Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Do Reviews Translate to Sales?

There's some debate this week in the bookosphere (I thought about trademarking that made-up-word and charging people money every time they said it, but a website beat me to it, proving once again that life isn't fair) about the impact of the demise of the newspaper book section. The Millions, as is their wont, recently posted a thoughtful assessment of the possible elimination of the Atlanta Journal Constitution's book section and the reduction the size of the Chicago Tribune's book section as they move it to, shudder, Saturday's edition.

Some people feel that the decline of the books section is a sign that books are losing their cultural foothold, others point out that the review section is outmoded in the day of internet reviews and book websites, which allow debate and linking and all those other things you can get without walking down the street and paying $1.25 in quarters for the Sunday paper.

So you tell me: have you ever bought a book because of a newspaper review? Do they translate to sales? Do you see the decline of the Sunday Book Review as a harbinger of doom or a harbinger of "Enh, I wonder those thoughtful and insightful The Millions people are up to today? I bet they totally knocked out an awesome review today, those silly goons."



Scott said...

I've bought a few books because of reviews in specialized magazines (such as mags for writers), books I might not have known about if they hadn't been reviewed. I don't remember ever buying a book based on a newspaper review.

Katie said...

Never from a newspaper review. Often from websites, blogs, and magazines.

Nichole said...

I really do not pay much attention to book reviews. I feel the same about movie reviews. I disagree with book and movie critics most of the time. I tend to go by word of mouth and from watching interviews with the author. If the topic sounds interesting to me, I buy the book and don't pay much attention to what the reviews are saying.

Liz said...

Never bought a book from a review in a newspaper. Have bought them from reviews online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble. I also scan my issue of The New Yorker for the book ads. I do buy books, sad to say, on how cool the ad is.

whitemouse said...

A rave from someone I know gets my attention.

So does a rave from a poor-schmoe bookstore employee who wasn't required to go that extra length.

And so does a rave (or flame) from a random mystery-person on the internet.

What doesn't register as meaningful is a review from someone whose job it is to give reviews.

When a person loves a book so much that they spontaneously start telling others, that enthusiasm is my tipoff that the book might succeed in exciting me too.

Which is what I'm looking for in a book.

Loreth said...

I absolutely have bought books because of newspaper reveiws -- trouble is I don't buy newspapers anymore.

Lauren said...

I love reviews. Always have. I'll continue to seek them out whether the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (my local paper) ditches its books section or not. What I love (loved?!) about the AJC's section is that its wonderful editor is/was so good at interviewing and discussing regional authors. When I was in high school and was just discovering Southern fiction, the AJC's books section was an indispensable eye-opener. It was approachable and undaunting; I was introduced to a few new books and authors every week, some of which I'd seek out at the bookstore when I had money.

Serious readers will continue to read if newspaper books sections disappear. It's the new readers and casual readers that may not stick around, however. Thinking about this, I'm reminded of a discussion that went on over at The Consumerist ( last week. An article about the RIAA blaming a drop in CD sales on music piracy prompted a discussion on how people seek out and buy new music. Some of us mentioned how we read music blogs and forums to find new bands. But others said that while they dislike the commercial stuff that the big record companies were pimping on TV and radio, they don't bother to find other ways to introduce themselves to new music. Some people said they hadn't added to their music collection in years.

I like The Millions and other litblogs. But most people don't know about / don't have time / don't have interest in reading blog entries about reading. Book discussion in very public places -- newspapers, magazines, TV -- has value in reminding people that yes, books exist, and here are a few you might like. I feel like a lot of people's book-consciousness mirrors my own video-game-consciousness: most of the time, I ignore their existence, but every once in a while there'll be one that gets a lot of press and sounds really cool, and I might bother to invest some time in playing it.

Annalee said...

my problem with reviews in newspapers is that my papers (The Washington Post, which is otherwise a good paper, and the Indiana Star, which is such a joke that is still hasn't figured out that Washington DC doesn't have a team called the 'senators') either don't review the kind of books and movies I like, or do review them but clearly don't get them.

I remember one particular review that started: "how many fight scenes can you fit in 104 minutes? 104, apparantly. Maybe 105," and went on from there to tear the film to shreds. I was sitting there thinking "Dude, a bunch of fight scenes with swords? I have got to see this movie."

Then there was the review of Lord of the Rings that suggested that Gandalf, being a wizard, should have been able to aparate them all to mount doom. I don't think that one was in either the post or the star, but if it was, I fear for the nation's future.

