The Future of Book Reviews

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

We’ve had a number of blog posts about the future of publishing and the rise of the e-book, the impact of social networking, blogs and the plethora of book and author related websites filling our digital world…but one thing that struck me this weekend (as I perused the New York Time’s book review online) was the future and influence of the mainstream book reviewer. Now I can’t say I have any quantifiable data on the sales impact of a favourable book review in the NYT but I would hazard a guess that 10-15 years ago a good review in a venerable newspaper like the NYT or a great review in Publisher’s Weekly (or, heaven help us, Kirkus) would have had a sizable impact on book sales. Today, I’m not so sure…

I do think good newspaper reviews and starred PW reviews encourage publishers to spend additional advertising and marketing money on an author’s book – which would certainly help rather than hinder sales – but just how influential are they now? Would a critical mass of favourable Amazon reviews generate greater sales? Would a rave review from a popular online blogger garner more readers? It would be interesting to try and survey authors to see what they thought had the greatest impact on sales. No doubt a bestseller occurs due to the cumulative effect word of mouth and media exposure – but I wonder what role traditional reviewers play in influencing this?

I’m an old fashioned girl so a great NYT book review will get me out there searching for the title (either online or in a brick and mortar store). I will, however, also check out the Amazon reviews and Google the author/title to see what kind of buzz (or not) there is in the blogosphere. If a trusted friend raves about a book then I will also check it out but more often than not, I will hear about a new book from my mother (sadly, I sometimes think only her generation that still reads – my friends usually say they have no time…) who has read the review in The Times, the Financial Times or The Guardian (can you tell my mother is English?). Rarely will a blogger’s recommendation be enough, simply because I find it hard to assess the reviewer’s credentials and impartiality – of course, we could have another entire blog post in this regard (having heard some professional reviewers question ‘amateur’ reviewers’ ability to meaningfully review!)

What do our TKZ authors think? How do the traditional forms of newspaper or PW reviews impact sales do you think, when compared to say Amazon, Goodreads or online blogs? In a post-Oprah world who do you think is going to become the most influential word on books? How is the whole review thing going to pan out with the dramatic rise in e-book sales (many of which are self-published titles) – and, for all our TKZ readers out there – whose opinion or review matters to you as a reader?

11 thoughts on “The Future of Book Reviews

  1. Word of mouth is still critical for getting me to pick up a book. But a low price and an interesting description on are close substitutes. Especially in the age of Kindle. Trying the first chapter or two of a book is now costless, thanks to the “Send a Sample” button. That tells me within half an hour whether I’d want to read the rest of the book.

    To touch more on your point: it’s been years since I read the NYT regularly. So if a book gets an NYT review, all I hear is the mere fact of it, not the actual content. That’s worth something (I might consider the latest Kazuo Ishiguro if I hear there’s a good review) but it’s never the final decision maker.

  2. The one place I consistently listen to for book reviews is NPR. In fact, I just bought one after listening to a program–THE PSYCHOPATH TEST: A JOURNEY THROUGH THE MADNESS INDUSTRY by Jon Ronson. I also still read the NYT and LAT reviews. But I’m a big aisle-browser when it comes to buying books. Nowadays I “browse” Amazon, but I don’t pay too much attention to either the customer or “editorial” reviews. When something look interesting I download a free sample to my Kindle, then decide whether to purchase.

  3. Kathryn, I too find NPR a great source and have recently bought two books solely on the strength of a review and an interview with the author. John, I confess that as far as ebooks go I am more than happy to try the sample or go for a free book just to see. I can be quite the free kindle book junkie…I feel like a dinosaur still reading the nyt book review!

  4. Clare, we must have had the same breakfast. My blog tomorrow is on book reviews as well.

    From all the marketing classes/webinars I’ve taken, word of mouth is the master of sales. Hands down. I think newspapers and PW will always have and impact, but I will take a recommendation from a friend over a stranger’s every time, hands down.

  5. I bought THE BASTARD HAND by Heath Lowrance solely because I read his “How I came to write this book” piece on Patti Abbott’s blog. Patti had been running this series periodically for quite a while, and most authors give a very dry recitation of their inspirations for their particular novels.

    I myself did a spot on that blog, thinking I had raised the bar with an especially vivid story of how I’d written my first published novel. Heath, however, did his not long after mine, and left me in the dust. I reasoned that anyone who could write such a piece so originally must have a great book up his sleeve.

    And I was right.

  6. Good question, Clare! I think as writers we’d all like to read a favorable review of our work whether it’s in a newspaper or Amazon or wherever.

    But I wonder if ‘sampling’ isn’t more powerful. When someone can download and read a few chapters, they get to decide for themselves.

    The best is still word of mouth. When a friend comes to you and says, “You gotta read this book,” it’s hard to resist.

  7. Kathleen, I look forward to reading your post:) mike, I must check out Patti’s blog. Mark, samples are a great idea and with ebooks are probably the easiest way to get people to form their own opinion. I wonder what other resources readers are turning to, and how authors are generating that critical word of mouth – are key reviews a part of that and which ones?

  8. I get these ads from Publishers Weekly and I actually bought one. It sucked horse hooves. I’ll never take their recommendation again.

    I don’t know how much reviews help, or hurt, but I’m likely to buy a book on a strong recommendation from, say, Joe Hartlaub. I’ve never had him steer me wrong.

  9. John Miller, thanks so much for the kind words. I use reviews as a tool to see what is out there — it is impossible to keep track of EVERYTHING — but what is great about the Kindle store, et al. is that if a book piques one’s interest one can sample it and see if it lives up to its initial attraction, in much the same way one can do while browsing a bookstore or sample the tracks of a music project. I think you need a combination of both reviews and samples to make an informed choice, particularly with a new and/or unfamiliar author. Speaking of which, I just finished THE HYPNOTIST by Lars Kepler and I’m hesitant to go outside. Seriously.

  10. Having reviewed over a hundred books for a web site over a period of about five years, I find myself no fan of reviews in general. Even the best reviewers have their own prejudices, which they often fail to acknowledge, reveling in the controversy they may provoke over someone else’s work. I get my reading recommendations from blogs I trust, and people I trust, and my mining the backlists of writers I have come to rely upon. Reviewers’ opinions matter to me very little.

  11. Thanks Dana, John and Joe – I think trusted recommendations are the best but they can be hard to come by – i’ve read a few books where the so-called reviews must have clearly been paid for – the book bore no resemblance to what I read! John – seriously…you believed a PW ad?! I guess I know now to go to Joe instead – I’ll be looking up The Hypnotist now!

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