Margaret wrote in with the question:
Why does there not exist (or if it does exist, why isn’t it easy to find) a website for books analogous to Rotten Tomatoes for movies? Wouldn’t that be one way to drive traffic to newspaper book reviews? (In their online form, at least; that would have the added benefit of being trackable, and proving the number of people that actually do read book reviews.) I’m imagining something that would index reviews from major newspapers, magazines, and blogs, all together in one place, so that I can say “Hey, I wonder if Title X is any good” and I don’t have to hope that the New York Times reviewed it, or figure out who did. Metacritic did this for a while, I think, but their coverage was spotty, and their “metascores” seem sort of antithetical to what good book reviewing ought to be. In any case, they’ve stopped, so whatever they were doing to fill this hole isn’t exactly helpful any longer.
I realize this is a bit un-questiony, but I really would like to know your (and the other Millionaires’) take on such a thing
This is actually a very common question, up there with: “Why isn’t there an IMDb for books?” I’ve often wondered about these questions and my best guess on the paucity of such sites is that there are number of factors in play.
The first is volume. There are a huge number of books put out every year, and even if we narrow those down to the books one might read for fun, the number is still quite large. And so, putting together a comprehensive site would be a Sisyphean task. Still, thousands of albums come out every year and Metacritic makes short work of many of them (and allmusic dutifully catalogs them), why not so for books? Especially considering that even looking at twenty books a month in this fashion would be at least adequate for many readers.
The second reason might be competition. Amazon has been around a very long time, is very closely identified with books, and, in a way, already serves the Metacritic function. Most of its pages for relatively current books have a number of reviews, or at least blurbs, listed. Combine that with the reader reviews and other meta-data and it’s hard to imagine how a competitor might improve upon it. Meanwhile, sites like Goodreads and Librarything do ample cataloging and aggregating on a more user-centric model.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, book fans aren’t quite like film and music fans, and book reviews aren’t quite like the film and music reviews. Film and music are far more likely to be consumed in group settings than are books, and so large group endeavors devoted to the cataloging of those media seem more fitting somehow. Even as there is an amorphous and no doubt large community of avid readers, it is a solitary enjoyment that does not always lend itself to the scorekeeping at the heart of the big meta-review sites. Likewise, book reviews are rarely as easily classified as film and music reviews (which often come with their own arcane scoring system, so as more easily to be averaged in with the rest). To my mind, it is a relatively poor book review that simply describes how good or bad a book is, while those that mine the book’s context in the service of a broader discussion tend to be more rewarding. How do you score something like that?
Having said all of that. There are a few spots worth checking out (some of which I’ve already mentioned).
- The Complete Review is well known and much beloved by many readers. In Metacritic fashion, M.A. Orthofer parses the coverage available for the book in question and assigns scores accordingly, adding his own often insightful reviews to the mix. For some readers, one drawback is that Orthofer’s taste in books is a departure from the mainstream, with a heavy bias towards books in translation. Of course, the Complete Review’s fans see this as a strength, and avid followers of the site are sure to be introduced to many unfamiliar titles.
- Reviews of Books is a very lo-fi site that may be closest in spirit to what Margaret is looking for. The site aggregates the reviews of a handful of the most notable books of the week. The site can be useful, but the number of titles is limited and it’s not the easiest to navigate.
- Bookbrowse does some aggregating (see the “thumbs up icons.”) But here again, I find the navigation a bit challenging.
- The Week, one of my favorite magazines, aggregates reviews on a handful of books on a weekly basis. There are no archives to dig through or anything, but it’s not a bad way to keep up to date.
- Amazon actually has a pretty great page called “Best of the Month.” It doesn’t explicitly aggregate book reviews but it does a good job of pushing to the fore the handful of books that would probably rise to the top as a result of such aggregating. Plus they add a sprinkling of intriguing meta-data and stats to give a sense of what’s “hot” right now. It’s worth bookmarking.
- Finally, there’s no aggregating going on there, but I should mention them again. LibraryThing and Goodreads emphasize just how much word of mouth matters when it comes to books, often at the expense, I might add, of book reviews.
Those are the sites I’m familiar with, but if you know of any others, please let us know about them in the comments. Thanks for the question, Margaret.