Ask a Book Question

Ask a Book Question: The 62nd in a Series (Book Review Aggregators)

By posted at 6:16 pm on June 23, 2008 5

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.





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5 Responses to “Ask a Book Question: The 62nd in a Series (Book Review Aggregators)”

  1. King Rat
    at 8:50 pm on June 23, 2008

    Also, book information is far more complicated than movie information.

    LibraryThing seems to be slowly adding capabilities that may eventually make it have both the IMDB-like information for books as well as the social information. Because users can import information from hundreds of libraries around the world means that the information that Amazon lacks will get supplemented.

  2. Garth Risk Hallberg
    at 9:36 am on June 24, 2008

    I'm with Margaret on this one, I think, but there are a couple of moving parts to her question that complicate things. The first is the notion of aggregation. As Margaret says, and as Max reiterates, "metascores" don't seem to fit with the idea of literature, unless they're being put together by someone with an in-depth knowledge of the book in question. (Notice also that it takes much longer to read a book than to watch a movie or listen to an album.) So they probably wouldn't be an element of the site Margaret's imagining.

    The second complication – one Max notes, is the sheer volume of books. That said, if we exclude all but the most accessible titles from the university presses, plus cookbooks, yoga books, etc., there are probably fewer than 30 new titles each month around which literary conversation centers, or about 360 a year. An editorial board of 10 people who collectively read the catalogues, the major newspaper supplements, The New Yorker, the NYRB, and who follow the best small presses, ought to be able to identify those titles relatively painlessly. (Right now, e.g., the Rivka Galchen book, the Nam Le book, the Leni Zumas book, the Toby Press edition of the Stay More books, and Rudolph Wurlitzer, would all be part of the conversation on the fiction side of things).

    The third step would be to figure out what venues have useful things to say about those books – surely the New Yorker and the NYTBR qualify, but don't a few literary blogs, too? Doesn't Nextbook, or Open Letters? The Guardian? Don't interviews and profiles often provide valuable context? The platonic ideal for a meta-review site would index this content and maybe offer a one-sentence digest of each link. The reader could click-through to the interesting-looking reviews and parse them for him- or herself.

    The biggest hurdle, I think, is that such a site would require startup capital to design, and then maybe 100 hours a week to run (2.5 full-time or 5 half-time jobs, or 10 10-hour-a-week jobs) – it's a lot of work, keeping up with reviews, and it's easy to get fed up.) And eventually it would have to generate revenue, through advertising, or subscription, or a subsidy from publishers, or from the review venues to which the site steered its readers.

    But I think the time is coming. The ideal version of the site Margaret's imagining would democratize the literary conversation somewhat, by reviewing Overlook Press titles, e.g., alongside the latest slab from Simon & Schuster – and by presenting a more honest take on the books in question – while providing the publishing industry with a more centralized and authoritative venue to bring the best of its product to the attention of readers.

    Interestingly, a reader of The Millions who's a former editor at one of the big publishing houses mentioned that his imprint had talked about starting a site like this, but assumed readers would infer bias once they learned that the money was cxoming from a publisher. The well-designed Barnes & Noble Review seems to be doing something similar, but again, under a corporate umbrella. If any enterprising independent investor wants to throw us at The Millions 10 or 20 grand to start our own version, don't hesitate! I've even got a site name: The 360 Degree Review.

  3. Anonymous
    at 2:53 pm on June 24, 2008

    As for magazine reviews, you can access them through databases usually available with a public library card. These are subscriptions libraries pay for with tax money and then offer to their customers. One we use all the time the library where I work is called Ebsco Masterfile Premier. You can pull most of the reviews in full text.

    Keddy Outlaw, Lone Star Librarian

  4. Margaret
    at 5:49 pm on July 6, 2008

    Thanks for the thorough post on my question, Max. In his comment, Garth totally gets what I'm looking for—I want a site that pulls together the biggest pieces of the book reviewing conversation.

    If I weren't a lowly, overworked editorial assistant, I'd do it myself!

  5. Christina
    at 4:35 pm on January 10, 2010

    So I am coming to the discussion very late – but as for making money on the site.. IMDB does it by having a pro site. The book info should include publishers, editors, literary agents, awards, cover artists, etc. and sone of that info – (literary, agents editors, whatever the behind the scenes “industry” info is) can only be accessed through a subscription. Like IMDB – all that is of interest to the public and not writers/publishers/editors/ etc. should be available to the public. Just a thought in case anyone ever want to develop this!

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