The Goldenberg Effect

by Judi Goldenberg

I once heard a literary agent say that among agents the most coveted recommendation for a new novel was not the New York Times Book Review but Oprah. According to this agent, a favorable review on the front page of the Sunday Book Review section did not produce any noticeable increase in sales. Oprah’s endorsement, on the other hand, translated into millions of books sold almost immediately.

Today, Oprah’s Book Club is no longer the phenomenon it once was, and yet the Oprah Effect remains a potent force in publishing. Her mention of three different diet books featuring three different diet plans put all three on the bestseller list in the same year.

Most book reviewers are not that powerful. We cannot prevent the inevitable blockbuster prequel to the sequel. We cannot stem the tide of vampires. We cannot make people rush out all at once to spend their money on books.

Several years ago, I recommended God’s Secretaries by Adam Nicolson to friends and colleagues. The book is a well-researched, well-written account of the scholars and clerics who worked separately and together to create the King James Bible. Nicolson includes revealing details about life in seventeenth-century England and the intricacies of translation. “This is a terrific read,” I told anyone who would listen. “It’s all about how a committee, under the right circumstances, can be creative and productive and end up with a great result.” This endorsement produced zero readers.

Clearly, I don’t have Oprah’s touch. Still, every time I receive an advance review copy of a book I feel a sense of responsibility. My review does have influence, I tell myself. If I do the job as it should be done, I can help ensure the book finds its rightful audience.

Fueled by this goal, I get to work. The first thing I do is to read the book, every word, cover to cover. For some people, such a claim is no more believable than the assertion that a committee can be productive. Yet I do it, and my overworked editors at Publishers Weekly do it too.

I confess that a recent novel about Elinor of Aquitaine tested my commitment to thorough reading. A third of the way through, the thought crossed my mind that I might rent “Lion in Winter” and fudge the rest. It was the author herself who put the idea into my head by referencing the movie in her notes. In the end, good habits proved too hard to break. I skipped the film, read on, and to my delight I came across wonderful passages I might have otherwise missed where the author finally accomplished what she set out to do: make Elinor the Queen a woman any woman could sympathize with.

After reading a review book, I make sure I understand its context. Is this the author’s first work? Breakthrough work? Evidence he or she is going stale? Does it fit into a genre? Is it unique in some way? Context is important because librarians, bookstore owners, and individual readers alike use such information to determine what they will take a closer look at and how close a look they will take.

When it comes to writing the actual review, I never look at what other reviewers have written. I couldn’t if I wanted to. PW is either the first publication or among the first to issue reviews so there are no reviews for me to look at. I do get publicity releases and book jacket blurbs. Let’s be honest. Not every man who writes about nineteenth century London is another Dickens. Not every woman who shows an ounce of wit is the next Jane Austen. Not every Civil War novel is the new Cold Mountain. When a book falls short of its accompanying praise, I utter expressions of despair, and then re-focus my attention where it belongs—on the book itself.

The same agent who noted the Oprah Effect acknowledged she and other agents worked hard to get their authors reviewed in a variety of publications. For all the limits of our influence, for all the pitfalls of our craft, book reviewers can still be useful. We help readers find the right books for their tastes. We help books find the right audience. We offer prospective readers a window into the writer’s world so that each reader can decide whether or not to enter that world. I call this The Goldenberg Effect. I don’t estimate its value in millions of copies sold. I measure it in informed readers, one at a time.

Judi Goldenberg, Assistant Editor of The Great Smokies Review, was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She first came to North Carolina for graduate school and returned years later with husband Joe for their retirement. She was a college teacher, a market research analyst at an ad agency, and a marketing and communications manager at a bank. Her book reviews have appeared in the Richmond News-Leader and Times-Dispatch, American Book Review, and continue to appear in Publishers Weekly. She’s also published short stories in small literary journals. For two years, she was a local columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times.