So who the hell are you, and why should I care?
I can answer the second half of that question easier: you probably shouldn’t.
As to the first half, my name is Robert Beveridge. I review stuff. My goal for as long as I have been reviewing stuff has been to dig into the nooks and crannies, to find the wonderful things that people overlook because the Big Six music labels or Hollywood/Bollywood or the Big Three book publishers didn’t put out. That business model, though this has never been a “business” per se (and likely never will be), changed over the years for two reasons I’ll discuss in more detail later, but in short: (a) I started reviewing more mainstream stuff because if I didn’t, I had no visibility to drive people to the stuff I actually wanted them to read about, and (b) when you’re hanging around in the fringes, you have to wade through a lot of swine to find the pearls…and as any reviewer worth his salt will tell you, it’s a helluva lot more fun to write the bad reviews anyway. It’s not as edifying telling people “you gotta stay away from this!” as it is saying “you gotta see/hear/read this!”, and you’re not building up your good karma that way… but the information itself is just as valuable. Or so I rationalize.
Thanks to a combination of the two–specifically, the application of branch (b) to branch (a)–I seem to have developed quite a reputation as “that guy who trashes things.” Hey, I don’t do it any more frequently than Michiko Kakutani does! And another of those “the way I see it” observations: if all of your reviews are glowing, how is a prospective reader going to trust you? I mean, come on, you like everything.
So what qualifications do you have?
Repetition, dear boy, repetition. I started reviewing stuff in 1984 for my high school newspaper. By then (I was 15), my musical tastes were already pretty far outside what was the mainstream at the time; I was listening to, and buying, a lot of import metal, I’d just started hearing about this whole goth thing, etc., so I wanted to tell people about it. I’ve always been a writer (I wrote my first short story at the age of five, and when I’m not scribbling reviews I’m scribbling poetry, and have been much-published in that arena), so reviewing seemed to be that way to do so. Besides, writing for the school paper looks good on college applications, you know?
Long story short: I just never stopped. Over the years, I’ve developed more of an eye for what makes a good review, I think. I’ve never had any formal training in same; I’ve developed the reviewing style I have from reading folks like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Dennis Cozzalio and Lester Bangs and… you get the idea. Thirty years more exposure to books, movies, and music has also given me a much larger mental database to draw from when comparing and contrasting or saying “this put me in mind of…” and the like, and that also seems like good reviewing to me: give people something they may know and can seize on when describing something unknown to them, and they will get a better idea of what that thing (partially) is.
In 2000, I started publishing my reviews at Amazon (more on that later) and briefly picked up work reviewing for CNN (before they collapsed the book, movie, etc. sites into one Entertainment conglomerate–no more on that later, there’s nothing else to tell). For some reason, people started reading them, and once I started doing more mainstream reviews (once I realized that everyone reads Dick Francis…), people started reading them, and started clicking the “yes” button, and within a year or two I was a top 1000 reviewer. In 2005, I broke the top 100 mark, and in 2009, I broke into the top 50. At the time Amazon revamped the system, I was Amazon’s #38 top reviewer. It’s not a stretch to say that makes me one of America’s most-read media critics. Which is something I still can’t report with anything close to a straight face. Either I’m doing something right, or I’m doing something horribly, horribly wrong, but in the latter scenario, I’m at least doing it in an entertaining enough way that people keep coming back. So thank you for that.
So why, if you spend so much time hanging out with those Amazonians, did you create Popcorn for Breakfast?
First off, like I said, I didn’t start posting at Amazon until 2000. 99%, possibly 100%, of the reviews I wrote before that time are lost, either because they were published in outlets that had a built-in expiration date (like one’s high school newspaper, for example), or they were published in outlets that eventually died off and were removed from the Internet (various mailing lists where I posted reviews during the nineties that we thought, incorrectly, would be around for-freaking-ever). In fact, the reason I started posting at Amazon was for archival purposes; I figured “hey, these guys sell everything, and they’re profitable, and when I review stuff there, those reviews will not go away!”
How wrong I was.