Carla said...

Never from a newspaper or magazine review. I might allow a few Amazon reviews to influence my choices, especially if they're consistently positive or negative, but that's it.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I occassionally read reviews in magazines but they don't influence my book buying habits or reading habits. I read A LOT but it's not all books, by any means. I read a lot of short stories (for my zine and in others), I read my crit group's work (generally very entertaining and good), I read blogs and websites and research for my own books, and I always have a stack of unread books that guilts me into not letting a reviewer coerce me into buying another. (They all whisper "read me first, read me first" as I'm going to sleep, they really do.)
Actually, most of my books are loaned/given to me by/bought from friends and writers.

POD Critic said...

I have to disagree with those who are sold on word-of-mouth here. I’ve often found that many of the word-of-mouth suggestions that led me to one book/film or another resulted in utter disappointment. On the other hand, qualified reviewers and critics have often led me to books and films I took great pleasure in—and of course these are trusted critics, whose opinions I have come to depend on, rather than critics whose tastes I am unfamiliar with.

I think critics working in a particular industry, and who are constantly reading books or watching movies for a living, ought to have more of a sense of what a good book or movie consists of, more so that a casual reader or moviegoer who isn’t concerned with anything beyond plain old entertainment—and if that amounts to brainless action and banter, so be it. Reviews still work. I can attest to that, both as a critic and customer.

Jillian said...

I haven't read a newspaper since -- well, I can't remember the last time I read a newspaper.

My most recent "astounding finds" have been via recommendations from editor and/or writer web sites, my own research, or the glowing praise of bookish friends.

I don't think I've ever paid serious attention to a book review.

Dan Leo said...

What Loreth said:

"I absolutely have bought books because of newspaper reveiws -- trouble is I don't buy newspapers anymore."

The only periodicals I subscribe to now are The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. The latter especially is brilliant for its long-form reviews. But at the other end of the spectrum I love to skim through the Amazon reviews from the common folk (especially the pans).

Eric said...

I regularly read book reviews in the New Yorker and NYT, but never in recollection have I purchased because of this.
Which brings me to a question you put forth a few weeks back about the death of the brick and mortar venue.... I have filled the large majority of my bookshelves through impulse buys as I've wandered around the bookstore thumbing pages from whatever strikes my fancy. I just can't quite do the same on the intraweb.

The Anti-Wife said...

I may be influenced to pick up and look at a book because of a review, but that doesn't mean I'll buy it. I learned long ago that a book some reviewer loves or hates may have the opposite effect on me. Usually I like to just wander through a bookstore and see what catches my attention.

Anonymous said...

As a librarian, I read Kirkus, Booklist, LJ and PW, so I don't read newspaper reviews.

However, we do get patrons coming in with reviews from papers asking for the books.

Not as many as when an author goes on Oprah, but some. :)

Alex J. Avriette said...

No, I don't buy books because of reviews read in papers or magazines. As with music, I have two methods for finding a book (note I did not say "being told about a book") to add to the list. There's a third I'll mention briefly.

The first is by listening to what my friends and peers are saying. I read the weblogs of a lot of authors whose books I read. An example of this would be finding John Scalzi from Charlie Stross' weblog, and from Scalzi's, I found Tobias Buckell. I find I'd rather be disappointed by a book that I've read that was recommended by somebody I respect than feeling like I was "sold" a book.

The second is that when my in-queue is running thin, and I can't find something that looks interesting in my pile of feeds in Google reader, that I find books related to what I like. In this case, I go looking for books that inspired another book. An example of this would be reading Frank Tipler and Freeman Dyson after a recent spate of science fiction books. Another would be looking up Larry Niven's Ringworld after reading Iain Banks' Look to Windward.

Lastly, if I am really desperate, I let Amazon recommend a book based upon the hundreds (thousand? it's been a decade...) of books I've bought from them in the past. This is usually a one-in-five success rate. I occasionally get one I like from them, but most of the time, it's garbage. I hate to harp on Neal Asher again, but they insisted that I would enjoy Cowl because I'd read some of the aforementioned authors. It was unforgivably bad. And, incidentally, that's the last one I bought on their recommendation.

Between the first two methods, I generally have 5-20 books sitting on the stack to be read.

Brian said...

A review might get me to at least pick up the book and look at it but nothing has ever told me YOU MUST BUY THIS NOW. But, like movie reviews, there are reviewers whose tastes and style I agree with and enjoy so it won't be just ANY review that gets me to locate the book the next time in I'm a bookstore.

