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.

What’s in Store

Random House commissioned Zogby International to conduct a poll of more than 8,000 Americans about their book-buying habits. You can read the findings online (PDF). (Via)

Some interesting details pop up, once you scrape away the “American Dream Materialists” vs. “American Dream Spiritualists” funny business. (I have a sociologist in the family who cautions me not to treat Zogby as the gold standard in social research—I’m not articulate enough to restate all the reasons, though of course a poll on book buying commissioned by a company that’s trying to get you to buy books has inherent issues. And it’s an Internet poll, which I have to imagine skews the facts too.) Lots of us buy books at independent stores (49 percent) but not very often (9 percent of the time). We like Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar stores (47 percent) but not their online store (10 percent). Being able to find a book quickly online is more important that knowing what others thought about it. End-caps aren’t terribly useful. Hardly anybody cares about e-books.

Most interesting (at least to my own selfish interests), we consider book reviews an important factor in our book buying (49 percent)—a huge trouncing of Oprah Winfrey, who only inspires book buying five percent of the time. (Jon Stewart beat her with eight percent—where’s his book club?) Thing is, I wish I knew what people have in mind when they hear the term “book review.” Does it mean a reader review on an Amazon page or a post on a book blog or a piece in a literary review? Probably some mix of all three—after all, we’re in an era where a lot of younger readers don’t especially notice whether a story they take to appeared on the New York Times or the AP wire (“I saw it on the Internet”). Attention pollsters: Maybe break out the question into subcategories of “review” next time around?

Update: Caleb Crain weighs in.