12 August 2008

In Defense of Chess Book Reviewers

In the June 2008 edition of The Chess Journalist, Howard Goldowsky wrote a piece titled 'In Partial Defense of Chess Book Publishers'. In it he laid out the basic economics of chess book publishing and castigated reviewers for their amateurism. As an amateur reviewer who has written more than 40 book reviews plus a handful of product reviews, with the book reviews including one on Goldowsky's Engaging Pieces, I feel qualified to comment from the reviewers' point of view.

Goldowsky points out the low interest in chess books: 'A typical chess title sells between 500 and 3,000 copies', where 'a typical 192-page 6" x 9" paperback that retails for $24.95 nets roughly $5.00.' Mirroring this is a relative lack of interest in reviews of chess books. Speaking from experience, but prevented from giving real numbers, I know that a book review draws fewer visitors than most other feature articles. If a typical weekly feature attracts 1000 views (not a real number) the first week it is published and promoted on the Web, a typical book review might receive 25% of that. A review of a book on a popular subject like Fischer might get 50%, or 500 views, its first week.

After the first week, the typical weekly feature will continue to draw visitors via the search engines. Let's say it gets 500 views per week. Chess books and book reviews, however, are not frequent targets of Web searches, and might get as little as 50 views per week. This means that the popularity of a typical review is only 10% of other feature articles. Since the purpose of commercial writing for the Web is to attract visitors, it's obvious that a web writer is quickly going to lose interest in doing book reviews.

Compared to other types of feature articles, a book review also represents a disproportionate expenditure of time. A conscientious reviewer has to read the book twice, has to research the author and his past work, has to write the review, and has to execute the mechanics of publishing the review. If the book includes games and annotations, the reviewer has to spend time studying the analysis.

When Goldowsky suggests that 'a book reviewer should strive to judge a book based on what the book tries to accomplish, what the book adds to the canon, and comparisons should be made based on what similar books have already accomplished', the amateur reviewer steps back and asks, 'What is the purpose of a book review?' I might tackle this question in another post.


tom_brown_of_baltimore said...

Edward Winter wanted to warn readers about the worst chess book ever!


SBD said...

It is true that there are many many many bad chess books, and Pandolfini once noted that the books he put the most time and effort and care into sold the least.

Some of the bext chess books are very small, dedicated efforts by the author. You won't find them in the major booksellers, as "what sells" is the crap put forth by Evans, Schiller, Keene, "half-assed", barely readbale tomes aimed at an idiot audience.

It's sad, but true, and not limited to chess. Book publishing is about making money, not about publishing quality books. As one of my editors told me once, " I don't care if the book is good. I care if it sells."

Howard Goldowsky said...

Interesting take, Mark. At least one person read my editorial! Thanks. Actually, the publisher at Mongoose Press pointed me to your latest post, which had a link to this one.