Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Book Reviewing and other matters

At the 2007 Australian Book Industry Awards (in Sydney on 24 July), 15 of the 18 awards presented had been voted for by an academy of booksellers and publishers. The Bookshop of the Year (won by Riverbend in Brisbane as an independent and by Dymocks Garden City in Booragoon, Western Australia as a chain representative) and the Publisher of the Year category (won by Allen & Unwin overall and by Black Inc. in the Small Publisher category) were suitably self-congratulatory.
Then there were the awards for the books. The Book of the Year award went to Les Carlyon’s The Great War (Macmillan). The Great War was also the co-winner of the inaugural Prime Minister’s History Prize of $100,000. It was chosen from a remarkable short list that included the following books – Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (Hachette/Lothian), which has also won the NSW and WA Premier’s awards for Book of the Year, Chris Masters’ Jonestown (Allen & Unwin), Barry Jones’ A Thinking Reed (Allen & Unwin) and Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem (Black Inc.). The list is remarkable because it does not contain a work of fiction. There are two memoirs (Jones and Pung), one biography (Masters), one wordless illustrated book (The Arrival) and one work of history (Carlyon). While The Arrival appeals both to children and adults, the other books are all clearly aimed at the adult market. That aside, all of these books are exceptional and excellent representatives of the best of Australian publishing.
Before the Book of the Year was announced, The Arrival, which is now in many editions internationally, had already won the 2007 Book of the Year for Older Children (7 to 14), The Great War the category of General Non-fiction Book of the Year, Jonestown Biography of the Year and Alice Pung was announced as Newcomer of the Year. They were up against major competition in those categories, too. For example, The Arrival competed with a really tough (and eclectic!) bunch that comprised Melina Marchetta’s On the Jellicoe Road, Maureen McCarthy’s Rose by Any Other Name, Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Ten Things I Hate About Me, and Tim Flannery’s We are the Weather Makers. Jonestown was up against the Barry Jones book, General Peter Cosgrove’s My Story, Helen O’Neill’s biography of Florence Broadhurst and Unpolished Gem.
This list of books, as unrepresentative as it is, clearly demonstrates the diversity and strength of Australian publishing. The children’s books that were shortlisted were equally as strong on their quality and diversity, as were the literary and general fiction titles. And this is excellent news for the health of the industry and for opportunities for authors.
But there is an aspect of the industry of which we need to keep ourselves aware. It has to do with marketing and publicity and book reviews.
Recently, I perused the results of a Dow Jones/Factiva Benchmark analysis by Chris Pash of coverage of books in Australian newspapers from January to June 2007. Factiva Benchmarks measure the amount of media coverage and often how company and product coverage changes over time. Factiva’s tools for this are based on a proprietary text mining technology enabling them to process huge volumes of media data to produce trends and analyses. Of course newspapers are not responsible for all book reviews, so this analysis is not a comprehensive study of book reviewing in general. However, even in this digital age newspapers still remain one of the most accessible forms of information about books and it is interesting for authors to understand exactly what newspapers are communicating to their readers about books and their creators.
The analysis I refer to was presented to the Pacific Area Newspaper Publisher’s Association (PANPA) 2007 Conference in early August. What the research showed was that The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian generated the most coverage of books (The Canberra Times should also be honourably mentioned).
Unfortunately, papers in cities other then Sydney or Melbourne rarely review books. Nevertheless, Melburnians are best off in terms of access to book reviews, with The Age way out in front. Melburnians reading both The Age and The Australian are going to be exposed to the most book reviews, and even more if they read the Herald-Sun. While The Sydney Morning Herald does well, Sydneysiders reading both it and The Australian don’t fare as well for book reviews, and the situation doesn’t improve if they read the Daily Telegraph as well. The Canberra Times performs better on book reviews than the Brisbane Courier-Mail. The Adelaide Advertiser and the Townsville Bulletin are on par in their coverage of book reviews. Tasmanians have to wait for the Sunday paper for their reviews. The Australian Financial Review reviews more books than the Daily Telegraph. But even the Illawarra Mercury and the Northern Territorian rate higher for book reviews that the West Australian.
Not surprisingly, books from the larger publishers -- HarperCollins, Allen & Unwin, Penguin, Random House and Pan Macmillan, dominate reviews. Not all publishers were reviewed evenly. For example, Pan Macmillan receives more attention from the Daily Telegraph than do other publishers. HarperCollins (a division of News Limited) receives top coverage in the Fairfax-owned Sydney Morning Herald and the Age and the News Limited paper the Herald-Sun. However, Melbourne-based small publisher Scribe gained some needed attention from The Age and (less so) the Sydney Morning Herald.
In the category of competitive volume, an analysis of the most significant mentions of books in newspapers, HarperCollins leads the pack, closely followed by Allen & Unwin, then Penguin, then Random House. Pan Macmillan and Hachette Livre drop back in the pack. This is interesting because it is not representative of market position vis a vis sales. Penguin is our largest publisher.
It was the specialisation and language of the book reviewers that most interested me. Pash’s research showed that reviewers have a preference for mysteries and bestselling books. It is a mystery why mysteries receive this attention, but bestsellers surely do not need added attention from reviewers. Authors might hope – vainly it seems – that reviewers would seek to bring unfamiliar books to readers’ attention. Some mysteries may fall into this category, but reviewing the latest Harry Potter rather than, say, Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria does seem a pointless use of a reviewer’s talents. Not many buyers of Harry Potter are likely to be swayed by a positive (or negative) review; potential readers of relatively unknown new Australian works (even Miles Franklin Awards winners) may well be provoked to read or buy a copy by a positive review.
Already, you can tell this research does not bode well for emerging writers of literary fiction or poetry, or for those writers who are not on the Top Ten list! But then the reviewers weren’t that creative when it came to describing the books they reviewed. Reviewers commonly used the words “extraordinary”, “compelling”, “page-turner”, and “stunning”. The mouthful “unputdownable’ appeared nine times in the period under analysis. An author was also often described as a “master” or their works as “masterful”.
Is this the language of dispassionate review or marketing? This is a hard one. Newspaper book reviewers are certainly choosing the easiest course by reviewing a small selection of the top-selling titles, and the language of their reviews also reflects a quick approach to a task that is rarely well remunerated and often regarded as "filler" by editors. But in doing this newspapers are not doing justice to Australian authors and their books – or the potential readers of those books.
A vicious circle indeed.

Parts of this article first appeared in the August 2007 issue of Australian Author. Copyright © 2008 Jeremy Fisher/Australian Society of Authors.

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