Wednesday, May 16, 2007

More Numbers Games

I find myself in a strange position with the publication of my second Tate Hallaway book Dead Sexy. My publisher, in all their wisdom, decided not to print galleys/ARCs (Advance Review Copies). Galleys go to reviewers early -- usually several months before the book is scheduled to be published. It seems to me that this was an "interesting" (Minnesotan for "stupid") move, if only because it seems to me that many libraries decide what to buy based on reviews they read in places like Library Journal, Booklist, and Publishers' Weekly. Libraries, if you weren't aware, often make up the bulk of book sales.

My editor told me that the decision wasn't meant as some kind of vote of no confidence (which I was inclined to take it as), but a function of having switched genres to "series romances." I have no reason to disbelieve her, except that my local Romance Writers' of America chapter often asks its authors for ARCs/galleys for review in its newsletter "Midwest Muse." However, to be fair, she said this was a new policy.

She said that a larger number of books go out to reviewers post-production, and I've heard from at least one place that is planning to run a review now (even though most people like to time it so the review comes out about a month BEFORE the book). I was lucky, too, in that Romantic Times/Bookclub asked for an early copy and I got a very nice review from them. (Go me.) I believe (if only because its true for me) a lot of romance readers make their shopping lists from reviews in RT.

Okay, that's all the background, here's the weird predicament I find myself in... one of the only places a reader can find reviews of my newest book is on Amazon.com. Right now, I'm getting a lot of mixed reviews, and I'm totally willing to accept that these are the opinions of my readers... however, it does make me concerned. If there are few other reviews out there, my guess is how I rate on Amazon becomes more important, right?

So my question is -- how much stock do you put in the reviews you find on commercial sites like Amazon or Barnes & Noble? Are there on-line (or paper) reviewers whose opinions you absolutely trust? Or do you distrust reviews generally, whether they be professional or not?

And, just out of curiosity, do you, as a reader, ever look at the Amazon.com sales ranking? Does it ever influence your decision to buy?

15 comments:

Sean M. Murphy said...

I NEVER look at the sales ranking. Other people's tastes don't define mine.

I do read the reviews by readers, though, and often make a decision in part on how eloquently they have argued their point. I must confess that a reviewer gets points added or taken away from their opinion, in my book, based on complexity of sentence structure, grammar, and word choise. "Mm-hmm, you know what I'm SAAYin'" just doesn't sell me on a book, whereas "I found the plot to be well-paced, with tense interludes following hard on the heels of somber introspection" has a much better chance of reaching me. I trust the reviewer more.

If there is a PW review or one of the other big names, I will definitely read that, too, and figure it in.

Kelly McCullough said...

As a reader I never read the reviews and I never look at the sales numbers. I only do that for people I know to see if there's something they might want to know or not know about.

I don't use Amazon or other online venues to find new books. I may buy them there for convenience and because my town only has one very small bookstore. In fact, I generally don't read reviews or browse for books at all. If I start a new author it's because of one of three things.

1. Someone I know lends me a book because they think I'll like it--if I do, I go buy a copy because I believe in supporting the authors I like.

2. Because the author becomes a friend and I like the sound of what they say they're doing.

3. Most commonly it's because Laura has picked up something, liked it, and put it on my stack. She doesn't read reviews either, but takes recommendations from friends or browses bookstores. Usually it's used bookstores since neither writing nor academia pay very well--but again, if we like an author's work we will then also buy new stuff to support their career.

Jen at You Would Think said...

Fwiw, I have never once looked at any sales ranking for a book or author I was interested in as a reader. Unless I have read and enjoyed an author's work in the past*, it is her plot summary and first page/excerpt that sells me or not, without exception. Nothing else matters to me. This is true, for example, with Kelly Mc's work; although we were friendly before I bought WebMage, I bought the book solely because of his talent, not because I like the guy.

*I'm a big time repeat buyer. I have entire shelves filled with books by authors whose work I enjoy, and I give them away as gifts as well. Once I like your work, I will buy every single thing you publish unless/until you nosedive beyond all hope of redemption.

tate said...

So my publisher is right? Reviews _don't_ sell books?

I must be a very strange book buyer, then. I routinely buy books that no one has recommended based on advertisements and reviews.

How the heck is word of mouth supposed to happen if no one reads reviews of new books? Someone (reader X?) must be starting this plague of recommendations somehow.

Now... I just need to find her....

Janice said...

I do read the amazon reviews, but I don't take just one reviewers opinion, I generally look at the big picture. I look at number of reviews - ifs it's low, I don't take it seriously. If its decent.. 10ish or more reviews - I'll look at the # of stars, see if there are a lot of 1 stars or a lot of 4 or 5 stars. Then read a 1 star review to decide if this person is bitter or expecting something they didn't receive (sometimes I disagree with what they expected as being something reasonable to expect). And I read a couple of the 4-5 star reviews and make up my mind if THEY sound reasonable or sound like the author's mom/relative. BUT.. all this is if I am unfamiliar with the author. If I have already read one of their books and liked it.. even if I see bad reviews, I will still want the book to decide for myself - I'm stubborn that way. By the way.. looking at your reviews on amazon for Dead Sexy, if I hadn't read your first book (I have), I'd check it out - overall number of stars for 9 reviews seems more 4 and 5s and one 1 star. The 1 star's review made it sound interesting and also sound like the 1 star was opinion and not sure I'd agree if I read it, so I'm going to read it myself to decide.

