Back in September, Michael Cox's, The Meaning Night was short-listed for the first novel award category of the Costa (formerly Whitbread) Book Award. The Costas are the more populist *kofflowbrowkoff* cousin of the Man Booker Prize. They have the shortlist that hangs out late at night in local pubs and rides a beat-up motorbike, but still visits the 'rents regularly, listens to classical music when the mood strikes and holds down a steady job. They're pretty prestigious for all that. I tend to read more of their nominees than Booker ones, not deliberately but just because, if that helps.
My memory of this book was jogged recently because the category winners were announced last week - Cox's book lost out to Stef Penny's, The Tenderness of Wolves. There's a whole other post connected with this that I'll have to save for another time because it turned this one into a bit of a monster. But what first drew my interest to this novel was one particular aspect of its marketing.
Periodically, the corner of the blogosphere in which I lurk is rocked by an area of low pressure bringing high winds and thundery showers to the beverage container of your choice. The classic one revolves around online reviews, their quality, and the involvement of amateur reader/reviewers in the process. Well, I do hang around a lot of book sites.
In the ensuing kerfuffle, lines of acceptibility are drawn, the horns of justification are blown, and into the fray are chucked freedom of speech, etiquette, solidarity of all kinds, and the need to protect sheep-minded readers from being seduced by nasty reviews that might unfairly twist their minds and drive them into the arms of another author. It's a great, glorious, messy mix of ethics, economics and self-interest that provides hours of fun for anyone involved.
(Although I must admit I occasionally wonder if it might be possible to write a glowingly positive review that somehow provokes the same sort of reactions. Hmmm…)
Anyhow, in the course of these debates someone will usually raise the spectre of the Amazon review. As the most impassioned diatribes will have it, regardless of rating, the dreaded "drive-by" Amazon review epitomizes everything that is wrong about online reviewing. They are written (if such a noble verb can be applied to such a distasteful process) by frivolous amateurs, or even worse, pseudonymous shadowy figures with a sinister agenda who have likely never even read the book in question. Since anyone who actually buys a book from Amazon is in thrall to an Evil Corporate Giant, they are produced by individuals whose credibility accounts are teetering into the red, if not completely bankrupt. These travesties of critical reasoning are notorious for their nit-picking pettiness, pointless puffinery, poor language and personal
Duck! More Mixed Metaphors Incoming
Like some people on the "reader" end of things, my impression is that Amazon reviews mostly cover the same range of views you'd pick up on a trawl through review sites and blogs in general. The advantage for me is that they're all in one place. I also reckon that most readers have a fairly nuanced way of dealing with the opinions presented. For me, it all boils down to something like this: most readers aren't that uncritical when it comes to either books or reviews. Take a deep breath and a step back - we don't really need guidelines, 'cos we're quite capable of figuring out what does and doesn't float our own particular boats, even if we get a bit of a dunking in the process.
Use the force, dudes
The publishers of The Meaning of Night don't seem to embrace either the view that amateur reviews are killing sales, or that online reviews are unimportant. Rather cleverly, they've turned the whole thing on its head and embraced the concept of popular opinion with a possible side-dish of frothy manipulation.
Prior to its official release they sent proof copies to the chosen - 487 readers - selected via libraries, magazine subscriptions and reading groups. They wanted their comments to create a "credible body of opinion" to use for promotion (cover blurbs, website etc.). Amazon also asked their top 100 reviewers (even Harriet K., I presume) to review it as well, although I can't find much background to this detail, particularly confirmation of who generated this idea: publisher or retailer.
But the publisher's trusty market research team didn't stop there. There's also an online survey for anyone who has read the book to complete. It catalogues reading habits and recommendations and asks for numerical ratings of everything from storyline, to sense of period, to ending. A summary of results is available on the website under the heading, "real people, real opinions." As opposed to those pesky fake people with their fake opinions I mentioned earlier, I guess.
It may be that in addition to generating advance buzz, the publishers were hoping to drown out any negative voices in waves of sweetness and light. And most of the reviews, professional or otherwise, are positive, even glowing. But I'm reassured by the fact that it hasn't been too hard to find the odd less-than-complimentary opinion either.
And finally, the burning question: has this flood of detailed opinion tipped the balance? Is the book now on my wishlist? Well, just in case I'm still undecided, it seems that those busy people in marketing haven't finished with me quite yet...