It took me about six weeks to get a bad reputation. I posted my first Amazon review on April 28, 2000, for something characteristically obscure, E. C. Large’s The Advance of the Fungi. On June 11, I posted a scathing review of the Nine Inch Nails album The Fragile. Apply (b) to (a). I got hammered with hate mail, of course (I still get the occasional nastygram about that review almost fifteen years later), but I also picked up a few folks who would dial up every review I posted and hit the “report abuse” button on it. It has only been very, very recently that Amazon has started asking people to qualify why a review is abusive (and for the record, as far as I’m concerned, there is only one valid reason to ever hit that button: the reviewer either states or implies that s/he has not consumed the product in question–reviews of the shipping process, for example, or reviews that magically spring up after a news report about the author, or…); the rule of thumb for many years was that a review was yanked once it hit a certain threshold of reports.
At this point you may be asking yourself why it took me fifteen years to respond. Simple answer: I didn’t know this. Amazon does not let the reviewer know a review is being pulled. That’s part of the “all reviews become property of amazon.com” bullshit you have to click OK on before submitting a review. They’re not obligated to tell you if they’re removing your review. The only reason I found out about this at all is that I would occasionally go looking for a review in order to reference it in a later review or link to it somewhere else or… and not be able to find it. Eventually, I noticed a pattern. I’m kind of slow on the uptake.
I also had other places to post them that, since I’m kind of slow on the uptake, I thought would be around for-freaking-ever. I kept a Livejournal for five or six years before I couldn’t take the stupid anymore, and more recently (as in “a week or so after I started this blog”), I stopped using facebook on a personal level for the exact same reason. (I still keep a page for my musical project there.) I thought Goodreads was a solution for the book reviews, but I’ve had a few mysteriously disappear over there as well.
Also: every–EVERY–outlet not controlled by yours truly has censored at least one review over the years. Amazon used to do it by taking out “offensive” words, outside links, etc. and replacing them with “[…]”, which you can see on a lot of my earlier reviews even now, but more recently, they’ve simply started redlining reviews with things they would have normally edited. You put in something Amazon doesn’t like? They simply don’t publish it. But remember, “all reviews are property of amazon.com.” It’s like SKG and Disney buying the rights to all those great Asian horror films in the nineties and then not actually releasing DVDs of them domestically until Roy Lee and his henchmen made the crappy American remakes. (And you wonder, Hollywood, why so many of us have hacked DVD players?)
So very long story short: putting them here is the only way I can guarantee not only that they won’t go away without warning, but that readers are seeing them in the way they were originally intended.
You mentioned a full website… what’s that all about?
Popcorn for Breakfast, the blog, was initially conceived as part of Popcorn for Breakfast, the website. Which doesn’t yet exist, but I kicked off the temporary blog portion early because I didn’t have any place to put that Texas Chain Saw Massacre essay I wrote back in October. But the full website is something else. Specifically, it’s going to be a home for Erasmus, my book database.
This, too, is a response to something Amazon does that I consider woefully stupid, though to be fair to Amazon, there are a combination of factors that make it at least understandable. One of the other reasons reviews disappear without warning at Amazon is because ASINs, which are the supposedly-unique identifiers Amazon uses for products, disappear. Unless you spend as much time at Amazon as I do (which is exactly none of you), the only way you are likely to notice the disappearing-ASIN problem is this: (a) create a wishlist. (b) add some stuff to the wishlist. (c) let it sit there for a long, long time, then go back and check it. You may find something like this:
You’ll note that all of those former products have some reviews attached to them. Those reviews are, effectively, gone. If you click on the number, you are told the page no longer exists. I’ve tried.
