The Supposed Power of Reviews

In the wake of the most recent author meltdown over a critical review I’ve been trying to figure out why it keeps happening. What is it about reviews that drives so many authors to momentary craziness?

(Though must be said: public author meltdowns about reviews are actually pretty rare. The vast majority of writers know to keep the crazy to ourselves.)

What is it about reviews that drives certain authors to public displays of rage? To attempting to bully reviewers into changing or deleting their reviews?

Is it in the belief that bad reviews effect sales? Let’s examine that shall we?

Bad Reviews Have Little Impact

If bad reviews had an impact then Da Vinci Code, Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey would not be bestsellers. They have racked up an astonishing number of bad reviews. Many of which are absolutely savage. They are amongst the bestselling books of all time.

Bookseller after bookseller in the USA has told me that a bad review in the New York Times, for instance, has about the same impact on sales as a good review in the NYT. I admit when I first heard that I was shocked. But booksellers kept saying it. On top of that I’ve been hearing from booksellers that these days a review in the NYT doesn’t have as much of an effect on sales. Not the way it used to.

Given that reviews in the most venerated of book reviewing venues in the USA, i.e. the New York Times don’t have much impact on sales than what kind of an impact is an individual reader’s review on Amazon, or Goodreads, or wherever going to have?

I’ve also heard internal research at Amazon showed that customers’ reviews of books had very little impact on sales. Whereas their reviews of items like toasters had a huge impact.

This makes sense to me. What makes a book work can be very individual. “I only read books where the hero explodes in a ball of flames at the end.” But most of us want basically the same things from a toaster: toast cooked the way we like it and the toast to pop up when finished so we don’t have to dig the toast out with a fork and get electrocuted. Stuff like that.

As far as I can tell the impact of reviews seems to be more about their volume. Chances are if your book is getting loads and loads of reviews all over the place than it is selling. Part of why books like Da Vinci Code etc have so many bad reviews is because they are so much more widely read than other books. But who knows whether the reviews are the main driver of those sales, or whether they are more of an indicator of those sales, or a bit of both.

Whether negative or positive, more reviews means more people talking about your book. So why aren’t we authors happy our books are being talked about at all?

Most Books Do Not Sell

Most books published by mainstream publishers do not sell in huge numbers. If your novel has sold more than 2,000 copies you’re selling way above average. Go, you!

Of course, if your publisher paid $20,000 for your book and it sold 2,000 copies you’re not feeling like a huge success. You’re wondering if any other publisher will ever buy a book from you again. You’ll be wondering what you could have done to make your book sell better.

There are several factors needed for a book to sell. People need to know it exists, they need to be able to find where to buy it, they need to not be repulsed when they see it. I.e. a book needs good publicity, distribution and packaging. And, yes, that last one is mostly about the cover.

Authors with mainstream publishers, even the ones who don’t sell that well, have way more power than a random reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook on their blog. We have the might of our publisher behind us, getting us into stores, online and offline, getting us widely reviewed.

Also we’re published. Our books are a bigger platform than a review on Amazon.

So Why Isn’t My Book Selling?

Sometimes it’s easy to figure out why a book isn’t selling. Book stores didn’t pick it up. Or only some did.

The publicity was minimal. There were no advanced readers’ copies or very few. So reviewers and librarians and booksellers didn’t know about it and thus didn’t review it or order it in.

It was hideous. The cover was so repellent small children ran screaming when they saw it.

But the lack of success of a book is almost never due to bad reviews. To very few or no reviews? That’s not a good sign. However, the lack of reviews is not the cause but a sign of crappy publicity/distribution/cover.

My worst selling book, Magic’s Child, had no ARC going out widely, had a much worse sell in and fewer reviews than any of my other books.1 When it came out fans of mine struggled to find it anywhere. Never a good sign.

Most of that was because it was the third book in a trilogy, later books in a series always sell the worst, even if your series is Harry Potter. Uglies is by far Scott’s best-selling book, and although every book in the series sells well, and they’ve all made the New York Times bestseller list, they’ve all sold less than that first book.

Even the most popular series loses people after the first book. At the same time, every time another book in a series comes out, it reminds people who haven’t read the first one yet that they should get on to that.

