Book Reviewers—Who Needs ‘Em?

Publishers Weekly‘s report from a panel last week on the future of book reviews includes a couple of interesting data points. According to panelist Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group, a survey his firm conducted reveals that only five percent of readers heard about the last book they bought through a review in a print publication. Your likelihood to use such reviews as a consumer guide is a function of age: 9.2 percent of shoppers over age 65 were guided to their last book purchase by a review, while only 0.9 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds were.

Lacking any detailed information on the survey’s methodology, it’s hard to speak to its authority; for instance, though the survey argues that young book buyers today are more influenced by “online reviews” than print reviews, it’s not clear how “online review” was defined. Also, it’s worth noting that the Codex Group is in the business of helping publishers and authors promote their books through avenues that don’t involve print reviews. But let’s assume that the Codex Group’s data provide an accurate snapshot of book-buying habits. Time to panic?

Only, I suppose, if you figure this is something new—or if you figure that getting readers to buy books is the reviewer’s job. Googling doesn’t immediately pull up many examples of other surveys on the influence of print reviews; nearly half of those surveyed for a 2008 Zogby poll say that a book review makes them want to buy a book, but when asked to name the most important factor in their last book purchase, “book review” doesn’t even make the list. A Canadian survey conducted in the mid-’90s (arguably before “online reviews” had any real influence), in which buyers were interviewed as they were leaving the store, suggests that only about 10 percent of shoppers were guided to their purchase by a book review.

And even in 1947, when print reviews were the dominant medium for information on new books, publishers weren’t waiting on Edmund Wilson to drive readers to the booksellers’ doors. An article in Kiplinger’s Magazine titled “Books Are Business: And Business Ain’t What It Used to Be” notes that the industry was in a tailspin but pointed two ways to reverse course: book clubs and paperbacks. The article closes this way:

For if there is one lesson book publishers have learned from the post-war drop-off in book sales, it is this: the overwhelming majority of us will take to books more readily by being “exposed” to them than by getting a hundred sermons on the mental and moral values of reading.

So, no, book reviews can’t really sell a book, and perhaps never really could. That’s not what attracts book reviewers to the gig. That lack of power has a consequence, and you can see it in the vocal disconnect between those reviewers and bloggers who prize their role as recommenders, doing a version of handselling online. Consider the comment thread on a post at Life in the Thumb that addresses last week’s panel. The post’s author took the panel’s organizers to task for not including any bloggers on it, and the commenters weighed in on what makes for a good reviewer:

[P]eople find reviewers of their like mind in the blogosphere and stick with them. They don’t rely on professional reviews anymore because the reviewers seem out of touch with what most of the consumers actually like.

those “real” reviewers… I never get any of the answers I am looking for when I wanna know if the book is for me

a lot of assumption that “professionals” always give “reliable and consistent” reviews, which is questionable also. Ah well, I think they just feel threatened.

Professional reviewers tend to focus on literary merit. I’m more interested in enjoyment.

I want true reviews and through the blogging community I feel I get them.

A blogger with similiar tastes is much more reliable than a pro who spouts off about literary merit and influences of the 21st century!

If book bloggers are so unreliable, then why do authors and publishers/publicists still contact us to read and review their books?

Why indeed? It probably has something to do with the power of the “online review” that the Codex Group survey discusses.

I’m not sure how the gap gets bridged here, or even if it’s worth bridging. I’m pretty much incompetent at selling things, and though I’d like it if you liked the things I like, it’s fine by me if you don’t. And if lots of book bloggers reject the standard practices of book reviewers and find large, enthusiastic audiences in the process, who’s to say they should start behaving otherwise? Enthusiasm for books is always a virtue. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a distinction between discussing books and selling them.

8 thoughts on “Book Reviewers—Who Needs ‘Em?

  1. I’m distressed (but not surprised) by the hostility toward “literary merit” that is expressed in those comments. I care about literary and artistic merit very much! The people I know do, too, but I guess those are the people I choose to know. There may not be all that many of us percentage-wise, but I am glad that there are blogs and websites like this one, along with the dwindling number of print outlets, to nourish our interests.

  2. I find that Wikipedia tells me what I want to know, in regards to whether or not I want to read certain books or not. This presents problems in regards to less established writers (with ten tabs open on Firfox at a time, I have trouble reading any kind of serious writing and I live in a secluded area where I don’t really have access to book reviews in print). Sometimes I really wish there were a Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes for books—it’s nice to be able to see an overview of all the reviews and pick a few to read.

    1. Bookmarks magazine works similarly to the Metacritic/Rotten Tomatoes model:

      But I’m curious: How would reviews factor into your reading decisions? Do you trust specific publications, prefer reviewers who seem trustworthy, scan the reviews for a positive or negative assessment? The question is for everybody, I suppose.

      1. A lot of the time my reading has to do with what’s available—what’s at the tiny library I use, what’s at the used bookstore a few towns over. Much of what I read is determined by browsing said library and bookstore.

        The thing with Wikipedia is that I can get an idea of who has influenced an author and what their major preoccupations are, maybe a little about the style, too. But like I said, this presents problems for less established authors who don’t have Wikipedia pages yet or whose Wikipedia pages aren’t very detailed yet. I think I can get at least some of the same information from reviews. And in the case of movies, I normally agree with Ebert. So if I did read more reviews, I probably would have preferred publications, reviewers, etc., but as it is now, I normally only read reviews once I’ve already become interested in a book.

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  4. Positive, glowing, thumbs-up book reviews = feelings of general well-being, occasional illumination and nodding heads… but not necessarily gotta buy it.

    Negative, hatchet-job, thumbs-down book reviews = feelings of disturbance in the Force, occasional illumination, defense of the popular and piling on of the overrated… and almost always never gonna buy it.

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