A Rotten Tomatoes for Books?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Every month thousands of books are published but few find readers, even on a planet of seven billion people. The sad fact is most hardbacks are 1st editions, and never get another. Millions of writers have struggled to create their masterpiece, only to have them disappear to indifference. Books go begging to be reviewed, so I find any effort to promote books a good thing.

Book Marks

Literary Hub, a site previously unknown to me, began a feature called Book Marks, which rates books by collecting book reviews and statistically processing the total. This immediately brings to mind Rotten Tomatoes for movies. Book Marks gives books a letter grade, and the few books they now list, have mostly high grades. I don’t know if this grade inflation is due to starting their business with buzz-worthy books, or if most books today actually get good reviews. Personally, I hate to review books by giving them a rating because I feel bad telling writers they have ugly babies, so I can imagine the later being the case.

I wish Book Marks followed Rotten Tomatoes and gave a percentage rating based on total positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes claim they judge the overall slant of a review to decide. However, most of these books have very few reviews, so one with two positive and one negative would receive a 66% rating in a percentage system, and that would be deceptive. At Rotten Tomatoes they generally have over a hundred reviews for most popular movies. One way to solve this problem would be to require only books that have at least ten reviews to get listed. But that causes other problems.

Publishing tends to be a winner take all enterprise. In other words, a few books succeed while most don’t. Book Marks is starting off by promoting books that are already getting major promotion. Their system is inherently biased against those books that are getting the least attention. But I can’t criticize Book Marks for their efforts. Like I said, any book promotion is a good thing.

This however makes me wonder how to create a better system? I feel sorry for authors who can’t find readers for their books, especially after a great self-promotion effort, or even writing an unrecognized masterpiece. Let’s be honest. All us bookworms have too much to read. We have more A+ novels on our TBR piles than we can finish in a decade. So why consider an A- book, or for some insane reason, a C+? See where the school grade system breaks down?

Readers don’t have a problem finding great books – our problem is finding more time to read. The problem at hand is writers finding readers. One solution: create more bookworms! But with PlayStations and VR that’s not likely. Efforts like Book Marks will actually further promote winners over losers. Statistical efforts to improve book reviewing will help the limited pool of readers find the most popular books, causing a larger percentage of books to be ostracized. Book Marks is only making the process more efficient. That sounds harsh, even cruel, but then does every book written deserve to be read?

I assume there’s a large percentage of books published that are well worth reading if only they could find the right reader. And since falling in love with a book is so subjective, I’m not sure any rating system is valid. What we need are systems where readers can fill out a profile, like a dating service, of what they are in the mood to read, and that system locate all the books that fit that mood. That could alleviate the problem of everyone wanting to read the most popular books, and spread readers out, giving more books a chance to succeed.

Such a system would have a side-effect that some authors might not want. More books would become moderately successful at the cost of other books being huge bestsellers. For example, a million readers who would have all bought a blockbuster would instead buy one hundred different books selling ten thousand copies each.

Currently, bloggers spend huge amounts of time reviewing, listing and writing about books. This is the new digital word-of-mouth. Many of us consciously choose to write about books that haven’t gotten attention, and that helps more books get noticed. But we also end up writing about the same popular books. It’s just natural to want to read and discuss books that everyone is reading. One way to promote books that aren’t getting attention is to mention them when reviewing bestsellers. Let the unknown titles draft on the success of hits.

And I think that’s what Book Marks needs to do to improve their service. Mix in more books and find ways to group them into themes. Personally, I don’t like the grading system, but I bet their readers do. I would recommend not grading a book until it’s gotten ten reviews to be statistically valid. Since Book Marks are copying Rotten Tomatoes they should work quickly to up the number of sites they monitor for reviews, and aim to get close to twenty reviews. Books will never be reviewed like movies and get hundreds of reviews, but if Book Marks wants to use such a comparison system, the more reviews the better. Plus, if they used more review sites, it will promote those sites, and thus promote book reviewing in general.

4 thoughts on “A Rotten Tomatoes for Books?”

  1. “Readers don’t have a problem finding great books.” I actually do have a problem finding great books, but then my literary tastes are probably not the norm. I’m picky about most things (movies, food, etc., etc.). I sometimes envy those with broader tastes.

    1. Daniel, I would think even with narrow tastes, there should still be plenty of books worth reading. I guess the problem is finding them. Do you think Book Marks’ techniques will help you?

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