Book reviews. The debate is ongoing among both authors and readers as to their value. The debate is far ranging. Who should write them: amateurs or “professionals?” What should be included: a short description or a full synopsis? What is the value of giving books a star rating like a hotel or restaurant?
The debate is a reminder of 1961, when my first full-time job in the newsroom of my hometown newspaper began. It was a daily publication, with an extra section on Sundays. This weekly addition included a lead article written by a member of the news or sports staff, plus pictures, travel articles, feature stories, and book reviews.
If a book was received, one written by a well-known, best-selling author of the time, a James Michener, Allen Drury, J. D. Salinger, Leon Uris, or Irving Stone, the chances were good that a review would be published. The exception to this rule would be a book written by an author with strong local ties.
That is the first part of the story from the old days; the very limited number of authors whose books were made available for review. The second part was the number of people who read the reviews. I don’t remember the paper’s Sunday circulation, but feel safe in saying it was less than 100,000. And it’s a safe assumption that not every person who had access to the Sunday paper read the book reviews.
Compare that to the current world with the Internet. Publishers, publicists, newspapers, and national magazines no longer make the decision as to which books will receive reviews. Individual readers now have the freedom to write reviews of any book of their choice. The review can be published in a virtual world where the potential exists for it to be read by people worldwide
This technology has opened a Pandora’s box. It’s a daunting specter for authors. No longer can traditional sources be looked to for an opinion that gives a thumb up or a thumb down. Book reviews have reached the ultimate level of democracy. Every reader has an equal opportunity to express his or her opinion. And like most issues debated in a democracy, a wide difference of opinion will always be heard.