Now... do reviews influence sales? Do you mean sales to readers? Sales to libraries? Sales to schools? There's a difference.:-)

I tend to think reviews do influence sales but only because--and let's be honest here--everybody reviews the same 6-10 books. Top of mind is a key marketing concept because it works. When you see that everybody is reviewing THE DA VINCI CODE (not necessarily reading the reviews to see what people are saying), you assume it's wildly popular and at least check it out at the next opportunity.

Not that this publicist at a small publisher is bitter about how hard it is for a small press to get a review in a prominent, influential publication. ;-)

Dave said...

oooh, book reviews.

I used to buy almost all of the books from CSPAN's Booknotes just form hearing the authors talk. Then I started watching BookTV on weekends and I had to control that urge (bad habit waiting to be).

Nowadays, I've bought a dozen books from online recommendations and reviews and hated them. I'm in the process of leashing my urge to spend.

A good review will sell me a book.
I just bought the "Summer of 1787" and Chabon's new book, MJ Rose's new book and Palaniuk's new book on reviews.

Sigh! Nick Basbanes called it "A Gentle Madness" ...

Nonny said...

I've bought books due to reviews, but I don't read a newspaper. What's the point, when I can get everything online?

I pay more attention to website and blog reviews which focus on genres I'm interested in. I've rarely found that local newspapers pay much attention to either science fiction/fantasy or romance -- both of which are what I primarily read.

L.C.McCabe said...


What's interesting is that I just read Joe Konrath's blog before yours and he is dealing with book reviews as well, but from a different perspective.

Check it out here:

As for me, I do read a lot of reviews, but I rarely purchase a book because of ones I've read in newspapers or magazines. I'm more likely to purchase a book (or check to see if it's available from my library) if it has positive reviews on Amazon.

If they have scathing consumer reviews which seem based on logic and not just unhinged lunacy, then I will skip that book and continue searching.


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Linda beat me to pointing out that bit of alignment in the stars for you, Nathan, and Joe Konrath.

To answer your question: Yes. I can't tell you the number of mid-list or lower gems I've found because I read a review of them (usually in PW).

I may be a bad one to ask, though, because I am actively seeking those gems and I often avoid the really popular stuff at all costs.

sylvia said...

Conversely, I don't have a lot of faith in Amazon reviews (unless everyone is agreed that it is a waste of money) but I do value various other reviews, including newspaper reviews. I bought a number of children's books as gifts based on review supplements in the paper last Christmas.

Tori Scott said...

I've been a book reviewer for a magazine, but I rarely buy books based on reviews, unless it's from a friend or an off-the-cuff recommendation from a fellow writer who likes the same types of books I like. I've never read a newspaper review, much less bought a book from one. I don't read online review sites, either, if I can help it. One person's opinion is just that. I buy books by authors I like or based on back cover copy that sounds interesting.

Marti said...

Gee, this is starting to seem awfully strange, but I read JA's blog before coming here too! (cue Twilight Zone music - lol) I'm a regualr of his, because I built a Squidoo lens (Book Squid) to show authors how to build one to promote their work, and I used him (with his permission) as the "example".

I bought The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty after reading the newspaper review. I was disappointed with it though. I prefer Amazon because I can get a lot of different perspectives from multiple reviewers.

Great topic - thanks!

Maya Reynolds said...

I'm not among those who bemoan the loss of hard copy newspaper book review sections. They haven't died; they've migrated to the Internet.

While blog book reviews have been around for a while, I think the social networking sites (like Library Thing) are increasingly becoming the place for this activity--largely because they are more interactive. HarperCollins UK blog (Fifth Estate) had a very intriguing article that touched on this subject earlier this week.

I regularly read the book reviews in the New York Times online and have purchased books as a result. I used to read Jerome Weeks' book reviews in the Dallas Morning News, but I now read his blog online at BookDaddy ( I bought my first Jodi Picoult novel as the result of a Dallas Morning News review over ten years ago.

A Paperback Writer said...

My local newspaper has book reviews in the Sunday Arts section each week. I have purchased a fair number of books by local authors because of that section. They are books I wouldn't have heard about otherwise, and I've never been sorry about buying them!

Heidi the Hick said...

I read reviews voraciously. Books, movies & records. (In the music biz we still call 'em records!)

Does it make me buy? sometimes. Mostly I look for extremes. I have spent my precious money on things that got horrible reviews, just because of the strong reaction.

Determinist said...

