Why Do Professional Reviewers Dislike Bestsellers?

One of the most interesting issues I’ve confronted in my years involved with traditional publishing is why some books sell well despite less-than-stellar reviews and why some with five star ratings barely move the sales needle.

It would be similar to films which win Oscars or top honors at film festivals but are barely noticed in the marketplace.

I recall attending a showing of a movie with my wife a couple years ago and after it was over, she commented that it was the worst movie she had ever seen. I didn’t particularly like it either, but I commented that it would probably win many awards and possibly a best-picture Oscar.

It did.  And that’s why I should be a voting member of the Academy.

The same issue applies in the Christian media marketplace. The most popular books often will not be reviewed well by professional reviewers and books receiving high marks from professional reviewers frequently (not always) do not sell particularly well. (I am not talking about online reviews, which are mostly reader-generated. I am referring to people who review books for a living.)

There is a parallel issue of professional reviewers commenting on a book, which is already selling well and dismissing it as less than worthy of being considered a good book. In general, high-volume books are not reviewed well by critics.

Why the disconnect? Here are some conclusions, which I have arrived at simply by observing:  (Translation: I could be wrong)

Professional reviewers are like anyone else

They have preferences for what they like and don’t like. It takes a unique person to look beyond their personal opinion and evaluate if a book is effectively doing what the author intended and if readers will enjoy it, or whether it will contribute to the society or not.

Professional reviewers are intelligent

Reviewers may view bestsellers as overly simplistic and not much of an intellectual challenge. Most bestselling books are written at a 6-8th grade reading level.  While certainly not a Christian author, Earnest Hemmingway routinely wrote at a 4th to 5th grade level, so it is no mystery why the literature pundits did not appreciate many of his works. (If you want to have some fun, click here  for a reading level analysis of some prominent authors and works.)

Professional reviewers are often trained in great literature

Bestsellers are a result of reaching a large audience, and most in society are not inclined to appreciate great literature. (Sorry if this offends…the whole “unwashed masses” issue again) Professional evaluations can be made based on a great classical literature standard and not on what a large number of readers will read. The two are often quite different.

All this explains some of the difficulty publishers have in deciding which books will sell well and which will not.  Editors at any publisher are intelligent, educated or readers of great literature and have personal opinions of what makes for a good book. Those who have succeeded in their work of acquiring for their publishers over a long period have learned to consider what the publisher sells well and what readers will enjoy and find most helpful.

In some cases they set aside their personal preferences.

This is about as subjective a process as I can imagine and explains why just about every bestselling book has been rejected by numerous publishers before it finds a publisher home.

There are many examples of bestselling authors who win sales awards and not literary quality awards and many who win literary awards but do not sell well. A few accomplish both, but not as many as you might think.

So why do professional book reviewers often dislike books which sell well?

Because they are human.

 

15 Responses to Why Do Professional Reviewers Dislike Bestsellers?

  1. Brennan McPherson May 30, 2017 at 3:44 am #

    I think another reason is that professional reviewers write reviews based on the writing quality, whereas many times, well-written books are written from a challenging perspective, and most readers don’t want to be challenged, but to be comforted. Normal, every-day readers don’t often review based on the quality of the writing as much as they do on, “How did the book make me feel?” If a book makes someone feel very positively about themselves or the world, they tend to share it more readily than a book that makes them feel uncomfortable. That’s why romance books remain one of the perennial best-selling categories. Each genre has it’s own way of making the reader “feel good,” and so genre fiction tends to do better than cross-genre fiction, which can confuse readers or give them something they didn’t expect (which tends to make them angry, which then tends to result in bad reviews regardless of the quality of the book). Readers are writing reviews and sharing books from a much more emotional (and hardly ever logical) perspective, whereas industry professionals tend to function from a more logical (and less emotional) perspective. Nothing wrong about either approach, just definitely something to consider when working on that next plot twist. (“Will this make a reader angry?” If yes, then don’t do it! It’s our job as writers to give the reader a good experience.)

    • Dan Balow May 30, 2017 at 4:44 am #

      Good point. Personally, my soul prefers chicken soup over bad tasting medicine!

  2. Judith Robl May 30, 2017 at 5:09 am #

    Aha!

