The Problem with Giant Book Preview Lists

This one goes out to any author who’s ever felt bad about not making it onto a list of most anticipated books of the season. And to their publicists.

The book preview list is a highly imperfect form of coverage that seems to be, along with best-of the year lists, the most widely used kind of book reportage in media. With overall book coverage being pared down at most outlets, such lists have grown widely outsized in importance for authors and publishers and readers, as well as the writers who contribute punchy blurbs to them.

Yes, we know that people like to read internet lists and I’ve already written about why best-of lists are not entirely helpful to readers. But the preview list is particularly unhelpful because, for the most part, the underpaid freelance writers (me, included!) who contribute to these lists don’t actually have to have read the books they write about. Our contributions are often just descriptions of the books we’re excited to read eventually (the more clever of us try not to simply regurgitate the marketing copy that accompanies these books).

For preview lists, before most critics have cracked the first pages of upcoming books, we must rely more heavily on publicity-generated buzz than anyone would like.

But how do we narrow down what we’re excited about (assuming, as I am, that people who write about books are for the most part interested in new books and don’t think we should only read dead authors)? Given the number of books published each year (this Wikipedia entry may not be entirely accurate, but note the scale) it’s almost impossible for individual publications’ lists to cover them all. Nor would any reader want them to! But for preview lists, before most critics have cracked the first pages of upcoming books, we must rely more heavily on publicity-generated buzz than anyone would like. Or the relative fame of the author. Or, gasp, the book cover.

Once again I have to tell you how overwhelmed I am by the number of advance reader copies that I receive each month, both in digital and physical form. I separate the ones that I don’t usually cover or whose subject matter doesn’t appeal to me—most business books, self-help, children’s books, etc.—and recycle them (I put them in a Fresh Direct bag on the street for neighbors to take). I put in a pile the ones that I know will be worthy of my time, the ones written by authors I already know or admire. I take note of the ARCs that come with notes from publicists who know my taste in books and think I’ll connect with this one.

Then I set aside the books that I don’t know much about already, but that pique my interest. These could be works in translation, story collections, small press books, first novels, or creative or reported nonfiction. I can note their title and author names and make a separate pile for them, but chances are I’m not going to be able to champion any of them before, you know, I’ve actually cracked their spines. It will be months longer before I’m able to determine for myself which debut novel is actually “dazzling” or “exhilarating.” That’s the best part.

And then it’s decision time. For the average preview list for general readership, most contributors are asked to do write ups for five or six books at most. Here are some of the questions I ask myself when I’m choosing what to write about.

Which titles can I explain most snappily?
If I have a little witticism ready to go, what am I gonna do, waste it?

Do I have the right blend of diversity in terms of publisher size?
We can’t only shout out books published by the Big Five publishers!

Is there a variety of subject matter?
I always have so much fiction to write about, but what other kinds of books might the general list reader be interested in? Celebrity memoirs? Can I stick some poetry in there?

Are the titles I’ve chosen too popular?
For instance, Salman Rushdie will already be getting plenty of coverage for his new memoir; he doesn’t need my help.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on five or six titles.

So please, enjoy the summer reading lists that are beginning to crop up. Mark up your to-read list appropriately. But keep in mind that the titles you may see are not necessarily the best, or even the most anticipated. Unless media outlets follow such lists with in-depth book coverage, they mean next to nothing.

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