Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Which is more important, professional reviews or teen reviews?

Anonymously, I take a lot of crap. You see, I am a member of one of the most hated groups in children's publishing: I review for Kirkus. As a reviewer for Kirkus, I have been told in indirect terms that I am a moron, that I didn't "get" the point of a book, that I am cruel and harsh and it doesn't matter what I think, anyway, because I'm just a dumb adult and the really important reviews come from teens.

I swear, if I see one more author blog about how it's teen reviews that really matter and professional reviews, especially from Kirkus, are of little consequence, I'm going to throw something. Here's why:

What librarians know very, very well and what too many authors seem to miss is the question of how those books get into teens' hands in the first place. If teens want books, they have three options, more or less: a brick-and-mortar bookstore, the library, or Amazon/other online retailer. Now, Amazon is a different sort of beast than a bookstore or library. They can and do carry just about everything, and a customer can decide if she wants to buy a book based not just on professional reviews, but user reviews as well. Of course, one has to wait until the book is widely available to get those reviews. The biggest difference between online retailers and concrete institutions is the amount of space available to house books. No bookstore or library has unlimited amounts of space or money to purchase books, and that's where professional reviews come in. Because I have never worked in a bookstore, I'll talk about the value of professional reviews to libraries, and how (or how not) teen reviews matter.

Like most librarians, I'm used to buying books for a collection on a tight budget. In order to make the most of what little money I have to spend, I cannot justify buying a book if I can't answer "Yes" to the question: Is this book going to circulate? The answer to that question is different for every book in every library. I know of libraries where Gossip Girl sits on the shelf and collects dust. In order to decide if a book sounds like a good fit for my collection, I have to read its reviews. I have decided not to buy more than one book based on its marginal reviews. Thing is, I can't wait for all those books to be out long enough to garner multiple customer reviews on Amazon. In order to keep patrons happy, I need to have the newest books on the shelf as close to their street date as possible. After all, that's only good customer service. If I'm getting information about books prior to their release, I want those reviews to come from people whose judgment I trust. Those people I trust would be my colleagues, fellow industry professionals who work with teens and can evaluate a book for quality and popularity. The short version: If a book doesn't get good reviews in the professional journals, its chances of actually making it into a teen's hands are decreased because a book with bad reviews where the author is not already a big name is less likely to be purchased for a library's shelf. So in this case, professional reviews matter way more than teen reviews. It's true that I've bought books with bad reviews because I knew they were going to be popular, but that has more to do with serving my library's population than who the important reviewers are.

Do adult reviewers read books differently than teens? Heck yeah. Does this mean their reviews count for less? NO. It's just a different perspective. Not all reviewers agree on all books. Look at reviews for books like Wicked Lovely and King Dork. To say those reviews are mixed among the professional journals is an understatement. In cases like these, I read as many reviews as possible and see if the book is a good fit for my population.

I don't think teen reviews of books are a bad thing. Far from it. Stellar reviews from teens means that a book is speaking to its intended audience. But authors, please do not discount the importance of reviews by us grownups. We're a big part of the reason you get teen reviews in the first place.

(Now, the author who complained that the reason Kirkus gave his book a bad review was because s/he was reviewing from a galley is another post altogether, starting with the fact that Kirkus's reviews have to be in 2 months prior to the street date of the book...)

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