There was a review in the Sunday Telegraph at the weekend, so I did something I’ve only done once before in my life and bought it.
I knew it didn’t bode well when they managed to misspell my name not once but twice in the piece (in fact it’s not spelt right anywhere). Once of the first rules of journalism is to make absolutely sure you get the correct spelling of someone’s name, because it’s the one thing that most irritates people – that and their age being wrong. So despite the book having “Kieren McCarthy” in bold letters on the front of the book, it turns out that the Sunday Telegraph believes one “Kieran McCarthy” wrote it, while the reviewer is convinced someone called “Keiren McCarthy” was behind it.
What’s more, the Telegraph website is down at the moment so I can’t link to the review. Perhaps divine justice.
Interestingly, the review does something that I have noticed with all the other reviews – it covers only one facet of the entire battle. In this case, the online porn angle. Perhaps this is the price for having called the book simply “Sex.com”. People open it expecting it be a sordid tale about sex and the Internet. My original title was “The Brutal Battle for Sex.com” – this may have given a better balance. Anyway, if you do read the book expecting online sex stories, you are going to be disappointed. And I suspect this is what the reviewer was.
Something else that has crossed my mind while in the course of promoting the book for the past week – how many people have actually read the book? And how thoroughly have they read it? The radio shows appear to fall clearly into two categories: those that haven’t read a word, and those that have read it all the way through. I’m not sure Anita Anand on Radio Five Live hadn’t even seen a copy of the book lying about, let alone read it. With her show featuring 10 people a night, you can hardly blame her, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the interview was the most scrappy and unfocussed of those I’ve done. James O’Brien on LBC on Saturday morning was a nice bloke and he admitted to me quite openly he hadn’t read it but then he did a good job of asking questions and following up the answers.
What was interesting was an interview I did with New Zealand radio which surprised me in that it was about domain names – and in some depth. It would appear I’m not the only freak to find these things interesting. And then the BBC Radio Wales guy was really into it and that was a pleasure to be a part of.
So that’s radio – as for newsprint. Well, I’m pretty certain that all the reviewers merely skim the book. I suppose this is inevitable if you have to review x number of books every week, especially if the review is going to be the smallest of the ones you’re writing that week. But even so, it feels like a bit of a cheat to me. The reviews – even the ones that have been complimentary – strike me as very one-dimensional. And often following the same formula: start with one precise point; cover the overall story; pull in one or two quotes from the book; add the most interesting fact you happen to come across; and then in the last paragraph cover whether the author did a good job.
It makes for quite dull reading (I’ve read a number of the other book reviews each time) and this is highlighted by the fact that you can really tell when a book reviewer has gone to the trouble of reading the whole book and then reflected on it. The quality reviews stand out a mile. Anyway, my reason for believing the mechanics of book reviewer for newspapers is to skim the book, dip in and out, maybe keep reading if your attention is grabbed is because each review has gone down a single thread and largely ignored the other parts of the book.
So it’s either the porn angle, or the con-man angle, or the domain name angle, or the legal battle angle. I wonder how people decide on the angle. I suspect it is a combination of the title, a read of the press release, then either the preface or the opening chapter, following by opening the book at various random spots and reading a few pages. I don’t know though, maybe I’m wrong.
The best reviews to my mind have been those online. People have read the book, reflected on it and written a review. Mind you, most of the reviews online have been by tech sites and the book is about the Net, so I’m not sure it’s the best control sample. Still, the criticism in these cases has made far more sense to me – I can see where they’re coming from. And I like that. I don’t quite understand why people said they don’t read their reviews – why on earth not? Maybe people are so thin-skinned they can’t handle a critical review, or maybe – and this seems much more plausible to me than it did a week ago – they get irritated and disappointed in equal measure that someone hasn’t actually read the book but feels comfortable enough to review it with assumed authority.
Anyway, back to the Telegraph review – it followed the same formula and the actual review was in the last para. “It’s an interesting story which includes almost every kind of dirty-dealing you could want – apart from sex, oddly enough. But McCarthy has made awfully heavy weather of his exposition. He’s dauntingly solid on the facts, but less good at marshalling them into comprehensible order, or animating his two main characters. The result is like a prolonged battle of the ciphers that eventually left this reader itching to boot them both into cyberspace.”
This is what I see in that. “Heavy weather” – reviewer not wanting or expecting details of the legal battle; “dauntingly solid on the facts” – reviewer doesn’t know or care about the Internet’s domain name system or the politics behind it; “animating his two main characters” – reviewer has skimmed the book; “prolonged battle of ciphers” – I have no idea what this means. But the most interesting part was “less good at marshalling them into comprehensible order” – I can’t decide whether this is again an example of the reviewer skimming the book and being surprised and confused by the fact that different topics keep jumping into the story; or whether he has a point and I have crammed too much in too small a space and so it feels a bit too much.
Whenever I have time I will re-read the book and see if it possesses a coherent thread through it. I was pretty sure it did, but it might be worth a second look. I hope to learn some lessons about books so the next one I write is better.
Apparently I got a good review in Zoo. Now I’ve bought the Sunday Telegraph, I suppose there’s no shame in my buying the weekly tits-and-footy title. I am worried that the Daily Mail may review Sex.com though. I may have to send someone else out to buy that one.