I have never bought a book based on a newspaper review. I find that most newspapers review books that I'm just not that interested in (the 10 times I've looked).

I am far more likely to read a lot of reviews from Amazon or similar. I've also found, where you can type in an author and get the authors who are "similar" (not really sure what that means).

The point is (focus!) that I've never used a professionally written review as a reason to buy any book.

adrienne said...

I think reviews call attention to a book, make you aware of its existence. I'm not sure if a positive review vs a negative review makes that great of a difference, though.

(stupid ANTM clip show tonight. I hate friggin clip shows . . . )

Graham said...

From an Australian perspective – The Age’s book section has gotten smaller on Sunday, but Saturday’s has remained about the same. The owners of the Age recently took over my local regional paper “The Border Mail” and scrapped the book reviews of one brave soul who read four books a week (her reviews were generally of the “I liked it” kind).

Australia has one national newspaper “The Australian” which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns half the publishers in Australia, so can any of the reviews of his publisher’s books in his newspapers be unbiased. He has shown - he stopped one of his publisher’s publishing the biography of the ex-governor’s of Hong Kong because he didn’t want to offend the Chinese – he will intervene in one section (publishing) of his businesses for the perceived benefit of another section (satellite TV in China).

The Age rarely reviews speculative fiction (unless its YA), but I still glance through the reviews to see if they have any tips on writing and what other books are around. I have bought books from reviews, but not so much from the reviewers recommendation, but from being alerting that a book on a particular subject or by a particular author is out there.

I take note of who is doing the reviewing, and I thought it was petty when the Age got a literature professor to review a Mathew Reilly (a big selling author of techno-thrillers in Australia) book. The professor was always going to be heavily critical of Reilly’s writing.

I think speculative fiction publishers know that even if they get their book reviewed in The AGE it will probably be read by few readers of speculative fiction. The publishers would be better off targeting speculative fiction magazines and web newsletters.

Book review sections of newspapers are probably seeking their own demise by concentrating on a tiny literature audience and not the much larger genre market.

I would be surprised if a huge section of the current readers of the Age book section didn’t turn out to be writers.


Travis Erwin said...

I do buy books that I have read a review on. Those reviews come from a variety of places, and yes, even the newspaoer on occasion. But I don't really care what the reviewer has to say. What makes me go buy the book is the subject matter, a setting I'm intereseted in, or just finding out that one of the authors I enjoy has a new work out. Personal taste is too subjective for me to shun a book just because one reviewer disliked it. I think the value is in the exposure.

Anonymous said...

I have bought books from reviews, but not so much from the reviewers recommendation, but from being alerting that a book on a particular subject or by a particular author is out there.

That pretty much sums it up for me, too. Back in middle/high school, I read a very short review of What's Eating Gilbert Grape in Sassy Magazine, and it sounded so good that I cut out the clipping and finally bought the book... a few years later... and it's still one of my favorites. Since then, though, I can't recall buying a single book because of what a reviewer said (and for the most part, I don't even read reviews), although I've definitely sought out books after becoming aware of their existence through a newspaper or magazine.

What does make a difference for me: author interviews in any medium; recommendations by bookstore staff (the handwritten "I liked this because..." card taped to the bookshelf); author readings -- often, I won't even make it to the reading but I'll be interested enough from the description to add it to my list.

All that said, these days I haven't been buying books much at all... instead, I take a list of books I might want to read, visit Amazon to get a sense of whether it's worth my time, visit my local library's website to request a copy of the book, and then just wait for an email that it's ready for me to pick up. It's cheap and convenient, yes, and it also encourages me to read a bit more widely.

AmyB said...

I don't think I've ever bought a book based on a newspaper review, but I've bought books based on reviews in Time magazine. Most of the stuff Time reviews is not what I typically read, so when I buy something from there, I branch out a little.

I never seek out reviews. My to-be-read stack has about 20 books in it already; I've no need to go looking for recommendations. Most books I read were recommended in blogs, or by friends, or, if nonfiction on an obscure subject, are the result of an amazon search.

Ghost Girl said...

I have bought books based on reviews in both the newspaper and in magazines like the New Yorker. Part of that may be because I am writer, myself, and have a sharper interest in what's going on out there in the bookosphere (like your word!).

I really don't spend much time looking on line for reviews unless it's just something I haven't been able to find elsewhere. So there is the point, I guess. I have to go looking for it on the web, whereas in print, it seeks me out-- the newspaper has it right there, waiting for me to arrive, all the time.

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