MWA-MA Reviewer Panel – The BOLO Books Recap

Last night was the Mystery Writers of America – Mid-Atlantic Chapter’s monthly meeting. Held in the Embassy Suites Hotel just outside of DC, the topic of this month’s meeting was the art of reviewing. Moderated by Art Taylor, the event was a fun and informative evening. For those interested, here are some brief highlights.

The ballroom opened at 6:30 allowing for mingling and chatting with some of my friends in the crime fiction community. Dinner was served at 7:00 and my grilled chicken dish was actually quite good – not a guarantee when one attends a banquet event like this. By the time 8:00 rolled around and dessert had been served, the panel discussion was ready to begin.

Art Taylor, who does some reviewing of his own for The Washington Post, introduced the well-respected panelists for the evening. They were: Bethanne Patrick (creator of the #FridayReads meme and reviewer at LitHub and various other outlets); Maureen Corrigan (from National Pubic Radio’s Fresh Air); and Dennis Drabelle (editor at The Washington Post Book World).

Dennis gave the most interesting answer to the question of how he came to reviewing and to mystery, in particular. He said that growing up he was a fan of The Hardy Boys and that his mother was a huge fan of the mystery genre. Dennis also revealed that he is working on writing a mystery novel of his own.

Art then asked the panelists how they go about choosing the books they review. Dennis talked about how The Washington Post gets something like 150 books for review EVERY DAY and that while they are obviously not all mysteries, the Monday Mystery column only allows for 4-5 mystery reviews each month. Clearly competition for those slots is very tough.

Maureen talked about how she chooses books for a variety of reasons, one of which is personal preference. She did say that whenever she covers a mystery novel on Fresh Air she gets letters asking her why she is wasting precious on-air time on genre novels. This does not sway her choices. I think it is interesting that some in the public still consider genre to be a bad word.

Bethanne talked about her method as a bit of a triage process. The available books gets narrowed down via many methods but that she has found that some imprints are more reliable than others in producing books that are to her liking – here she named Pegasus Press and their author F. T. Tallis as a recent example of something she really enjoyed.

Not one to shy away from hard-hitting questions, Art then asked Dennis directly about how he accounted for the fact that in a recent Sisters in Crime study, The Washington Post did not increase their reviews of female authors as much as some other papers. Dennis said that he was surprised that they had not done better, but that it was something they were continuing to work on. He talked about their new cozy column as a way to help with those numbers.

Here Bethanne mentioned that not only do we need more diversity in our reviewing, but also in general people need more diversity in their reading. At one point she talked about how she did not think that the art of writing was in decline, but that she did fear the act of reading was experiencing a downward trend.

On the question of negative reviews, all the panelists agreed that they didn’t really enjoy writing most negative reviews, but that there was a sort of thrill when they could write negatively about a more well-known author. Dennis even said that he would opt to skip an assignment rather than write a wholly negative review of a first novel. They talked about how reviews are a type of “Consumer Report” for the public.

Which then brings us to the question that was of my interest to me personally, for obvious reasons. Art asked the panelists what they thought of the rise and role of online reviews in such locations as Amazon, Goodreads, and blogs. Now, in fairness, lumping all of these together made the answering more difficult for the panelists. For fear of misrepresenting what the individual panelists thought about this topic, I am not going to detail who said what, but I will say that to my ear, the responses where a bit more defensive than the question really warranted. To my mind, it is not really an either/or proposition. I consider myself blessed to live in a time when a variety of voices can be heard on all manner of topics, including book reviews. These panelists represent the highest quality of professional reviewers, but that does not mean that simply because one is professional, the quality of work reflects that standing, any more than just because a blogger is not a paid professional, their review is somehow less worthy. There are varying levels of proficiency in both areas.

As I have always said, I encourage readers to read widely in the reviewing arena until they find reviewers they can trust and reviews that are harmonious with – notice I am not saying that match – their own thoughts. In many ways, criticism is the great equalizer! Everyone has an opinion – and let us never forget that they are indeed only opinions – and all of them are valid.

All in all, this was a very informative evening and well worth the less than wonderful Baltimore to DC commute. MWA-MA is to be commended for seeing the value in addressing the topic of reviews and I am sure that many of the authors in attendance came away with a new respect for the field.

