Volume I, Issue 3 -- August, 2000
Surveying the Scene
Observations from the Literary Saloon
Established in the spring of 1999, the complete review has puttered into the new millennium, a comfortably established niche site that is still, in part, trying to find its way. It continues to expand its offerings and its audience: at the end of 1999 there were 284 books under review, midway through 2000 there were already 416. The number of users also continues to grow -- though it tends to do so unevenly, in the fits and spurts of a general upward trend.
People react to sites in unexpected ways. The best laid plans of mice, men, editorial boards, webmasters, and venture capitalists often go more than astray. The complete review can be judged a success: traffic and interest exceed expectations, it has established itself as a "critical voice" of some note, -- and nobody is losing any money on it. (The complete review is not raking in the big bucks but its (minimal) revenues do exceed its (similarly small) expenses -- apparently a rarity for a content provider, since most -- Salon being a foremost example -- are apparently losing money hand over fist). Nevertheless, much about the complete review's development (and especially its popular reception) has proved surprising.
The complete review's greatest failure is certainly its lack of "stickiness". Despite having a relatively user-friendly design and a large number of often tantalizing (or apparently not) onsite links a surprising percentage of users only peek at a specific review and are not tempted to explore more of the site.
A vast majority of users reach the site via outside links to specific reviews (usually from search engines). A smaller than expected percentage then follow internal links to other pages of interest at the complete review. Authors who are extensively reviewed at the complete review do benefit from the internal links to reviews of their other books and their Author pages, but to a far lesser degree than had been expected.
As is only appropriate, reviews are by far the most popular pages at the complete review. Nevertheless, it was expected that users would show a greater interest in exploring all that is available on the site. Most surprising is that only about 6 percent of users check what is new on the site.
The most popular secondary pages on the site -- specific lists and the like -- are the page of the top rated books under review (4 percent of users check this out), the monthly editor's choice list (3 percent of users), and the monthly bestseller list of most popular reviews (1 percent of users). The percentage of users visiting these pages has remained remarkably consistent, apparently reflecting the true interest of users in them. Surprisingly, it is the page that remains relatively unchanged (that of the top rated books) that attracts the most interest, while the two that are updated monthly attract a smaller segment of users.
A central concern of the site is making it as easy as possible for potential users to find the information they need. The greatest hurdle here is directing users to the site in the first place. The complete review does not advertise, and so users find the site by word of mouth or, more commonly, via search engines.
Stability is a rare quality on the internet, and rarer still among search engines. Infoseek was once one of the best on the web, with pages generally listed within a day or two of being submitted, but it is now a pedestrian second-tier site. Alta Vista has had its ups and downs but remains the only search engine that (generally) adds submitted sites within a short period of time. Almost all pages from the complete review can be found there. Google towers above all other search engines in all respects except that pages are only added when they periodically sweep through a site (as they are fortunately doing more frequently at the complete review), meaning the newest pages are not always listed at Google. Still, it is more comprehensive than also-rans Northern Lights (neat search engine, but coverage is limited) and FAST (far too slow in updating pages -- at the end of July Alta Vista listed close to 500 pages from the complete review while FAST barely knew of 300).
Directories have helped attract users, especially to the Author pages. The efficient and comprehensive Open Directory is still the place to go. Despite repeated submissions Yahoo has failed to accept any more Author pages from the complete review.
One of the distinguishing features of the complete review is the many links to other reviews and information about books under review that are provided. Amazingly, there has been very little interest in submitting links to the complete review.
Similarly surprising is a general unwillingness to place links to the complete review on other sites. The complete review occasionally suggests links to its reviews, contacting sites devoted to specific authors, for example. A handful of sites have put up links, but most have ignored the complete review's suggestions. There are nevertheless a considerable number of sites that do link to the complete review; bizarrely, most of these linked to the site of their own accord, without any prompting from the complete review.
There is a fair amount of user feedback on the site. Comments, requests, and suggestions fall into relatively few categories. The most popular are, in approximate order of frequency:
Feedback that is actively solicited -- links ! links ! links ! -- is way down the list, barely a blip in the Literary Saloon's e-mailbox.
- Pleas to "review my book", with the approach ranging from humble submission to outright threats. Few such offers have been of even vague interest.
- Suggestions as to titles which should be reviewed, and the occasional demand for a review (usually from students who have book-reports due). (Not a very helpful form of feedback.)
- Reviews for sale (or for free), and reviewers looking for assignments. (No can do: the complete review's complex organization precludes involving outside hacks. Besides: the site will link to any review it can, so just post it elsewhere and send the link !)
- Requests for authors' e-mail or postal addresses or other personal information.
- Praise. (Always appreciated.)
- Criticism -- usually vitriolic, and usually only regarding a specific review.
Remarkably, there is also little reaction to outright mistakes that the complete review makes. From various misspellings to factual errors and to links that have died users tend to react apathetically. The complete review has been notified of errors a total of three times in its first 15 months of operation. Dead links, the bane of the internet, have never been reported -- even though links die daily ! The complete review welcomes reports of dead links and other errors. One hopes there will be less errors to report in the future, but that more users will be willing to make the complete review aware of those that do creep onto the site.
The complete review continues to balance its reviews between the old and the new, backlist (and out of print and foreign titles) and the latest publications. It is a difficult balance to strike. Since resources are limited (an average of only four or five titles added weekly) a lot of worthy titles are being missed and pushed aside. Nevertheless, the complete review has built a substantial archive of reviews.
The complete review has become more selective in the choice of books to be reviewed. Similar books are being grouped together, and where ever possible more than one book by any given author is reviewed, a service that users should find particularly useful (though, as indicated previously, internal links on the site seem grossly underutilized). A consequence of this, however, is that there are also enormous lacunae. As of mid-July, 2000 there was no modern Chinese literature under review, for example, and only a smattering of Japanese and African literature. Other national literatures are also underrepresented (and some, relatively at least, overrepresented -- Holland !) Of course, while the broad reach of the complete review should eventually extend further, there will always be too many books to cover all those worthy of being covered.
The complete review will continue to evolve. Popular and critical reaction suggests that it is on "the right track", though adjustments in focus and direction continue to be necessary. In particular, the complete review hopes to elicit more feedback from users -- especially regarding what it is users want from the site (other than to see their books reviewed there ...). Any suggestions as to how this might be accomplished are welcome .....
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