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To read or not to read: idreambooks.com and the guidance of frowning clouds

The means we use to select new books are often obscure. Books don’t receive the same sort of blanket advertising as new release films or television series. Though there are always exceptions – such as the highly effective billboard in Times Square for Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, or the relatively recent phenomenon of book trailers such as the brilliant cameo-laden video for Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story – for the most part, we don’t gaze up at billboards or endure endless televised marketing campaigns for news about the latest novels.

Most book selections are made, I would argue, from word of mouth recommendations – as can be seen in the wild success of Fifty Shades of Grey, before it had even found a publisher. There is usually an element of ‘discovery’ to the selection of a new book. New films are less likely to be ‘discovered’ simply because there is less on offer at a cinema at any one time. With the amount of new books published and available to be read, we make the selection with little to navigate our course than a preference for a particular author, genre, or the recommendation of a critic or friend.

Late last week, a new site idreambooks.com was launched, which aspires to be the literary version of Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic – a go-to site for critical recommendations of all the latest releases. The site rates new releases from the ‘big six’ international publishers: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, and Simon & Schuster and awards them a percentage score and a cloud icon to indicate whether it is recommended. Anything above 70% is a ‘Must Read’ and is accompanied by a blue smiling cloud, anything below is ‘Don’t Read’ and has a grey frowning cloud.

What lends the site a point of difference, as opposed to a comparable website such as Goodreads, is that the score awarded for each book is based upon aggregated reviews by published critics rather than user reviews. Publications listed include The New Yorker, Guardian, Wall Street Journal, New York Review of Books, Independent and The Millions to name just a few. Australian publications are present also – in my attempts to find them I saw pieces from the Sydney Morning Herald and even my own site listed in the curated reviews. It is, therefore, a fairly comprehensive database. Idreambooks links to the full online review and gives a one-sentence excerpt from all the reviews used to calculate the score.

The use of professional reviews from reputable publications is an attempt to ensure that the score will be more reliable and the quality of recommendations higher than something like Amazon’s crowd-sourced user reviews (which have resulted in sometimes hilariously misguided assessments of classic literary works). As early articles on the launch of the site have all noted, this season’s best seller, Fifty Shades of Grey, receives only a 30% score and therefore ‘Don’t Read’ rating, suggesting that the critic’s choice is working to provide an impartial critical eye.

And yet, some of the current rankings seem questionable. For example – Téa Obreht’s 2011 Orange Prize winning novel The Tiger’s Wife has been awarded a score of 67% and therefore a Don’t Read frowny-face. Whereas something like Afterglow – one of the books that appeared at random on the homepage with a cover adorned with the image of a half-naked man (surely signaling literary greatness) has a perfect score of 100%.

The difference, of course, is the publications reviewing these two works. Obreht’s listing has twenty-eight publications, including The Guardian, Observer, Washington Post, LA Times, New York Times and Independent, whereas Afterglow is reviewed by just four publications, the only one of which I recognised was USA Today. The type of publication reviewing a work like the Orange Prize winner is going to have wildly different criteria to one that might run a review of a book like Afterglow and this is where the inconsistencies appear.

The guidelines for publications used on the site state that they must have been reviewing books for a year, and have editorial oversight, as well as ‘consistent standards of professionalism, writing quality and editorial integrity across all reviews. The design and layout of the site must be of high quality.’ This applies to individual critics / bloggers as well as mainstream publications.

In terms of the usability of the site, the interface looks like bookshelves, and is divided into categories such as Best Seller, Fiction, Biography etc. The search function, however, is terrible – but this may just be an indication of the lack of books currently on the site. Idreambooks is currently confined to just 2012 releases, working their way as far backwards as they can to have a more complete listing of published works. The site has almost no Australian content however – my searches for new release Australian books were fruitless.

Though I’m personally wary of the thumbs-up or thumbs-down approach to reviewing, I can see how a site like this could have wide appeal. Though reducing a nuanced critical review to a percentage score and the smiling or frowning face of a cloud seems difficult at best, it will be interesting to see how the site develops. If it can vastly expand the scope of its titles, improve the search function and perhaps have a stronger criteria for the critical reviews it employs then this has the potential to be a very successful endeavour.

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