One of the new experiences for me as a trade author is the process of getting reviews. When I published my first two book with an academic press, it took a year or more for reviews to start coming in. This time around, as Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist and Miss Grief and Other Stories get ready for publication on February 29, reviews have already appeared, the earliest on November 9, nearly four months before publication!
As the pre-publication reviews have come in, I have been holding my breath. Reviews in Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal “influence which books get noticed, bought, and promoted in the media,” as an article in Slate magazine explains. These are trade magazines that provide reviews for bookstores, libraries, and newspaper and media outlets. We ordinary folks don’t read them (in fact, reviews in Booklist and Library Journal are available to subscribers only, although Booklist will make reviews available online for two weeks).
When you log onto Amazon or Barnes and Noble, these are the book reviews that appear first. And, as they “aim to predict a book’s fate in the real world,” Slate argues, “they [also] play a role in shaping that fate.” How much subsequent coverage your book receives in the more widely read publications can be determined by these early reviews. They can also influence book buyers and libraries, hence the number of books sold.
So it would seem that the fate of your book rests in the hands of four random (and in some cases anonymous) people who get to have their say before anyone else. Of course, the trade publications aren’t as all-powerful as they once were. Book bloggers and websites can have more impact on readers’ opinions and hence book sales. So I sent a list today to my editor of book blogs that might be interested in my book. Ultimately, there is no sure route to getting attention for your book, and certainly these early trade reviews do help. So I was delighted when two out of the four trade publications gave Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist starred reviews, which are given to small percentage of books (about 10%) they deem most worthy of attention.
PW and Kirkus gave solid, positive reviews, but no stars. PW called the biography “a thoughtful retelling of Constance Fenimore Woolson’s life.” Woolson’s “work merits reexamination, and Rioux has brought to life an unjustly forgotten writer,” they concluded. Kirkus called it “an intelligent, sympathetic portrait of a complicated, even tortured writer who calls for fresh readers.”
Then on December 1, Library Journal gave the biography a starred review, although only the first few sentences are available online. The verdict was:
“An important contribution to reestablishing this long overlooked writer to her rightful place in the American literary canon, this excellent book will captivate readers interested in women’s studies and late-19th-century American literature.”
The American Library Association’s Booklist, however, went beyond my wildest dreams with starred reviews for both the biography and the collection of stories. They are devoting a whole page in the print edition to a feature promoting both books together. Online, you can see, for the next two weeks, the individual reviews. Of the biography they write, “Rioux has brought Woolson back to the republic of letters by writing a vivid, deeply involving biography.” And,
“Rioux offers smart and poignant insights into why Woolson was forgotten and why her unapologetically sincere and passionate novels and stories fell so swiftly out of favor. It is a boon for everyone interested in American literature and women’s lives to have Woolson back on the shelf.”
Of the stories, they write,
“This is an exciting volume, with a thoughtful and admiring foreword by Colm Tóibín, who describes Woolson as ‘an adventurous and brave explorer in the territory of human disappointment.’ . . . The humble, hard-working, long-suffering women in Woolson’s stories are transcendent in their stoicism and capability. Woolson belongs in every American literature collection.”
It doesn’t get much better than that. All of my hopes for the reception of these two books was fulfilled by this review. My family and I went out for a special dinner that night to celebrate.
There are many more reviews to come, however. At least I hope there are. I know of a few in the works. Let’s hope they are as welcoming of Woolson, helping her to regain the recognition she deserves. But I will be on tenterhooks until the publication reviews come out closer to publication time (Feb. 29).
[If you happen to be interested in reviewing Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist or Miss Grief and Other Stories, e-galleys are available in Edelweiss or you can request review copies from my publicist, Elizabeth Riley, at firstname.lastname@example.org.]