There were fewer signals to the reading public that Magic’s Child existed than any of my other books and so it sold the least. For what they’re worth, the reviews the book received were largely favourable. There just weren’t many. Reviews were the least of my worries.

While the first book of that trilogy, Magic or Madness remains in print. The next two books in the trilogy are only available in ebook form.2

Sometimes, however, it’s really hard to figure out what went wrong

Over the years I’ve heard gazillions of publishers talk about books they really thought were going to go gangbusters that didn’t. Books they spent big money on promoting, that received great reviews everywhere, that had a package many considered to be gorgeous, that did not sell anywhere near expectations.

They have no idea why.

That’s why they start concocting theories about covers: never have a green cover, non-photographic covers in YA are a no-no, ditto for covers where people are laughing. I’ve heard that book titles with punctuation in them never sell, nor do novels with footnotes. That you should never launch a book in [month] because [random seasonal reason]. And so on and so forth.

There are numerous examples of books succeeding despite these supposedly insurmountable obstacles. I’m sure you can name some of them.

So Why the Fixation on Reviews?

Books don’t sell for a whole bunch of reasons but not because of bad reviews. So why are we authors so upset by them?

I suspect we fixate on reviews because they’re visible. They’re the first signs that the book we slaved over for so long is out there in the marketplace being read by people we’ve never met.

We want those people to love our creation. Not matter how hardened we are. No matter how many books we’ve already published there is always a moment of disappointment when people don’t, in fact, love our creation. There’s always a moment of Waaaaaah!!!

Egos, we’ve all got them. We all want to be loved.

Then there’s the whole magical thinking that reviews are an indication of whether we’re selling or not. Surely if the book gets several starred reviews from the major trade magazines that is a sign that the book will be a success?3 Staring fixedly at our Amazon numbers is another kind of magical thinking.

We resort to magical thinking because many authors don’t have ready access to our sales figures until we get our twice-yearly royalty statements. Even though I have many friends with access to Bookscan numbers I’ve long since learned for the sake of my sanity not to ask for my numbers. I’m better off waiting for my royalty statements because they capture all my sales, unlike Bookscan.

And, really, I mostly care how close I am to earning out.4 Does the royalty statement come with actual money or not? Yes? Then it is dancing time. No? Weeping and wailing.

Reviews have zero predictive power over whether that book will earn out or not.

Perhaps for some of us authors it feels easier to rail against reviews than to rail against our lack of distribution, or publicity, or our hideous cover, or the fact that Oprah didn’t pick our book (or whoever anoints bestsellers these days).

When we’re feeling insecure about our careers—and this happens to all writers whether they’re bestsellers or not—
it may feel like reviewers wield all the power. They certainly have the power to make us feel bad. But that’s only because we let ourselves care what some random stranger on Amazon thinks of our book. And somehow think their dislike of our book has something to do with us. Most readers aren’t thinking about the author. So why are we wasting so much time thinking about them?

We need to quit already.

Or, you know, at least restrict our whingeing to the ears of those who love us.5

  1. Sell in is the number of books a bookstore orders. Sell through is how many they actually sell. []
  2. In the USA. In Australia the entire trilogy is out of print. []
  3. Maybe. Maybe not. It does seem to be a sign that your odds are better of being shortlisted for one of the major prizes. There are several literary prizes that absolutely do increase your sales. []
  4. Though it’s been cool to see the number of ebook sales going up with every statement. And will remain cool until those numbers start going down. []
  5. Poor loved ones. How they suffer for the mistake of loving a writer. []

10 comments

  1. Sean the Bookonaut on #

    Do books sell because of good reviews, or is it just the fact that someone is talking about the book that counts? I just read about the pay for review company in the states. Sheesh.

    Wondering if the effort I put into reviewing actually means anything? The agonising over 4-5 stars. The half day I sometimes spend writing a review when its only the cumulative effect of reviews that might matter?

    Does “I like wot Justine rote. It was tops” have just as much weight as a 500 word polished review?

  2. Eileen Lower on #

    Bad reviews mean people feel strongly about a book, which is always a good thing. There are books I completely ignored until I read a vicious review, and then I was dying to read it. Good reviews have almost no impact on my perception of the novel.

