What makes a good review
Reviews don’t make a blind bit of difference to how a book sells. That, at least, is the popular wisdom among publishers. That means Jeffrey Archer’s latest “novel” can get rubbished by the critics and still make millions (the vast publicity budget presumably helps). Or, the other way round, there are thousand and thousands of marvellous books, greeted rapturously by reviewers, that have failed even to pay back their meager advance. A nice review warms the heart of the author but it doesn’t have much impact on the cash registers.
True. But it does rather underestimate the point of the whole reviewing business. Of course, working on the TLS, I’m biased – but I am committed to the idea that reviews have an important part to play in (for want of a better word) literary culture. Not only as a guide to the quality of what authors and publishers turn out, but also in their own right – as comment, criticism, insight, and a good read.
So how do I choose reviewers for the Classics books when I’m at the TLS? In a way it’s a bit like a dating agency.
That is to say, the art of getting a good review (and by “good” I don’t mean “favourable”) is marrying up the right reviewer with the right book, even if at first sight they make an unlikely couple. I have three basic rules of thumb.
1. Never send a book to someone, if you already know what they are going to say. Despite what people often think about the ethics of the reviewing trade, there really isn’t much interest, for me at least, in fixing up a review that merely hands someone a free platform for back-scratching or denunciation. Of course, sometimes you get it wrong . . . you publish a withering critique of someone’s life’s work, then a few months later a friend explains that the reviewer and reviewee had actually had a grudge match going on since the playground. But I can put my hand on heart and say that I’ve never knowingly done that. And I make it my business to keep abreast of people’s quarrels!
2. Step outside the box. At first, you might think that a new book on (say) Ammianus Marcellinus, written by one of the two living experts on this (frankly not much read) late Roman historian, is best reviewed by the other one. In fact, he or she might be the worst of choices. For a start there’s the last problem to bear in mind: the chances are that these guys have either long been riven in dispute over their unlikely favourite author, or are else best buddies. But, anyway, the acutest reviewer is often someone who works in a related but slightly different area, or someone who’s long been a secret fan of Ammianus (you have to keep your ear to the ground in this trade) but has never actually written on him. That way you get the insider’s and the outsider’s perspective. Insider’s: because you do want to learn from someone who knows whether this book basically passes muster. Outsider’s: because you want someone who can represent the potential reader and can ask whether there’s something interesting for us in all this.
3. Remember that it all takes time. Time from reviewers, to do a careful, interesting and well-written job. My heart sinks if I ever hear someone boasting how they knocked off a quick TLS review before breakfast. (I’ve been known to point out, waspishly, that it probably would have been a better review if they had taken longer.) But also time from the commissioning editor. You need to explore beyond the front cover and the first few pages of the book you’re sending out. If you want to arrange that delicate marriage with a reviewer, you really do have to have an idea what the book is saying (not what the blurb says it says). Put simply, a good review editor takes time to get to know their product on the inside.
A pity, after all this care and attention, that reviews don’t have more impact on sales.