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Reviews make or break struggling book biz

THE MAJORITY OF STUDIO MOVIES this summer are review-proof. Even the most negative reviews couldn’t temper the monstrous opening weekend grosses of “The Matrix Reloaded” and “Bruce Almighty.”

But books, particularly non-blockbusters like first novels and short story collections, are intensely dependent on reviews. In a rocky book market, they live or die by their coverage in major review outlets like Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and the New York Times Book Review.

Lately, these publications have been showing signs of strain.

Even the august New York Times Book Review has taken its lumps, most recently in February, after publishing an error-plagued Beverly Lowry review of a memoir by Whitewater defendant Susan McDougal.

“Yo Beverly. Next time, read the damned book,” hissed one Arkansas newspaper columnist.

Kirkus, which competes with PW, Booklist and Library Journal as an organ for early, short-form reviews, came under fire this spring for two harshly negative reviews — of Nancy Kricorian’s novel, “Dreams of Bread and Fire,” and Claire Scovell LaZebnik’s novel, “Same As It Never Was” – both of which were fraught with factual mistakes.

Kirkus declined to print a correction in either case. In a nasty exchange of letters with Kirkus editor Ann Larson, Kricorian’s husband — Focus Features co-chair and “Hulk” screenwriter and producer James Schamus — described the affair as of “one of the most astonishing confessions of professional dereliction I have ever seen.”

Last week, Little, Brown yanked from bookstores Brian VanDeMark’s “Pandora’s Keepers: Nine Men and the Atomic Bomb,” after allegations arose that he’d plagiarized the work of five authors.

PW had previously given the book a starred review.

IT’S NOT REALLY FAIR to pillory these publications for such infractions. Week after week, they’re under the gun to produce a prodigious number of hard-hitting, high-caliber reviews. And they have scant resources.

I should know. I was a book review editor at PW for several years.

When I was at PW, reviewers were paid, on average, $50 a review. But the editors worked long hours each week, turning out reviews of nearly 5,000 books each year, culled from submissions five times that volume. My boss, Sybil Steinberg, who recently retired after serving as a Forecasts editor since 1976, retained an encyclopedic knowledge of books that had published over the past 25 years, and how they had been positioned by their publishers.

The Forecasts mantra was: “Review the book in a week, and do an expert job.” Most often we did.

(The situation is just as stressful at national newspapers, where budgetary pressures have led editors to gut review pages and slash staffs.)

Advance reviews no longer influence bookstore buying decisions, which are made months prior to publication.

But PW Forecasts editor Jeff Zaleski told me the mag’s reviews are more important than ever.

“Our primary function is to start the conversation going before the product is released,” Zaleski said. The outpouring of book information on the Web has reinforced the authority of a PW review, he said.

“There’s a lot more being published and a lot more hinky information about books being purveyed,” he said.

Kirkus’ Larson did not return calls.

“They still matter a great deal,” Random House executive director of publicity Carol Schneider said of advance reviews. They especially matter, she added “for the book one picks up for the pleasure of reading it. Less so for news-breaking books.”

PW, for the record, is a corporate sibling of Variety. Kirkus, which contributes content to the Hollywood Reporter, is not.

IF THE POWER OF ADVANCE REVIEWS hasn’t waned dramatically, another reason may be that they serve a number of obvious purposes beyond influence on sales. They influence other reviews, they influence Hollywood and they can be good for author-publisher relations.

Unlike movie reviews, which have been undermined in recent years by the proliferating blurbmeisters whose pseudo-reviews festoon full-page movie ads in major newspapers, the advance review outlets still have most of their credibility intact.

As consumers spend fewer leisure dollars on books, publishers will continue to depend on a PW or Kirkus endorsement.

That will put even more pressure on the over-stressed review editors to cover the important books in a timely fashion, and to cover them well.

As Schamus sees it, if editors want to retain that credibility “reviews have to mean something.”

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