Amazon removes things for various reasons (some of which are stupider than others), but the usual reason they remove an ASIN as that (a) that particular edition of something is out of print and (b) no Amazon sellers have copies of it to sell any more. From a business perspective, it makes sense; if you can’t sell it, why would you be obligated to let people know it’s out there? The problem, however, is that a lot of people use Amazon as a research database as much as (actually, far more than) they use it for buying stuff. People go there to read reviews and to look up titles they’ve heard about on the radio or on TV and to check prices and for a myriad of other reasons that have nothing to do with buying books. And every time Amazon yanks an ASIN, the people who were looking for that product are, potentially, screwed. If it’s a popular book with dozens of editions, they will find an alternative; after all, the majority of times people go looking for something, they don’t care about differences between editions (this is another weakness of the way things are currently set up, more on that later). But if it happens to be something really obscure that only one edition was ever published of, like John M. Bennett’s cassette Ax Tongue, which flickers on and off my Amazon wish list at least twice a year? Yeah, you’re screwed.
You may have noticed back there I said “supposedly unique.” There’s one entry on that wishlist where I put the “this title is no longer available” entries that’s now a Harry Belafonte greatest hits collection. Which is all well and good, I like Harry Belafonte, but I can tell you with 100% certainty that the ASIN I added was for a DVD, not a CD. I can tell you with about 70% certainty is was a low-budget direct-to-DVD horror flick, because that’s what was mostly on the wishlist that entry came from. Hey, Amazon? That’s a problem, even if you don’t get back to me when I report to you that it’s a problem.
So my goal is to create the actual research database that Amazon isn’t. Which is a pretty tall order. Hopefully I’ll get a community going and have some help adding stuff. Right now it’s a spreadsheet that I’ve been keeping on my own, and it’s got around forty thousand entries. Which sounds like a lot, but really, it’s probably less than one-tenth of one percent of what’s actually out there.
There’s another part to this process that I mentioned in passing up there, and that’s my comment that most people, when they go somewhere to look up a book, couldn’t care less what edition they’re looking up. Whether you’re using ASINs, ISBNs, MARC IDs (libraries use these, mostly), or some other already-existing method of differentiating one book for another, you’ve already got one massive built-in usability problem–these things are all used to define editions, which are a separate subcategory of books. Go to Amazon or Goodreads or Worldcat or any other major book database you can think of and look up a book that’s been around for a long while and is still popular; my classic example is Alice in Wonderland. You pop that search term in and instead of coming up with one book, written by Charles L. Dodgson, which is actually titled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (but a good search engine will know this!), you come up with hundreds of different editions of the book. I guarantee you that 99% of the people who go to a book search engine and go looking for Alice in Wonderland will not give a hoot about all those different editions–they want to find out about the book, not the edition. And the way every last one of those sites is set up assumes the searcher is looking for information on the edition. (The one exception I know of is goodreads, but since the act of combining editions into book entries is decentralized, it’s also piecemeal and extremely inconsistent.) The only real solution is to design a book database from scratch that goes from the top down–book is the main category, edition is a subcategory of book, and when someone searches, they get book and not edition. This is an extremely difficult thing to do, partially because it’s always tough to model real-world data, but also because the book industry has zero standards when it comes to what qualifies as changeable material where a book is concerned. You’d think, for example, that title and author would be immutable. You’d be entirely wrong–books are often released with different titles in different countries (Michael Moorcock’s various country-specific publishers are notorious for this, as are Evelyn Anthony’s), and authors have recently (in the post-Richard Bachman era, and that is not a coincidence) discovered it can be interesting and fun to publish all your previous pseudonymously-written books under your own name as a quick cash grab. Nora Roberts, Sandra Brown, and especially Dean Koontz, who used eleven different alters in the seventies and early eighties for various genres, are (in-)famous for it.
This is, in the main, the reason the site–which I started conceptualizing back in 1998–is still not coded. Hell, I made a change to the database structure earlier this week (I realized that “series name” is not a good single category, since series can be hierarchical–for example, how many different subseries are there under the Star Trek umbrella? You’d think, as a thirty-five-year collector of Dungeons and Dragons material, I’d have noticed that before…).
Database work is an iterative process. And it is never-ending.
But why the name Popcorn for Breakfast?
Because if you’re the kind of person who’s ever brought home half a bag of that wonderful palm-oil-flavored stuff after a midnight movie-thon and eaten it for breakfast the next morning, then you’re my target audience, babe. It’s the movie geek’s version of cold pizza.