October’s an exciting month for me, book-wise, because I have a lot of irons in the fire and books to root for right now. I’ve got my own book out, of course, to go with a pair of just-published titles in the American Music Series I co-edit for University of Texas Press — Chris Morris’ “Los Lobos: Dream in Blue,” and Kristin Hersh’s spectacular “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt.”
Those three books came out via UT Press on Oct. 1. Five days later, my good friend Steve Knopper published his latest book, “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson” (Scribner). It should come as no surprise tht I’ve been obsessively checking amazon every day to follow the progress of this quartet of books. And while none of them are exactly burning up the charts just yet, they all seem to be off to solid starts. How the sales picture will turn out over the long haul, that’s up to the universe. All we can do is hope for the best.
At the moment, however, the most interesting metric to track is not sales positions but reader reviews, which have become increasingly important for us lowly mid-list types struggling for traction in a crowded marketplace. Get a bunch of reviews, and that might help sales along. Morris’ Los Lobos book is farthest along in that regard, already with eight reviews — all of them with the maximum five-star rating. Nice, very nice.
“Don’t Suck, Don’t Die” has just three reader reviews so far (two of them five-star), but I expect that pace to pick up in a hurry. National Public Radio recently reviewed “Don’t Suck, Don’t Die” and said it is “not only one of the best books of the year, it’s one of the most beautiful rock memoirs ever written.” I thought the same thing when I read the original manuscript, and reviews like that have inspired UT Press to give this one the maximum push — they’re thinking that 50,000 in sales might be possible. Well, on behalf of the entire American Music Series list…I’ve got my fingers crossed.
Meanwhile, Team Benson/Menconi’s “Comin’ Right at Ya” has just a single amazon reader review so far, but at least it’s of the five-star variety. That takes a little of the sting out of the fact that I recently got my first-ever one-star amazon review, for “Losering” — more than three years after its original publication date. A reviewer identified as “Amelia, Austin Texas” called it “A weird book” in a four-sentence dismissal that questioned if I’d ever actually spoken to Ryan Adams (snicker) before concluding, “This book sucks.” A more generous soul would refrain from noting that this particular reviewer has a “helpful” rating of just 38 percent, but I am not that person. So I’ll just say this: Bless her heart.
Still, that’s nothing compared to what’s happened on amazon thus far to Steve’s Michael Jackson book, which is being savaged by hyper-protective Jackson partisans who will not tolerate anything less than 100 percent glowing praise of their hero. So even though “MJ” earned a Booklist starred review that called it “very powerful” as well as an excerpt in Rolling Stone (where Steve has been a contributing editor for many years), four of his six amazon reader reviews are one-star takedowns accusing him of slander and bias.
Steve is one of the most all-around fair-minded people, let alone writers, I’ve ever known. But given what a fraught subject Jackson continues to be, I was afraid something like this might happen, after the amazon-reviewer reception given to 2012’s “Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson” by Steve’s Rolling Stone colleague Randall Sullivan. “Untouchable” drew so many anonymous one-star slams from Jackson partisans who didn’t appear to have even read the book that the New York Times cited it as a prime example of books victimized by orchestrated campaigns of bad amazon reviews as “attack weapons.”
After the attacks subsided, “Untouchtable” eventually picked up enough decent reviews to bump its overall average (for 389 total reviews) up above three stars, which is at least respectable. I hope a similarly kind long-term fate awaits “MJ” — and also success, whatever that means nowadays, for all four of these books.
ADDENDUM (9/17/2016): Well how about that — another of Steve Knopper’s books comes in at No. 44 on a great list to be on.