Who Pays for Book Reviews?

The short answer is everyone, although it might not be evident at first. National publishing trade magazines present the illusion that they are fair and balanced—a familiar phrase—in their review coverage, but given a closer look, these publications thrive on the sales of expensive advertising space, including their front and back covers. Other national trades don’t even hide the fact that they charge hundreds of dollars per review. You’ll notice that very few small publishers are mentioned in their pages. The presses that cannot afford ad space and review fees coincidentally go unmentioned, and all independent presses (i.e. micro presses and self-publishers) are typically barred from book review consideration.

Consider that advertising fees are built into the budgets of large press books, and when you purchase one, you are in effect paying for their media coverage somewhere along the line. There is simply no justification for highlighting or featuring the next murder-mystery redux novel in any of the media outlets, other than it is big business for the monolithic presses and they have the dollars to push their product. We are a capitalist society, and profit drives many editorial decisions. Any author who manages his/her own marketing has run into a media outlet (print, radio, etc.) that has promised increased coverage with the purchase of advertising space or time. While many local newspapers still hold an air of integrity, these venues are drying up faster than the rapidly fading printed news industry.

This state of affairs casts a long shadow over literature. One byproduct is that the large commercial presses, by virtue of supplying the economic lifeblood to the publishing media, control what reaches the reading public. Due to either politics or economics, certain genres and ideas are not desirable to large presses, and therefore, vital topics are kept from the public discourse, while excellent independent press authors go unnoticed. In the end, they turn to the Internet for help.

A survey of the web reveals hundreds of review outlets—some specialized, others general. Many of these reviewers write for free, and their coverage is professionally uneven. These are hobby sites. Meanwhile the Internet has killed the three-headed monster of publishing: paper, ink, and distribution. Through the years, paper and ink became increasingly expensive, and most recently rising gas prices (i.e. a distribution cost) was the death knell for most brick and mortar publications, but in the digital age, the Internet can more than fill the need while providing work for dedicated journalists.

In late 2009, the US Review of Books was created for two reasons: first, to provide inexpensive access to professional book reviewers for all authors and, second, to pay the writers a fair wage for their work. In eight years, the US Review has employed dozens of reviewers and written nearly ten thousand reviews to mostly happy authors. They are mostly happy, because the USR’s reviewers are honest and thoughtful. If a book is hackneyed or wasn’t properly edited, perhaps for style and spelling, the review is going to mention these facts. Luckily that isn’t the norm, and the large presses are starting to notice and quietly submit their books for value media coverage. Seeing the future, publicity agents and author services companies are also integrating the US Review into their marketing plans. Good books deserve serious consideration and discussion, regardless of where and how the book is published.

As the millennials—sometimes called the Digital Generation—assumes authority, the Internet and all modes of digital transfer will take control. It makes sense; it’s convenient and mostly green technology. Outlets like the US Review of Books will continue to expand in order to fill authors’ marketing needs while providing employment opportunities to the writing/journalist force.

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The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea

by Bandi
Grove Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Though it was close to midnight, Gyeong-hee sensed hundreds of figures hovering at those windows, peering out like rabbits from their burrows, eyes narrowed in accusation.”

Starvation, terror, death—this is the world of people trapped north of the Korean DMZ in a country led beneath the auspices of a single man who will do anything to preserve his fiefdom. And these conditions exist only in the best of favors. For many people, a minor offense, or perceived offense, results in banishment, generational curses, or hard labor—a sentence of sunup to sundown toil, torture, and thirst until a person is literally worked to death. The latter is what one expects from life under a socialist monarch, but it is the former, the everyday grueling aspects of ordinary life, that are captured within this insightful and harrowing collection of stories written about life in North Korea.

The author, who remains in North Korea, employs the pseudonym, Bandi, to protect his identity. He writes tales of people paying for the sins of their forefathers, sins that would be considered inconsequential in a free land, and sins they fear that they might commit in the future. Fear is the most powerful tool of a totalitarian regime. The cost is not only the theft individual liberty, but the draining away of the soul. Those who will not conform to fear, who will not be reformed by it, are simply eliminated—removed from society, cities, or the ranks of the living if necessary.

