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Episode LXII: "Those reviews read to me more about the reviewer than the book"

Published 11/26/16
In this installment, I speak with Louisa Ermelino. Topics include PW's anonymous review policy, self-published books, film criticism vs. book criticism, reviewers with big names & more.

Today I'm with Louisa Ermelino, who has served as the reviews director at Publishers Weekly since 2005. PW has been in business since 1872, heralds itself as “The International News Magazine of Book Publishing and Bookselling", and is seen as one of the most steadfast, objective sources of reviews across all genres and styles.

I would have always taken an interview with Louisa, but especially after conducting sixteen reviews on Thick Skin, a series on 0s&1s that analyzes negative reviews from the author's perspective. What I've learned is that reviewing books is hard. You're crunching the subjective into something supposedly objective, and there are always going to be hurt feelings on the way. But more on that later. Let's start with the path that brought you to PW. Can we get a quick montage?

I’m a novelist and I’ve worked in magazines. I got a chance to review for People—the first one took me six rewrites but then it was fun and enjoyable and I got to pick the books. The editor, Kristen McMurray had a room full of galleys and I could go in and pick one. I always reviewed, also for Kirkus, but my big break came when I was invited to be the PW reviews editor, the dream job—and I almost didn't take it!

Why’s that?

I was comfortable, working at Time, Inc.—medical insurance, pension, it’s a known entity, etc. Sara Nelson called me and said, “You've got to make a decision." I said, "I'm going to pass", and before she hung up, I said, "No, no! Wait…Yes, yes.” How smart was I?

What are the most salient ways your position, and your approach to it, has changed since you started?

When you review books, when you write books, there's a limited number of them. As reviews director at PW, the number of books is daunting—literally thousands of them. You know certain names, you know certain publishing houses, but then there are so many books that you want to give a chance to. There's this sense of responsibility. You know how long it takes to write a book, to go through the process, an agent, a publisher, a copyedit. Of course, now, there's self-publishing but that's another animal, isn't it? So I was awed by the idea of how important a review was, is, more than ever now when there is so much noise.

Well then this is a good chance to cover that topic, because we have to—self-publishing. It's becoming more common for reputable publications to review books that don't come from a publisher with a name, or any publisher at all. How has PW's own policy on self-published books changed? Or, even more impossible to answer: what makes a book worthy of review?

PW has a unique approach to self-publishing. We have a program, PW Select, that offers listings—but an actual review, a PW review, is possible without paying a fee. It's called BookLife, and an author sends in the self-published book and it's vetted and goes into the pool along with books by traditional publishers.

We don't sell reviews, so what makes a book worthy of review is its content. How do we choose? There's a first elimination, and then the editors fine-tune their decisions about which books to send for review. The problem with self-published books is that they most likely do not go through the process a traditional book goes through, which is arduous. Everyone thinks they can write and while everyone has a story, that doesn't mean they can tell it on the page. People know they can't paint or make music but everyone that can hold a pencil thinks they've got a shot, and they do, but it's a long one.

And when you do choose to cover a book, how is the reviewer chosen? PW publishes reviews anonymously, which can give it an air of unanimity, as in: this is all of PW's opinion. When was this decision made, and why?

I inherited the anonymous review. We do list the names of reviewers but not specifically what books they review. We also have signature reviews which are signed but to answer your question, each editor has a stable of reviewers and knows what kind of books they like to read, what kind of books they have expertise in—science, for example, or history. We have some very well versed reviewers. We have to for those subjects and also for fiction. A romance reviewer has to love (pardon the pun) romances or else how can they judge a romance? It's difficult to find reviewers and maintain them. It’s not easy to sum up a book in 200 words but I think we do a great job. I don't think the anonymity breeds malice but authors that get a less than positive review often claim that the reviewer is "out to get them" and are sure it's personal. I edit, top edit, the reviews and even though there might be negative comments, I try to be careful not to pile it on. You don't need ten adjectives to say a book is lacking. Some publications won't print negative reviews but we do 100 reviews a week and operate as trade as well as consumer so we don't have that luxury.

I want to touch on a book being lacking (maybe touch on is an understatement), but first I want to ask more directly: why the anonymity?

The reviewers are not "names' like the reviewers for the New York Times, for example, and often those reviews read to me more about the reviewer than the book. I think the anonymity lends itself to honesty. Many reviewers are writers. If you're reviewing a big name and don't like the book, do you want to be on their s--- list? Or the reverse, might you tend to be receptive because they are important names? I had an editor when I first started out that thought every writer with a reputation deserved a star for every book. Also, what does it mean to know that Jane Doe reviewed your book? And if the reviewer wants her name on a review, there are other venues. There's an advantage to it being only about the book.