12 thoughts on “MWA-MA Reviewer Panel – The BOLO Books Recap

  1. Thanks for the recap here, Kristopher—and thanks for coming out last night!

    You’re right: My question about the swiftly changing landscape of critical views and voices didn’t separate out the differences (to me, obvious differences) between a blogger on the one hand and an Amazon or Goodreads reviewer on the other. But I was mainly trying to say that the internet in general is continuing to change the opportunities for everyone not just to voice their opinions but to find an audience for those opinions. And in the midst of all those voices, I think that some readers might somehow flatten out all the commentary; you yourself remarked above that criticism is the great equalizer, for example, which can be both good and bad. I do know folks who would sooner trust the crowd-sourcing star-system of Amazon reviews to either a newspaper critic or a blogger—I watch those ratings myself, I’ll admit—but I think there’s inevitably a difference (to go to extremes) in the commentary that a scholar of Egyptian history might offer about a textbook compared to a student taking Ancient History 101 (and disappointed in the text-to-picture ratio of his reading assignments); on Amazon, both perspectives have equal weight to some degree, averaged out for that 2 1/2-star rating or whatever.

    I guess my curiosity, for all of us in this business, was how we picture our distinctive voices in the midst of that larger chorus of commentary, who we hope might be listening out for us, and what exactly we think they’re listening for.

    And yes, I do realize that I swapped metaphors somewhere in the middle of all that. 🙂

    In any case, good comments and reflections here. As always, I appreciate your perspectives on these issues!
    Art

    • There will come a time when Amazon ratings will be less important (or at least I hope that time comes). I agree that a comment about the pricing of a book and an actual review have the same weighted value on Amazon and that it not right. But until Amazon chooses to do some type of quality control on their reviews, that is not going to change. At the same time, I think that the everyday reader respects the option of other everyday readers as much as (or maybe more than) a paid professional. Let’s face it, but for the fact that newspapers are on the decline, more professional reviewer jobs would be available and many of the bloggers in the world would fill them. Simply because one is lucky enough to have one of those jobs does not make their opinion more valuable. The public is smart enough to know the difference between a good blogger and a bad one.

      I was talking to someone else about this today. Dennis mentioned that The Washington Post HAS to review some books (like the new Stephen King or Louise Penny). But what is interesting in this comment is that it was bloggers and fans who helped to get Louise Penny to where she is today – she will be the first to tell you that – and only now that her books are NYT Bestsellers do they HAVE to be reviewed in the major papers. Where were those reviewers in the beginning of her career?

  2. Thanks for this piece. I’ve wondered how books are chosen for review and why some reviewers, if they like a first book, will go on reviewing a series while others don’t. Reviewing can be a tricky business, especially where stars are involved and the reader (me!) doesn’t think in stars. I started out giving no stars on my occasional forays into Goodreads and then switched to giving five, hoping the words of the review reflect my response.

    • Thanks Frances. One of the panelists said that choosing book is an art not a science. And we do make mistakes. So many books, so little time.

  3. Hi Kris,

    As you know, I barely scan book jacket blurbs let alone read reviews, but that sounds like an event I would have liked to attend. A smidge jealous over here.

    I think that there is definitely an art to both book reviews and blogging. (I haven’t read Art’s work, so no capitalisation!) You know my views on going into a book with no clue as to the story beyond perhaps a good cover design and the genre, and how brilliant it is to be captivated and taken on a journey by a fantastic read.

    I realise that I am the exception in this. Not surprisingly, I think the best reviews come out of the reviewer being given a book where they have no expectations, and the freshness of them ‘discovering’ the author/book comes through in their review. If they can tell me why they responded the way they did – the dialogue was true, or the mood and scene was deftly captured etc – rather that pad the review with too much plot spoiler then I think they better serve both the book and the potential reader.

    A professional reviewer who has lost the joy of reading and for whom it is now just a job is a sad thing. I think that that it why bloggers can often write a better review because that juicy excitement is still there.

    But what would I know 🙂

    Ann

    • You’re points are very valid, Ann. This is one of the reasons I love to read first novels – I have no expectations and am often blown away. Lovely to see you here at BOLO. Miss you!

  4. Great post and all points are valid. I do think that most readers put more weight on reviews by bloggers. I know that the majority of books I read are not reviewed by professional reviewers.

  5. It sounds like an interesting panel, Kristopher, and your recap of it here with your perspective on it is especially interesting. You write so well and are exceptionally fair. I, like you, am stunned that people would criticize genre novels. I can’t say that I’m surprised about the attitude toward online reviewers and bloggers, as I’m sure they don’t want to admit that someone other than a paid professional could do their job. Again, like you, I think that underrating the impact of online reviewers and bloggers fails to realize how much we do get the word out about authors and their writings. Excellent post!

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