“City of Specters” is one of the most haunting in the collection—not because of physical brutality, but because of the way authoritarian control pervades the human spirit. At the outset, Han Gyeong-hee fights the crowds assembling in Pyongyang for an annual celebration honoring the supreme leader. She is strong and independent, contemptuous of her husband’s flaws, while struggling with the night terrors of her young son. Her son is frightened by the oversized images of Kim Jong-il posted throughout town. One in particular can be seen through their apartment window, reminding him of a legendary beast who punishes misbehaving children. Here, the normal trials of parenting collide with the pervasive demands to conform to society. After Gyeong-hee repeatedly draws her curtains to salve her son’s episodes from the public, she is reprimanded and warned for not keeping her window presentation in unison with the rest of the building. The overarching aspects of everyday life in a terrorist regime are on full display. Like an x-ray examining her thoughts, the government plumbs her business and plies it against her at will. It’s a slow burn that crushes her soul. Again and again, the party informers threaten Gyeong-hee, until her family is banished from the capital city, and a woman who seemed strong enough to persevere anything is psychologically broken.

Some intellects of free nations overemphasize their country’s imperfections, demanding greater control of a centralized government as a curative measure. This is a fear-driven philosophy that, as Bandi so aptly documents, results in fear throughout the land. Each of these misguided intellects either misinterprets or purposely skirts the central debate of individual liberty vs. authoritarian control, ignoring the endgame. Suppressing independent thought and action, so that the least equipped among us are safer, historically leads to diminished rights, self-expression, and prosperity. It in fact reverses the progress of civilization, not enhances it as some might claim. It does, however, empower and enrich the ruling class—albeit a military dictatorship, a communist regime, or an elected hierarchy that has become a corrupt and isolated faction apart from the people. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Liberty brings potentially dangerous paths en route to creativity, success, and fulfillment. Authoritarianism delivers a stifling cocoon and a guaranteed dead end of personal misery. Bandi approaches this result in each of his stories. Acts that we take for granted in a free society will place his characters in peril.

Man’s inhumanity against man has been the overarching sin of the centuries, and Bandi reveals this abomination, resulting when one small group dominates the masses. Handwritten between 1989 and 1995 in native hangul, his stories are delivered in a simple style, but neither time nor translation lessen their impact. Although a brief afterword sketches the genesis of this book, one can only imagine what it took to both compose these stories and then smuggle them outside the country. Bandi has no doubt risked his life many times in the process. Let’s hope he’s still alive and continues to shed light on the many sins that his country’s tormentor badly wishes to hide.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Beauty is a Wound

by Eka Kurniawan
New Directions Publishing

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead twenty-one years.”

Kurniawan’s poignant and at times rollicking novel covers a century of Indonesian history from the death throes of Dutch rule, through the Japanese invasion during World War II, and into the nation’s late-century struggle for independence. Centering on the fictional shore town of Halimunda, the story covers the exploits and trials of Dewi Ayu and her four daughters, each sired by a different father during critical points of her life. These are strong if not capricious women who are self-determined and at times reckless in their path through time. They form unique characters who are ultimately metaphors for the primary facets of modern Indonesian history and its struggle to enter the twenty-first century.

Dewi Ayu, who is part Dutch by blood, sees her status fall as the Europeans evacuate during World War II. After enduring Japanese imprisonment, she is pressed into service as a comfort women—a crime against humanity that the Japanese remain unapologetic for. Ironically she reverses this fortune by becoming the most famous and sought-after prostitute in all the land.

In time, Dewi Ayu’s oldest three daughters marry a head of the military, the most feared criminal in town, and a leading socialist activist respectively. As much as they must witness their husbands’ wrath on Halimunda, each daughter, like their mother, experiences unimaginable cruelty, as well as a unique reconciliation with love. For these women, beauty is both a weapon and a burden that costs them more than they deserve. The suffering of these exotic, compelling mixed-blood women summons their ability to overcome extreme circumstance in a way that only a woman can.

