Rotten Tomatoes, but for books: Old-school book critics get boost from new Book Marks site

In the war against Amazon user ratings and a crowded blogosphere, LitHub's effort is on the right track

Published June 8, 2016 5:13PM (EDT)

 (AP/Beth J. Harpaz)
(AP/Beth J. Harpaz)

Are things moving so fast these days that a new idea can be too futuristic and too retro simultaneously? That may be the case with Book Marks, a new website that bills itself as a Rotten Tomatoes for books, which seems likely to get criticized from both literary traditionalists and the cyber-populist crowd.

This will probably happen despite the fact that this new feature of Literary Hub – a widely respected site that offers author interviews, book excerpts, and recommendations – is pretty good. Book Marks collects reviews from The New York Times, The New Republic, and other (mostly) old guard publications. A curious reader wondering about the new Louise Erdrich novel, “LaRose,” can very easily find a bit from a Washington Post Review, another in the New York Times Book Review, one in the San Francisco Chronicle, and so on. Someone looking for a few smart sentences on Don DeLillo’s “Zero K” (both those hailing it as a return to form and those complaining that his writing is still too cold) can find them without much trouble.

It seems like a win for the traditional media, right? A way of giving print publications a visibility in the online mix in a way they don’t always have? And there’s reason to be wary of Amazon reviews – which drive book sales significantly – since they can be jacked by friends and foes of the authors, ideologically driven campaigns, or simple profiteers. In fact, things have gotten so bad that Amazon is suing several review mills because they allege that they degrade the site’s integrity. Whatever the flaws of old-school book reviewing for newspaper and magazines, critics are typically kept honest. A print book reviewer might be boring, but it’s hard for her to get very far if she is dishonest or corrupt.

The other major force in book reviewing is GoodReads, a smart site run by genuine-book lovers (and I say this not just because I’ve written for them before) which is owned by Amazon.

So if you care about breaking Amazon’s dominance of online reviews, and like the idea of pieces on books written by literary professionals who are vetted for conflicts of interest, Book Marks should make you happy, at least a little bit.

Here’s how Book Marks describes itself:

We scour the most important outlets of literary journalism in America each day and assign their book reviews a letter grade. When a book is reviewed at least three times, those reviews are averaged into a result at Book Marks.

This brief, innocent sounding description has enough to anger people on both sides of the wisdom-of-the-crowd debate. A critic who spends most of a week reading a book, and a day or more writing and polishing a review has every reason to feel a bit dissed when the piece is then reduced go a single letter grade. (As wonderful as some film critics are, the relative brevity of a movie makes it seem somehow less offensive when a film review is distilled that way. But still, it simplifies something that can be a small work of art in itself.)

In any case, we’ve come so far into the digital age now that breaking a newspaper book review into a single letter grade is now considered a supportive move for the print media. (And, in some ways it is.)

Most of the opposition to the site – I’m going to guess – will come from the digital utopians who think that professional critics, especially those in the print world, are entitled members of the cultural elite, and don’t know any more about books or reviewing than anyone with a laptop. The fact is, there are a lot of sharp online book reviewers, most of them overlooked on Book Marks. The intelligent version of this critique comes from Cassandra Neace on BookRiot. Here she’s referring to the Book Marks’ statement of purpose.

The first red flag for me is the phrase “important outlets of literary journalism.” Their growing list of publications includes a variety of literary websites and mainstream newspapers and magazines. What it leaves out entirely is the book blogging community. They’re plenty important, too. There are a number of established bloggers out there that give honest, reliable reviews of every book they read – front or backlist, good or bad.

She’s right – there are credible bloggers, and my guess is that Book Marks will eventually include more of the good ones. But let’s at least pause and give the new venture some props for now: Any site that takes professional book reviewing seriously, and tries to bolster it in an online world that generally disregards it, deserves to have a few weeks to get things right.


By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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Books Criticism Digital Culture Don Delillo Louise Erdrich