Some thoughts about reviews as gatekeepers.
Why track reviews?
I was curious to know what kinds of books big review journals and nationally known media outlets were recommending to their readers. I’m a small-time blogger and reviewer, but I still know the importance of word of mouth to the success of a book. There must be thousands of romance readers that aren’t on social media who rely on their local librarians and bookstore clerks to help them discover interesting, thrilling choices. It seems reasonable to assume that some of those collection specialists and buyers aren’t romance readers, but instead rely upon trusted review sources to guide them in the right direction.
Why these eight publications?
After talking it over with the Twitter hivemind, I settled on these 8 as the most likely sources (maybe the only) for “professional” romance reviews. Library Journal, Booklist, and Kirkus are well-known review sites used by librarians all over the country, and anyone searching for “book title + review” in Google will have a high likelihood of ending up at one of these sites. The New York Times, NPR, and the Washington Post all have a national reach and a reputation for quality reviewing. Entertainment Weekly has a committed romance columnist and appeals to a wide audience of readers. The only other publication with a long-standing romance column that I could think of is The Seattle Review of Books.
Originally, my goal was also to count Publisher’s Weekly, however, their site is basically unsearchable. The only way to search the site is by title, not genre. I gave up in frustration.
Why this time period?
I decided to focus on 2018. Because Kirkus, Library Journal, and Booklist review far in advance, I went back into 2017 and included any 2018 releases. But I also included all books reviewed in 2017. This probably has the greatest impact for the numbers for The Seattle Review of Books. Olivia Waite’s columns are organized by theme instead of publication date, so she routinely includes a combination of new and older releases, which makes it easier for her to diversify her lists. In ideal world, I’d wait until the end of the year, or go back and do the first six months of 2017, but honestly, it seems unlikely that the data will be all that different.
Why authors of color, but LQBTQIA+ characters?
The Ripped Bodice Diversity Report makes plain the huge obstacles that authors of color face in the romance publishing industry. By counting authors of color, I wanted to find out if professional reviews function as yet another gatekeeper, narrowing the funnel of “buzzworthy” books even more. When determining the race of an author, I relied on their websites, their stated racial identities in their bios or interviews, and their pictures. If it was unclear, I coded the author as a question mark. All errors in counting are mine.
Meanwhile, this piece from Book Riot outlines the special issues that LGBTQIA+ authors face when it comes to revealing their identities. However, the relationships of characters is easily identified because it’s what’s on the pages of the book. Again, this is imperfect; but I don't want the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Even if I miscounted or mislabeled a few books, the overall picture is perfectly clear. I did my best to honor the information authors choose to share about themselves and their characters.
Some More Numbers
I’ll keep this to a minimum because I think the numbers speak for themselves.
Across all the publications, there were 418 reviews, but of course many books were reviewed more than once.
By genre: 53% contemporary, 37% historical, 8% paranormal, and 2% YA.
75 books received more than one review. Cat Sebastian’s Unmasked by the Marquess was reviewed in 7 of the 8 publications.
62 books by authors of color were reviewed by 40 different authors.
33 different books with LGBTQIA+ characters were reviewed.
If I didn’t include Olivia Waite’s columns at The Seattle Review of Books, these overall numbers would be far more damning. She recommended almost a third of the books with LGBTQIA+ characters (9 out of 33) and 12 authors of color, many of whom were not reviewed in any other publication.
23 titles received at least 3 reviews. Of these there were 5 authors of color and 2 books with LGBTQIA+ characters.
In fact, only 8 books were reviewed 4+ times---and 7 of those books had LGBTQIA+ characters or authors of color. My conclusion: That’s a pretty narrow funnel. Publications are reviewing books by AOC or books with LGBTQIA+ characters that are already well-known. This further limits discoverability for authors of color and books with LGBTQIA+ characters.
I’ll keep tracking through the end of the year for 7 of the 8 (I’d have to pay for Booklist. We’ll see how I feel). I’ll publish an update at the of the year.
I made the biggest possible genre buckets: contemporary, YA, historical, and SF/F. I just didn’t have the bandwidth for doing more. But if I had to do it all over again, I’d probably break down contemporary into inspirational and romantic suspense. Booklist in particular is reviewing LOTS of inspirational romance, and I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that they’re reviewing more books about Amish people than people of color who are/and/or LGBTQIA+ people. (By the way, marvel is code for “furiously angry.” In case your snark-meter is broken.)
Finally, here’s my spreadsheet—just titles, authors, links, and release dates. I keep wishing there was a romance review aggregator. Suzanne at Love in Panels calls this dream the “Rotten Tomatoes for Romance”, which sounds about right. This spreadsheet does contain a lot of reviews— I want to be able to click somewhere and compare reviews across platforms!-- but because of where it’s drawn from, it’s too white, too allocishet, and not at all satisfying.
I don’t know what’s next. I just want us to do better.
Buy the books you want to see in the world, Jen