Turning the tables on the exploitation of what we hold dear in our eyes, Dewi Ayu’s youngest daughter forms a hideous sight by any standard. She is shunned by her community and mockingly named Beauty by her own mother who abandons her by dying shortly after her birth. Through the girl Beauty and the events to which all the women are exposed, author Kurniawan indicts the inhumanity against man brought by foreign occupation and the ensuing fight for independence. Here, there is scarcely anyone either not guilty or a victim of violence and a lust for power. Too often, less developed nations are dragged into the future by the worst men have to offer.

Like the intergenerational curse that lords over the family, much of this tale is tragic. However, it gains momentum and entertainment in its use of folklore, verisimilitude of setting, and spectacular storytelling that harkens the classic novel form. A hint of contemporary verbiage exists that may or may not have been introduced by Annie Tucker’s clean and consistent translation. The writing is markedly mature by achieving both broad palette concepts and distinct character details at the same time. This is a large novel about a country and a handful of interesting people delivered by an interesting new author on the English-speaking scene.

The Problem with Book Advertising

A true bestselling author (not a momentary flash on AMAZON Kindle, which creates “bestselling” authors we will never hear from again) has a large publisher spending piles of money to cover their hefty royalty advance. This repeated and wide-ranging advertising makes people aware of the book release and hopefully locks in sales. It’s an expensive luxury that happens for less than 1% of published authors. When you attend Book Expo, you’ll discover these authors peering down from forty-foot high banners hanging from the ceiling of New York’s Javtis Center. We all want to be the focus of such vanity. I want to be on a forty-foot banner, but for most authors, this type of expenditure will never be a reality.

That is fine. After all, the golden age of the author has ended. It died with authors like Styron, Vonnegut, and Vidal. The authors with forty-foot banners mark the end of this age, but unlike William Styron, the modern, banner-sized authors are not writers of literature. They are entertainers and commodity producers—a different sphere of the written word. And that is fine as well. Styron once said that he was surprised by the celebrity that came his way and not surprised by the general disappearance of it.

Also changing with the times is the way we communicate with each other. Most of us have grown up during the dawn of the Information Age and been bombarded with increased advertising during our lives. For Baby Boomers, the hot new devices were TVs and VCRs that skipped commercials. Millennials now do this subconsciously. Before advertising became super-saturated within our culture, a message was received after only three repetitions. Today, it takes thousands of occurrences if the message is received at all.

This makes effective advertising cost prohibitive for authors. However, annually we contribute a great deal in total to keep these old, tired, and useless modes of book advertising alive. We buy slots in print and Internet publications and the equivalence of e-mail spamming, and none of us see significant results. The total volume of it works against us.

The current generation is savvy about acquiring information, as well as how to separate the corporate appeals from what they desire. To some degree, most of us have adapted along those lines. For example, one premiere publishing trade magazine sells its cover to advertisers. This cover had always been a sign of “making it” in the industry, but I cannot tell you who or what was on the cover last week, much less in the last ten years. News radio stations prattle on about the next great mystery novel redux, but I can’t remember who or what they were talking about. A great article in a top writing association magazine had a large author advertisement on the opposing page, but I cannot recall the book or author. It might have been for the author who was the focus of the article, but I’ve obviously learned to filter out the noise, and so have you.

Some of us don’t want to give up on the big lie, especially new writers. They dream of fat book contracts, bestsellers, and forty-foot banners, but on publisher’s row in Manhattan, we have a better chance of getting hit by a taxi—a much better chance. The same is true for book advertising. Advertisers can provide circulation, visitor, and click data, but no one can provide a success rate (i.e. how it translates to actual sales), because it’s not sincerely traceable. So let’s line up a few realities about book promotion.

Print, radio, and television advertising is a bad bet for authors. Not only is it expensive and likely ignored, the target audience is a mere fraction of the people reached. In general, the reading public has always been a small portion of the entire population. Even if the advertising is done through a reader-specific outlet, we aren’t really paying attention after a handful of ads. Unless the author is a successful stockbroker, he or she will not have the resources to generate enough repetition to penetrate public awareness with advertising.

The author interview has always been an effective way to reach an audience. No matter the medium, readers come to a particular book through the author first. If the author is interesting or provides a compelling story or facts, then the reader will remember the author’s name and seek out the book.

