yes this novel has footnotes, as well as several photographs, and an index! — Amis tells of a brilliant crossword puzzle clue: “Meaningful power of attorney”, the answer being “significant” — sign-if-I-can’t. Not bad, I thought.

The Passive Voice has a piece on the subject of paid reviews. It is extremely frustrating for self publishers to find themselves unable to get their books reviewed in the mainstream media (it’s frustrating for regular publishers too). As a result many self publishers consider paying for reviews. Is this a good investment?

Well it does cost quite a lot. I’ve heard up to $575. The Passive Voice quotes $399 for Publishers Weekly and $425 for Kirkus. There are quite a lot of places where you can buy a review. Publishers Weekly published an article about the pricing at various services a couple of years ago. However the Passive Voice post focusses mainly on the quality/qualifications of the reviewers you’ll get if you pay for a review. This is all well and good, but there’s larger issue: the issue of what might be the value of having a review published at all.

Publishers Weekly and Kirkus may well be the leaders in the business of paid review publication, but our writer fails to make the distinction required in analyzing this business. Publishing reviews is a service: a service to a publication’s readers and to the authors and publishers of the books reviewed. But publishing paid reviews is a business. If Publishers Weekly can get $400 from a self-published author to arrange for and publish a review of that author’s book, who are we to say they are wrong to do so? But a paid review, even one by a qualified reviewer who’s actually read your book, carries a different message from a review in The New York Times Book Review, say. We are all conditioned to cynicism by log-rolling on Amazon.

The Passive Guy (PG), as the writer of The Passive Voice likes to refer to himself, wonders what discount traditional publishers get from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus for their pre-publication reviews of their books. The answer is 100%. No regular publisher pays any journal any sum for the publication of a review. There are two sections of reviews in PW: Book Life Reviews where authors purchase the reviews, and their regular review section where reviewing is carried out in the normal (unpaid) way. Reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus tend to have scant detectable effect on the sales of books.

In fact the sales boost from any book review (and advertisement) is something which the public is inclined to exaggerate in the most extravagant way. Only the most enthusiastic review by the most prominent reviewer in the most important publication will generate detectable sales activity. (A radio review on National Public Radio can move the dial too.) Books sell for a whole variety of reasons — and we’re not really certain what they are — recommendation by a friend; luck or serendipity; a topic you need/want to know more about; an author whose other books you’ve enjoyed; eye-catching appearance catches your eye; it’s there and you just want to buy something and get out of the store. Reviews are probably less important than any of these reasons. In the academic world reviews can be more significant — obviously if Professor X thinks it’s good, maybe you should look at it. Maybe we could propose a theorem: “The more non-fiction-ish a book is the more pronounced will be the effect of a good review”. Popular non-fiction books like Barack Obama’s forthcoming A Promised Land don’t need reviews to move them out of the warehouse. A good review of The Uptake and Storage of Noradrenaline in a prestigious journal might double the sale (which of course will be comparatively tiny anyway). Any publisher would regard spending $400 to have review published in PW or Kirkus as nothing but a quick way to throw away $400. Maybe some librarians may glance at these reviews, but mostly they are getting their information elsewhere, like for instance Library Journal (in its unpaid review section).

Now of course, what I’ve just said must be open to exception. It would be interesting to hear from authors who have seen a sales pick-up from reviews they’ve paid for. I have to believe that there may well be one or two. PG notes “some indie authors who are upset by one or more of the questionable activities described above [in his piece] say they will continue to use the Kirkus and PW services because they believe the blurbs [by which I believe he means reviews] still help sell enough books to more than justify the costs.” But this isn’t real evidence of value. Just because some authors keep on doing it doesn’t mean it’s a good plan. Frankly I don’t really see how you could ever measure the effect of a paid review. You can’t do an AB test: it’s impossible to publish the book twice, once with a PW review and once without one. Maybe the sales you made would have been made anyway even if you’d kept the $400 in your pocket: correlation is not causation.

There is of course some mathematics available to help a self publisher in deciding whether or not to pay for reviews. You know how much you make on every sale of your book: let’s say it’s $5. If you think you will sell 81 extra copies by paying $400 for a review then go ahead. How you’ll ever know whether these 81 extra sales did indeed result from the review seems utterly opaque to me, but there are clearly quite a lot of authors who think the investment is worthwhile. I say caveat emptor: as The Passive Voice warns, you’ve no idea ahead of time whether the reviewer’s going to be any good, or indeed the review.

See also Sock puppetry and Reviews sell books don’t they?