    Randy Ingermanson teaches that your reader seeks a

    Powerful
    Emotional
    Experience.

    I find that the intellect and the heart are frequently on different planets. That may explain, in part, the disconnect.

    • Dan Balow May 30, 2017 at 7:38 am #

      And even emotional experiences are subjective when the reader creates their own definition of “powerful.” For instance, for me, little scenes almost overlooked are often more powerful than the great climax. I look for the small stuff. Others want loud dramatic experiences.

      It’s personal, always personal.

  3. Carol Ashby May 30, 2017 at 6:14 am #

    I’ve watched a lot of amateur sports and “competed” in science. I’ve observed an element of jealousy in many assessments of another’s performance or work that exceeds the norm.

    I’ve also observed commentators get caught up in thinking their assessment was based on “wisdom” and “better taste” that exceed those of the unwashed masses. That might be in play in criticizing a best seller harshly. There may be an element of “those who can, do; those who can’t, work as critics.”

    God’s the only perfectly qualified critic. Meeting His standards is what matters most to me.

  4. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 30, 2017 at 7:07 am #

    Perhaps one reason critics often pan bestsellers is that their coin of the realm is comparison. They judge using both personal preferences and canonical standards, to give credence to their opinion by fitting it into a larger body of similar work.

    In film, consider Mel Gibson’s “The Road Warrior” and Clint Eastwood’s “Pale Rider”. Both are homage to “Shane”, but your average moviegoer would not be sitting there with the Shane Comparison Checklist, while it’s the critic’s job to do that.

    We are privileged to be able to simply enjoy a work for its own sake and on its own merits, while the critic’s job is to protect the art, and I can respect that.

  5. Nicola Cameron May 30, 2017 at 7:33 am #

    ‘Critical acclaim’,to my mind, means, “Someone steeped in the salt of the industry, who can point out the faults of my work, at least thinks I am worth reading.”
    Is there a way of comparing the success, or compatibility of reader reviews to best sellers in the same way you compared it for professional reviewers?

    • Dan Balow May 30, 2017 at 7:46 am #

      I don’t think so.

      The reader-review world has been “tainted” (for lack of a better word) by planned reviews (friends and family) it is almost impossible to do any analysis of them.

      When I look at reader reviews, I look at when a book released and then when the reviews occurred. If a book has been available for six months but all the reviewed were in the first month after release, they could probably be dismissed as “planned reviews.”

      It’s the review six month’s later or a year later than matters.

      Regardless, it is always a long-term process.

      • Nicola Cameron May 31, 2017 at 8:09 am #

        Thank you for your answer. It would be a complicated algorithm that could discern the vagaries of reader reviews.

  6. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D May 30, 2017 at 9:18 am #

    Fascinating thoughts, Steve. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Effie-Alean Gross May 30, 2017 at 5:28 pm #

    Excellent post, Dan. Writing at the eleventh grade level appeals to me, but the “average reader” would put the book down after page one. I love what you wrote, as it is so true!
    –Effie-Alean Gross
    http://www.EffieGross.com

  8. Edward Lane May 30, 2017 at 9:48 pm #

    Thanks for your insight, Dan. I don’t doubt publishers and agents are more highly-educated than most readers. I’ve heard that, too, about Hemingway writing at fourth grade level. Maybe writers should drop out after fourth grade and start writing then! Seriously, it’s quite a game to aim for an audience to buy one’s books. I doubt a famous writer like James Joyce would sell many books today!

  9. R.K. Lander May 31, 2017 at 12:50 am #

    Great discussion, for sure. I think this ‘separation’ is very real. The technical/artistic viewpoint of the professional reviewer versus the emotional/empathic slant of the reader-reviewer. From an author’s point of view, this is quite the juggling act. Writing what you want to write because you feel it, i.e. those ‘little things’ you mention, and / or writing what you know will get a wider response. The more discerning reader will always pick up on the details and I love it when they are noticed and commented. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen very often!
    I suppose it really is a question of balance, as with most things. I am guessing the genius reviewer will have that technical input and the empathy to transcend, to understand what others may or may not see in a story.

  10. Mary-Anne Crooks May 31, 2017 at 11:15 am #

    Incredibly interesting but daunting at the same time.

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