Volume II, Issue 3 -- August, 2001
Book Reviews on the Internet
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VII. The Best and the WorstThis survey specifically considered only to what extent book review sites used the features available on the Internet on their sites. The actual quality of the sites (and specifically of the content on those sites) is an entirely different (and arguably far more important) question. Nevertheless, it is useful to consider which new technologies and opportunities have been embraced by sites.
It must also be noted, however, that we also did not differentiate between good and poor implementation of this technology. We only considered, for example, whether or not a site had a messageboard -- not whether anyone was actually using the messageboard (as, it often appeared, no one was). Similarly, we only considered whether a site had links, not the value of those links (which varied greatly).
This survey only considered a small number of book review sites (48), and many large and very good sites were not included (because they are not listed in the Yahoo book review directory). It is certainly possible that some of the sites not considered take advantage of the features of the Internet far better and far more extensively than any of those that were considered.
That the utilization of Internet-specific features is not correlated to the actual value or quality of a site is shown by the fact that among the "worst" sites of those surveyed (as measured by how few of the features considered in the survey were available on the site) is the quite useful Rain Taxi Review of Books. Other sites that did not bother using practically any features of the Internet include: Transgender Book Reviews and Dead Trees Review.
Among the sites using the most Internet-features were -- not surprisingly -- the Complete Review, and Mostly Fiction. Other sites that used many Internet-features were: Curled up with a Good Book, Poetry Previews, RebeccasReads.Com, and Salon Books.
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VIII. SummaryIt is somewhat surprising to find that so few of the book review sites surveyed take advantage of many of the features the Internet offers. Some took advantage of practically none of them, while none offered all the features that were considered in this survey.
Many sites displayed obvious preferences for certain features over others. The complete review focusses strongly on providing links, for example, while not providing many interactive features. Others focussed more strongly on user input and interaction.
Except the most basic Internet features -- e-mail, on-site search capability, providing links to online booksellers -- there are still some difficulties with many of the features that the Internet makes possible. Interactivity -- including through messageboards or submission of other user-content -- seems to require either a very large or very dedicated user-base to be of great use (and interest) to others. (Chat-rooms seem to be unworkable except on the largest scale, on sites with a tremendous amount of traffic.) While some sites have built themselves up quite nicely by posting user-reviews these tend to be dominated by a relatively small number of contributors. Similarly, message boards -- if used at all -- also tend to be dominated by relatively few users. Additionally, message board discussions often go off-topic, lessening their value.
Links, especially to off-site content, also pose problems. Upkeep is apparently considered to be difficult and links disappear with alarming frequency, leading to many dead links (much to the annoyance of users). Additionally, off-site links by definition lead users to other sites -- and it seems likely that a number of them are unable (or unwilling) to return, a risk many sites seem unwilling to take.
Most book review sites seem to embrace the opportunities the Internet offers relatively warily. Many seem perfectly satisfied with merely providing content, often not even bothering to provide basic links (to online booksellers or other onsite material).
Perhaps this is merely part of the learning curve of site-development on the Internet -- seeing what is feasible, learning what is of interest to users, etc. Book review sites, which are often small, amateur sites, should perhaps not be expected to be on the forefront of experimenting with Internet features. Arguably, the resources spent putting up and maintaining a messageboard or a collection of links could be better spent on improved or increased content -- though one of the remarkable things about these Internet features is how little maintenance is required once the features have been added: messageboards require only limited editorial oversight, and links need only be occasionally tested and updated.
It is unclear in what direction book review sites will develop. Small niche sites -- often wholly maintained by individuals -- continue to pop up. These often cover only a narrowly-defined area, or relatively few titles, but may still provide useful content. These sites -- and many larger ones -- seem to be perfectly satisfied with presenting their reviews in the manner they do now, without an excess of Internet bells and whistles.
Newspaper- and magazine-affiliated book review sites (generally the book section of these periodicals) also seem satisfied with presenting their content in the way they do now (i.e. without extensive links or, generally, many interactive options). These book review sites generally simply function as part of a larger archive.
The complete review and a few other sites have made a particular effort to link to other information (and especially other reviews), and we are quite stunned that this is not a model that has been embraced more widely. It is unclear why it has proven so unpopular. Possibly it will eventually catch on -- though given the fact that it is one of the simplest (and most obvious) Internet-specific features and it still hasn't really caught on, it seems unlikely that it will in the future.
This survey only considered a small percentage of the many book review sites on the Internet. It seems a fairly representative sample (with only newspaper and magazine book review sites truly underrepresented), and the survey likely at least broadly mirrors the situation regarding all book review sites. It is a mixed picture that emerges, with Internet-specific features making less of an impact on these sites than one might have imagined. Other subject areas presented on the Internet -- graphic art, film, music, even creative writing -- perhaps more readily embrace the opportunities the new technology affords (and perhaps also do so out of necessity).
Some book review sites do provide a marked advance over the traditional review-on-paper format -- allowing users to instantly respond to a review, adding a comment or their own review, or also allowing them to instantly link to additional information about the book being considered. Most, however, choose not to do much with the new technologies at their disposal.
Ultimately content is what counts, especially in a review. Perhaps review sites are correct in focussing on that (though given the quality of many of them it is a slim thread they hang by). Still, it seems a shame that they don't also use the Internet in the many ways it can be used -- including leading users to additional content or allowing users to add their own content.
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