All fair. And now into the mud: You say, “A romance reviewer has to love…romances”, which I found striking, despite how obvious and correct that is. It seems to be taken for granted that a reviewer is going to like a book unless it’s what? Too flawed for them? You also said, “Some publications won’t print negative reviews,” which is true. In most cases, if a book is going to be given a negative review, it isn't going to be reviewed unless it's a highly anticipated release. But the effect of this is some sort of boosterism. When Literary Hub launched 'Book Marks', their Rotten Tomatoes-esque review aggregator, many people critiqued it for giving out too high grades. And it's true: right now on the homepage, not a single book gets less than a B- (and most have A's). But isn't it really more systematic? Are we losing our ability to celebrate the truly great books by celebrating all of the good ones?

I’m not sure my comment about romances is clear. To review a romance, you have to love the genre. The same with mysteries. That doesn't preclude being discriminating. I personally do not like to read detective fiction, so I wouldn't want to review them on a steady basis. The same with science fiction, although I loved Aliens and Dune when I was, literally, on an island with nothing else to read. But that's off topic. A reviewer pays attention to a book's plot, are the characters well developed? Do you care about them? Do you want to keep turning the pages? This applies to all genres. I always go back to the Kafka line about breaking the sea of ice in your heart but also for me a good book is like pornography. I can't define it but I know it when I see it. 

PW has the hesitation of being able to review many, many books so we can publish negative reviews. As for high marks for everyone, it's an occupational habit. When I was reviewing I would start reading, think the book was awful and then when I was writing the review, would feel more generous. That's me, I don't think it's universal but it's difficult to be critical and still be fair. After all these years and all these books, I have a really high bar. For me today, there's a lot of craft and not a lot of art. And there's not enough editing. There are too many books being published and it's all about product. The next big book, not the next big writer because a lot of writers have only one book. To Kill a Mockingbird, for example. Being a writer is hard work and you are not going to hit it out of the ballpark overtime but that's what the industry expects now. An old time editor told me, “We used to take on writers, now we take on books.” Am I answering your questions? Maybe I missed a career in politics.

That's a great answer to a great question, but it's not quite mine. What I want to know: Are industry reviewers too generous? What accounts for the difference in ratio of good reviews between books and, say, film? Do you feel it's detrimental to being able to weed out the very good books?

I think industry reviewers are probably generous because so much that's published today is not exciting, so it's difficult to have strong feelings one way or the other. I go back to the idea of craft vs. art. A book can have a consistent plot, interesting enough characters, polished prose but it doesn't add up to anything. So a reviewer says all the nice things about it, that are actually true, and maybe a reference to where it falters but in general, there's nothing wrong with the book, but there's nothing heart breaking about it either. I want a book that when I have to put it down, I go crazy if I forgot where I put it. That keeps you reading into the night. It could be me, but that happens for me less and less. I don't mean necessarily an exciting book, a thriller, but a book that just hangs on, however quiet. 

There are too many's not like film where, I agree, reviews are much more critical and helpful. Our reviews are at least succinct. These long intellectual reviews are often the reviewer writing—they're interesting as essays, but they don't necessarily help you decide if you want to read the book. And sometimes, you read the review and feel like you don't even have to read the book anymore. Which is not true with film. Maybe there's not only too many books, but too many books being reviewed!

Hence: boosterism. When I go to Book Marks, and I see all of those A’s, or when I read a glowing review for a book I know is refusing to fail as opposed to taking risks, I think of everyone I know who won’t pick up a book, but especially literary fiction, because they don’t really, really know where to start, don’t know what book is going to be worth all of the hours books take. And yet, when an exciting movie comes out—I’ll choose Moonlight right now, because why not—I know about it, many people do, because I know the same writers and publications that lauded it dole out that praise only sparingly. Do you think this is why reviewers with names—Michiko Kakutani, Dwight Garner, Ron Charles—only get more influence? Because they have the privilege of actually giving out negative reviews?

Reviewers with names have a lot of clout, and rightly so. They have a personal viewpoint and if you like that and agree with them, then you trust them. They are a known entity. Books, as you say, take time and effort. It's not an hour and a half in a dark theater. Movies are more immediate. Books are not. Also, books are expensive. We in publishing lose sight of that, putting down $25-30 for a book. Which is why people buy and read the tried and true and are not so willing to take a chance unless there's a tsunami, like Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. But that's lotto, not just a great book…the stars align. And let's face it: even a bad movie is an hour and a half in a dark quiet room, maybe with popcorn!

A mode of entertainment being costly (both in time and money) should necessitate more critical reviews. That justifies reviews of plays, I think. And you could also say the world of theatre is more closed than the world of books, which also makes puzzling the difference in the ratio between positive and negative reviews. But enough—we haven't got a ton of time left, so let's focus on the positive. What has been great in books in 2016?

Check out our best books on the web...also, our first fiction picks. I'm not going to be able to pull out the names but our best books is a great roundup of 2016's great books. And our list is always a bit quirky, which I love and foster.

If there was one direction you'd hope to move PW's reviews in 2017, what would it be?

I'd always like to do more reviews, because we serve the community of libraries and booksellers that way (as well as consumers), and I'd hope to be able to highlight the deserving ones across the genres. More signature reviews and maybe short excepts because prose counts for a lot and even a sentence can show that skill.

Thanks for your time and words, Louisa. This has been well worth it.

Thank you Andrew, and for your endless patience!