Trusted secondary sources are valued by readers. Potential readers want to hear testimonies about a book from just about anyone but the author or publisher. Readers seek feedback from friends, commentary from known authors, the expertise of valued review publications, and the authority of reputable book awards. Each of these sources adds a layer of authenticity to the author and his/her book.

Word of mouth still works, only the methods of word of mouth have changed. A trusted book recommendation is king in the bookselling business. However, few people still stand on street corners or at cocktail parties and discuss the books they are reading. Social media is the new street corner of discussion, and here too, the personality of the author comes into play. The most compelling authors rarely mention their books. Like the author interview, people remember the author’s name and eventually seek out the book.

Let’s start employing more effective strategies through digital platforms. Leave the ads for soft drink and toothpaste companies. They have the cash, and everyone is interested in those items. An author’s audience is smaller and smarter, too. The goal is to draw an audience to the author and then create a feedback loop, which is the contemporary version of old fashion word of mouth. Within a feedback loop, readers will circulate book commentary that is both organically grown and culled from trusted voices of authority and expertise.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future. See his popular series on publishing: The Book Killers.

The Book Killers: Amateur Covers

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

In book selling basics, the author attracts the reader and the first page sells the book, but nothing allows a potential reader to disregard a book like an unprofessional cover. The US Review encounters poor book covers on a regular basis: drab, confusing, amateurish designs or some combination of the three. So let’s take a look at book cover basics.

1) The main title should be visible from twenty feet away. This is accomplished through a combination of font, size, and color contrast. A title that is viewable from a distance in a bookstore is as easily read when reduced in size for on-line sales.

2) Title visibility applies to the spine as well. For most of its commercial shelf life, a book will be placed spine out. The title should be as large and as high contrast as possible.

3) Make the subtitle informative. While I’m not a fan of employing subtitles, except for nonfiction, book series, or very short main titles, the subtitle should be essential to the book’s message. Overall, the title and subtitle combination should not be overlong. The best titles are brief—something a typical person can remember and tell another.

4) Don’t forget the back matter. The back of the book is where business takes place. Most retailers won’t sell your book without a standard bar code in the lower right corner or a clearly visible price and genre designation.

5) Keep the book summary to 100 words or less. It’s true. A book can be explained in one short sentence. The New York Times Bestseller List bestseller list has been doing this for decades. Avoid putting a book on the back of a book. (FYI, the author bio is not a back cover essential. While it must be included in the book, it’s easily located on either the last page, inside flap, or back cover.)

6) Gather authoritative endorsements. People want to read quotes regarding the book, but not from the author, publisher, or author’s friends. Build authority for the book with commentary from recognizable experts (i.e. known authors, celebrities, or subject-related practitioners), as well as feedback from professional book review publications.

7) Employ thematic artwork. Artwork that definitively relates to the content describes the book in advance. There is a reason why romances feature a rapturous women and science fiction titles present glossy hi-tech images on their covers. The correct audience is subconsciously drawn to it. Furthermore, the color palette used evokes different emotions. Horror titles make good use of black and red. Young adult romances paint the cover in virginal white and pink. Also, men and women are attracted to different colors for different genres. The psychology of color is an advanced science, which leads us to the final element of cover design.

8) Hire a professional. Most authors are not visual artists, but a professional book designer or even a talented artist should have an innate or trained sense of image and color. Book designers can be contacted through the Internet. At the very least, struggling artists can be found locally. Check their portfolios to see if their work matches the sensibilities of the prospective book. Fees will range from nominal to pricey, but a good cover is worth it. Photoshop’ed self-made covers constructed on the cheap (and often like kindergarten artwork) are easier to spot than a title from twenty feet away, and they will debase the entire book.

The much-used aphorism “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is philosophically correct, but in reality, more people do this than don’t. A great cover sells the book as well as the author sells the book. When considering a cover design, visit a bookstore for trends and ideas within the genre. Taking the time, as well as hiring a professional, gives a book that likely took months if not years to write the jacket and marketing potential it deserves.

Next in The Book Killers series: Inferior Word Choice

Previously in The Book Killers series: Poor Structure