What’s the Deal with Book Reviews?

Many of my readers are active in book clubs. One of those readers made the following request. “Tell me about book reviews and where they come from.”books-bookstore-book-reading-159711.jpeg

To that question I’m adding: “Does a book review make a difference in the sales of a book?” and “Who is Kirkus?”

Let’s start with “Where do reviews come from?”

In today’s multimedia environment book reviews can be found in newspapers and magazines (New York Times, Kirkus), book-oriented web sites (Goodreads, Bookbub), book purchase sites (Amazon, Barnes and Noble), blogs, chat rooms, social media, and from friends and family.

Reviews found online come from readers, friends and family of the author (who may or may not have read the book) and some come from sites that will post positive reviews for a fee. In 2015 Amazon sued writers that had paid an outside company to write glowing reviews of self-published books among other products.[1]

In a survey published by Smashwords in 2011[2], the various sources of reviews were compared for readers of ebooks. 29% of respondents surveyed indicated that they choose an ebook through recommendations from fellow readers in online message forums, blogs and message boards. Only 3% of respondents cited reviews or recommendations from traditional media as being their preferred ebook discovery method, and 7% state that they browse randomly first before looking at reviews.books-education-school-literature-51342.jpeg

Does a book review make a difference in the sales of a book? The short answer is yes. In a paper published in 2004 Alan T. Sorensen and Scott J. Rasmusse[3] found that “… book reviews have a positive and statistically significant effect on sales, and that this effect is significantly larger for positive reviews than for negative reviews.” They estimated that “a positive review leads to a 62.9 percent increase in sales in the week following the review (relative to what sales would have been in the absence of any review), versus a 34.4 percent increase for a negative review.” Even bad publicity can benefit book sales. Any form of advertising can have both an educational or informative function as well as a persuasive role. This data indicates that negative reviews can still serve to let consumers know that the book is out there and available. This effect can increase sales, just not as much as a positive review.

Who is Kirkus?

Kirkus is an American book review magazine founded in 1933 by Virginia Kirkus (1893–1980). They preview over 7000 titles annually.”[4] In 2005 Kirkus launched a fee-for-review program which allows authors or publishers to purchase a review from Kirkus. Their website features a “buy it,” “borrow it,” or “skip it,” rating system for the week’s bestsellers. They also offer editing services to authors and marketing campaign management using their magazine and website as vehicles, in addition to their (for fee) reviews of independently published books. You wouldn’t be faulted for thinking it is all a bit too cozy.

Aliance of Independent Authors Watchdog Giacomo Giammatteo wrote an article on whether a Kirkus review is worth it from the author’s perspective. Most of the authors he interviewed for the article said no. The ~250-word reviews were a rehash of the plot and only a few spare words were dedicated to commenting on the things readers want to see before selecting a book to read.[5]

Whether you read book reviews before selecting your next book or not, just as with everything you read and hear these days, it is wise to know who the reviewer is and make your own decision as to whether to trust them. Just because a book isn’t reviewed doesn’t mean it isn’t a book you would love. You might be the first person to review the next blockbuster!pexels-photo-247708.jpeg

Do you have a question about books? Leave a note in the comments section and it will be the topic of a future post. If you’d like to have a guest post on this blog let me know.

[1] Amazon Law Suit

[2] http://blog.smashwords.com/2011/09/how-ebook-buyers-discover-books.html

[3] https://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~sorensen/papers/bookreviews.pdf

[4] Wikipedia – Kirkus   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirkus_Reviews

[5] https://selfpublishingadvice.org/publishing-is-a-kirkus-review-worth-the-price/


Is it “the 46 East” or just “46 east?”

Most of my journeys from my home to anywhere, include driving on a highway.

freeway signs

Be it the grocery store, the bank, into town for lunch or on my way to one of the beach cities on the Central Coast, I’m usually on 46 East, 46 West or the 101.

There, I did it. A unique and regionally specific reference to a freeway using the definite article “the” in front of a road number. For those of you who don’t remember sentence diagramming, a definitive article is a determiner ( the in English) that introduces a noun phrase and implies that the thing mentioned has already been mentioned, or is common knowledge, or is about to be defined (as in the book on the table ; the art of government ; the famous poet and short story writer )[1].


