the complete review Quarterly
Volume II, Issue 3   --   August, 2001

Taking Advantage:
Book Reviews on the Internet


       For those seeking content (i.e. information, opinion, data) -- and those wanting to disseminate it -- the Internet is a marvelous place. Content can be made widely and cheaply available. It can generally relatively easily be found and retrieved (especially through search engines -- though these vary in their coverage and usefulness).
       Book reviewing has proved particularly popular on the Internet. Many sites exist that are devoted specifically to book reviews: the Open Directory listing includes more than 250, while Yahoo's listing has almost 150. (Note, however, that these listings are somewhat problematic -- see specifically our piece on Yahoo's Book Review Directory.) In addition, there are literally hundreds of periodicals with an Internet presence that devote at least some space to book reviews, most of which are freely accessible (though some, including what is probably the largest online archive, that of The New York Times, ridiculously require users to register, while others obscenely even expect users to pay to retrieve archived material). There are also countless personal pages where reviews of individual titles are posted.
       One would expect that book review sites, like all Internet sites, would eagerly take advantage of the special features of the Internet. Merely posting reviews online, reproducing them in the same way as one would if one made them available in print, isn't entirely pointless: one reaches a different and potentially much larger audience, generally at far lower cost, and the reviews can cheaply be kept eternally instantly available. Nevertheless, merely posting them online without taking advantage of the features unique to the Internet seems an unnecessary (and largely undesirable) restriction -- and a disservice to users.
       This survey was conducted to examine in what ways and to what extent book review sites take advantage of the Internet-medium. As it turns out, while some features are eagerly embraced, many are not utilized.

       In June and July, 2001 we examined a number of book review sites. We based our survey on Yahoo's directory of book review sites. As it turns out, this is not necessarily the best test group to examine (see our piece on Yahoo's Book Review Directory). Out of date and incomplete it is certainly not the most useful directory of review sites available. Ultimately, however, we did use it, for a variety of reasons:        The complete review's own directory of Book Review Links is probably a far more useful directory, but it is also more limited in outlook -- and the focus is decidedly on the Internet sites of the book review sections of newspapers and magazines. Yahoo's more eclectic list would, we expected, have more innovative sites that fully took advantage of all the web had to offer.
       Of the ca. 90 review sites listed on the main page of Yahoo's book review directory we eventually focussed on 48 specific sites. No longer existent sites were obviously ignored, as were sites (or pages) which are not primarily focussed on book reviews. The ever-shifting nature of the Internet also came into play here, as sites disappeared (and others reappeared) during the time of our survey and after. A useful site such as Blether was not included in the survey, because at the time we were conducting it the site was being refurbished and it was not fully functional. A fancy (but fairly poor) site such as was included in the survey, but has since proved to be unreachable.
       The point of the survey was, however, not to paint a comprehensive and precise picture of the use of Internet-specific features by book review sites, but simply to get a general idea of which features were being embraced and utilized and which were not. The broad range of the 48 sites from the Yahoo directory considered in the survey -- including everything from small hobby-sites to Internet-only review forums to The New York Review of Books -- is, in many ways, representative of all that is available on the Internet, and so it should be a reasonably representative group of book review sites.

       It is important to note that this survey was conducted by the complete review Quarterly. Here, as everywhere on this site, our biases obviously play a role. We believe that the way we are presenting book reviews at the complete review is a good way to do so. We believe, for example, the links we provide are the links that one should provide. Obviously other approaches are also valid: pure content sites, with no links at all, certainly have a raison d'être -- and often the content is of superior quality (often, certainly, superior to the content-quality of reviews at the complete review).
       Note also that the focus of this survey is solely on how well book review sites utilize the Internet. Sites that do not utilize it well are not necessarily "worse" (or "better") than sites that do utilize it well. But they aren't taking advantage of all the Internet offers. That seems a shame (indeed, they seem to be missing part of the point of being on the Internet), but it is not horrible, horrible shame.
       The actual quality of the sites considered is only of secondary importance for the purposes of this survey -- as are other significant factors in determining how useful they might be to users, including the number of reviews available, the quality of those reviews, etc.

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I. What the Internet Has to Offer

       Book reviews are found, among other places, in newspapers, magazines, newsletters, and on radio and television. The Internet is a very different medium from these traditional review-sources, and it has a variety of advantages over many of them. This survey is concerned specifically with the Internet-features and how (and whether) they are utilized by existing book review sites.
       The basic Internet features that were considered in this survey are:        Specifically, the complete review Quarterly considered whether sites provided the following:        In addition, the complete review Quarterly also noted other relevant features (a button allowing users to instantly forward a review via e-mail, for example). Concerned with Internet privacy issues, we also made note of which sites provided a "Privacy Policy".
       (We were tempted to keep track of the cookies spit out by all these sites as well -- especially the ones which don't have a privacy policy -- but that is too enervating an exercise. Whenever possible -- and it's almost always possible -- we keep our browser in a no-cookie mode (i.e. it won't accept any cookies) -- and we recommend that all Internet users do so as well (in fact, we think you're very foolish if you allow anyone to ever put a cookie on your computer). For the record: all the sites surveyed were readily accessible, despite not being able to disgorge any of their cancerous and privacy-invading cookies.)

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© 2001 the complete review Quarterly
© 2001 the complete review