  3. Sherwood Smith on #

    All these points are absolutely true, and yet it’s like telling your kid the old “Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me!” Um yeah, but they do hurt.

    (This is why I don’t look for reviews.)

  4. Tania Roxborogh on #

    “publishers talk about books they really thought were going to go gangbusters that didn’t. Books they spent big money on promoting, that received great reviews everywhere, that had a package many considered to be gorgeous, that did not sell anywhere near expectations. They have no idea why.”

    My experience (and Penguin’s) exactly. They invested hugely in time effort (and a small amount of advance money but more than most NZ writers can expect and we are all disappointed and flummoxed about my series being the next best thing.

    Your comments about trilogies is making me nervous. Book three of mine comes out next April ( two years after book two and 3 and a half after book one). The publishing world has changed bucket loads since book one came out and I’m only sold in NZ and Aus. We thought it would make it big in the US (hey, how could we go wrong: the sequel to Macbeth with those delicious Scots (male and female) and nasty witches) but other trends took the reading world by storm or two of my characters’ names were funny or somebody was looking cross eyed….

    As you put it, who really knows why a book does or does not sell like people think it should and reviews really do have little impact.

  5. wandering-dreamer on #

    I am totally using that toast comment sometime (well, possibly to describe anime instead of books but it’s a good one!).

  6. sean williams on #

    Goodness, yes. That success or failure is a total crap-shoot only partly mitigated by hard work, native talent, persistence, editors, marketing etc is the most terrible thing about this industry. Or indeed about being any kind of artist, probably. What keeps me hooked is the dream that one day I’ll get lucky. This is why I don’t by lottery tickets. I’m already playing that game with my entire career/life/sanity.

    Anyway, great post, Justine. I’m sorry to hear about Magic et al in Australia. :-(

  7. Simone @ Bibliophagista on #

    I actually prefer well written bad reviews. They tell me more about people’s views of the books than the positive reviews. I often ignore the positive reviews, particularly if they are too enthusiastic, since many of them are obvious sock puppets. A bad review has never stopped me from buying a book.

  8. Sean the Bookonaut on #

    Sorry to hear that the trilogy is out of print here as I just referred a reluctant reader on to two of your books.

    Do you get the Australian rights back for them. Can you do POD and ebooks yourself?

  9. Chris on #

    I’ve actually read negative reviews that made me want to read a book. There were a couple of reviews that slammed Alice in Zombieland for not being what the reviewers expected, and I felt that was such an unfair criticism I want to see for myself if the book is good or not.

  10. Lee Battersby on #

    I think the nature of reviewing itself has changed over the last decade or so, which adds to the challenge: it used to be that reviews were delivered to we poor readers from a position of expertise– critical ‘experts’ in newspapers and industry trades, for example– and as readers we were somewhat at the mercy of their opinion in regards to what they chose to review: good or bad, they picked a position and that was that. To be not chosen for review *at all* indicated to a writer that their book had suffered the fate of the beige. It did not stand out enough one way or another to merit *any* attention.

    Now, of course, the internet gives everybody a platform, and places like Amazon and Goodreads a place to collate them. Reviews are a way of crowdsourcing opinion, and the focus has shifted from a critical (or, at least, pseudo-critical) perspective to an emotive one: books can be one-starred simply because the reader didn’t like the protagonist’s hair colour, and what’s more, that emotive one-starring can affect the *overall* rating the book receives on the site. There’s no necessary critical standpoint: it’s a more immediate medium, but one with a different readership, and a different axe to grind.

    None of this is necessarily a bad thing. But it seems to me that– in general, at least– the role of the review itself has evolved, so perhaps the writing community faces an evolution in its perception of those reviews. If we continue to look at them as a critical examination of the technical merits of our work we risk continuing to make these inappropriate responses, because our response mechanisms are tuned to the wrong channel.

    Either that, or all reviewers are giant poo-poo heads and I’m just a misunderstood genius, like always… :)

  11. Pete on #

    I wish the folks over at stopthegoodreadsbullies would read this, then find something constructive to do with their time.

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