Not being a native Californian, I hear in my own language a mish-mash of ways that I describe a road when giving directions. Sometimes I put “the” in front of the road name,  sometimes not. 30 years of living in Southern California taught me that freeways always have a “the” in front of the number. “Take the 110 to the 405 and wind up the south bay curve…”

Why does it sound natural to my ear for me to drive on 46 East – without the definitive article – and on the 101  -with the definitive article? Turns out it’s an historical accident.

In an article on the KCET website[2], this unique, regionally specific speech pattern is explained. It has to do with the history of freeways. Southern California had a few freeways long before the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956[3] defined the nations freeways and numbering system. The freeways in So. Cal already had descriptive names. A definitive article before the name made grammatical sense. The Santa Monica Freeway, The San Bernardino Freeway. Numbers were assigned to the existing roads, sometimes multiple numbers to the same named road. For years, road signs had both the name and the number. It wasn’t until new freeways were built, “The San Gabriel River Freeway” and “The Redondo Beach Freeway” in the 1990’s that drivers gave up trying to remember names and went with the numbers. But the definitive article, “the” stayed in usage. People had ingrained the habit, so they said, “the 101, the 405, the 5.”

Being from the Midwest, where we didn’t even call them freeways – they are expressways – I picked up the “the” as I learned to navigate. But when I moved from Southern California to Central California and added new freeway names to my memory bank, they didn’t include the definitive article. Thus, I still drive the 101 (which runs the length of California) and 40 East.

Mish-mash. At least I know why

[1] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/definite_article

[2] https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/the-5-the-101-the-405-why-southern-californians-love-saying-the-before-freeway-numbers

[3] https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=88


What did you just call me?

The older man with gray hair and a rugged jeans jacket stood behind me in line at the grocery store. He had an envious selection of goods for 10 am on a Monday morning. Two quarts of ice cream, a bottle of wine and a large bag of mixed candy. When I commented that his choices were more fun than mine, he commended my bananas and low salt soy sauce.

After our transactions were complete and I was heading out I told him to “have a good one.” A cliché, I know. He responded with “you too, ma’am.” MA’AM! I just turned 60 and now I’m “ma’am” to an old guy.

The realization that maybe I was old crept in as I drove home and fumed. After all, I am silver-haired and remember time before the internet, before cell phones, and conversations without emoticons or acronyms for whole sentences, where vocal cords were involved.

Then I wondered if the word “ma’am” was as bad as I made it out to be. Words are powerful. As Dumbledore said, “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”


As a lover of words, I went to the bible, the Oxford English Dictionary, for guidance.

In the North American usage, the word “ma’am” originates in the mid-17th century as a contraction of madam, “a term of respectful or polite address used for a woman.”

Okay, that’s not insulting. It doesn’t imply age or status. Just gender.

Next the OED covers the British definitions — and here is a good example of how what we speak in American is English in name only.  These definitions make me crave being called “ma’am” more often.

  1. A term of address for female royalty. The Queen is called “ma’am”, and no one else.
  2. A term of address for a female officer in the police or armed forces who is senior to the speaker.

Then I checked “madam,” since that is where “ma’am” originated.  “Madam” is a modification of the Old French “ma dame, or my lady.” Here is where the term turns shady. Madam in the OED has three definitions.  Again, we have the “used to address or refer to a woman in a polite or respectful way.”  But now we add some formal and informal usage. Formally it is “used to address a woman at the start of a formal or business letter,” and “used before a title to address or refer to a female holder of that position. For example, ‘Madam President’.”  

Informally, a “madam” is, “a conceited or bossy girl or young woman,” or “a woman who runs a brothel.” Ah-ha. There it is! Google famous madams and you get 68,500 results, and a scan of the first few pages doesn’t indicate any famous women presidents.

The upshot of my research is that the use of “sir” and “ma’am” is culturally charged. In the Southern United States, it was taught almost like a religion, and anyone not so taught was (and still is if the comments on the internet are to be believed) seen as course, uncouth, rude, and leading to the downfall of everything that is good and holy. I was taught to be polite, say “yes”, “no” and “thank you.” However, somewhere along the way, I also incorporated the understanding that ma’am is shortened for “madam” and I don’t want that association. Turns out it isn’t an age thing at all – but the implication that I might be a conceited or bossy young woman!

Do you have a word or phrase that intrigues you? Ever wonder where it comes from, or how it became part of common use? Send the word or phrase to me in the comment section and I’ll write a future blog about it.

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