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Friday, September 11, 2009 8:52 am
Book Group Research, Part 2: Reviews
Posted by: Neil Hollands

Remember when tracking down book reviews was challenging? I can remember spending hours in my university library, slogging through references in Book Review Digest, then spooling through microfilms or paging through rebound journals, then struggling to line pages up in a photocopier.

The Internet has made finding book reviews terribly easy. The magic words are simple keywords–the book title, the author name if the book title is generic, and the word “review.” Plug them into your favorite search tools. Start with electronic databases that collect full text versions of good print reviews, both databases that specialize in books like Novelist and those that collect newspaper, magazine, and journal articles. Most libraries provide access to such resources, often through any Internet connection if you have a card number or account with which to log in. These databases will get you to the bulk of professional reviews quickly.

But blogs are a wonderful source of reviews as well, accessible through the same keyword search in your favorite search engine. I also enjoy scrolling through reviews on social networking sites like GoodReads, Library Thing, Shelfari, or bookseller sites like Amazon. While these reviews are often far from professional (sometime far from literate!), they provide two important perspectives that traditional reviews lack: those of author or genre fans on one extreme, and those of people who really dislike the book on the other. Sometimes, these extreme views unlock more insights or pose more interesting questions for your group than the balanced reviews typical of professionals.

With reviews as easy to find as they are, the real question is how your group will use them. First, print out copies of the most interesting reviews and bring them to the meeting. They make great pass-arounds and provide a ready source of discussion should conversation ever lag. As I read reviews, I copy and paste interesting passages or print them and highlight them.

There’s no need to depend on publisher discussion questions, which often aren’t provided and when they are, often employ a style that is too highbrow or seek to glorify the book more than debate its merits. You can compose questions quickly by exploring the ideas in a small stack of reviews. Reviewers also provide useful background information: interesting facts about the author; his or her other works; other writers who write in a similar style; or facts, people, and events to which the book connects.

This is the second of a four part series. Next week, I’ll consider how you can get the most out of information provided by marketers: bookseller sites and the publishers themselves.


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