Douglas Hulick said...

I don't tend to buy books on Amazon, and if I do, it is an author/book I am already planning on buying. For that reason alone, I never look at the reviews or numbers on any site when it comes to books.

I DO use the reviews in Locus to give me ideas for books I might be interested in F/SF. Even then, however, I prefer to go to the bookstore, glance though the pages, get a feel for author's style, check out the back cover copy, etc.

Unless I have a TON of word of mouth I trust to recommend something, I have to page through a book and make my own decision. I've been burned in the past going by recommendations/reviews, and learned that other people's tastes are not always my own.

Stephanie Zvan said...

I do read reviews, mostly for entertainment. A really good bad review is about as entertainingly bitchy as it gets.

Do I read the books that are reviewed? Rarely. Part of that is that I prefer genre fiction and most reviewers concentrate on literary and "mainstream" fiction. It's a sure sign that I don't need to read a book when a reviewer praises a writer's laboriously constructed prose. (Or do they call it lovingly constructed? I forget.) Good prose rarely jumps out and announces itself, in my opinion. Unless it's funny.

I do keep my eyes open for praise (or condemnation) that makes me think I might like a book, but it has to fit with the things I already know I like about books, and I'm more likely to borrow something that has promise than buy it. I find most new authors through borrowed books or short stories. I buy a fair number of anthologies.

I'll occasionally read reader reviews, but there's so much to sort through. "Its the BEST BOOK EVAR!" "This sux." and plot summaries are only so helpful. And they're not even cleverly bitchy.

Morgan Dhu said...

I'm disabled and do all my book-shopping online. So I do read and pay attention to reviews, particularly about books written by authors new to me, including reviews posted at online bookstores like Amazon. I tend to pay more attention to online reviews at newspaper or magazine websites (i.e., The Guardian, Locus) or websites like sfsite.com than to those at bookseller websites, though. I also tend to pay more attention to reviews written by people who write in the same or a related genre.

When I look at reviews at bookseller websites, I read and weigh them carefully. If the reviewer does not seem to understand the genre well, or is unable to clearly express what they like or don't like, I ignore them. I don't let any one review make my decision for me. I try to get as complete a picture as possible from as many sources as possible.

Naomi said...

I don't read Amazon reviews of fiction until after I've read the book, because too many people give spoilers.

Non-fiction, on the other hand -- if I want to research a subject, I go to Amazon and look for likely books on whatever it is I want to read about. If a reviewer complains that a book is dry, technical, and academic, and I'm looking for very dry, technical, academic information, then bingo! On the other hand, if I want a light easy-to-read overview of something, I check out alternatives.

I never read Amazon reviews of my own books. I don't even visit my Amazon pages, because I get tempted and wind up reading what people had to say about me. (Even good reviews have a bad effect on me. I start fretting that my next book won't live up to their expectations, and it makes me all paranoid and it gets harder for me to write.)

Bill Henry said...

I read lots and lots of editorial reviews, all the time; they're what lead me down the path to good books (or at least to books I hope I'll want to read).

In the larger publishing world, I read the NYTBR, TLS, and sometimes PW (though PW is geared more to booksellers than to end readers).

Inside the genre I read John Clute's "Excessive Candour" column and the other weekly reviews at scifi.com, Strange Horizons, and SF Site (though I find myself paying less and less attention to the reviews at SF Site since having read the ill-considered hatchet job of Paul Park's luminous A Princess of Roumania a while back; philistinism really isn't the way to come at one of our genre's contemporary greats, especially when the reviewer is also a genre writer and thus a peer of Park's, though one of markedly lesser gifts, not to mention a lack of sound judgment).

I miss Cheryl Morgan's Emerald City a lot. It was a great grassroots-feeling site with thoughtful, well-written reviews.

Clute feels to me like one of the few reviewers inside the genre who has the true heft of professionalism. The intensity of his engagement with the books he reviews commands my respect and, to a degree, my trust. I do listen.

(I'm not ignoring the many topnotch reviewers who write for Locus; I just don't happen to read Locus so much, for the same reasons I don't read PW.)

On Amazon I do sometimes scroll down and read the reader "reviews," though afterward I always wish I hadn't, for the obvious reasons.

I look at the Amazon sales rankings every now and then, mainly out of curiosity. For instance, if you browse the category of literary fiction, and sort/display by sales ranking -- well, the results are always unexpected.

I'd never use the sales ranking to influence my decision whether or not to buy a book, though.

One source of book-review-like information not mentioned in Lyda's post is blogs ("litblogs"). I read a couple of them, too; Gwenda Bond's Shaken and Stirred is one that comes to mind inside the genre.

All this is to say that, yes, reviews sell books to this strange monkey -- or at least get him to swing down from his branch and take a sniff.

lydamorehouse said...

Wow, thanks to everyone who chimed in. This information -- though wildly divergent in many cases -- is very helpful.

I agree with you, Bill. I miss Cheryl Morgan's Emerald City a lot, too. Does anyone know what she's doing these days?

Kelly McCullough said...

Just wanted to take a quick moment and say welcome and thanks for commenting to janice and morgan_dhu who are (I think*) new commentors here.

*If I'm wrong I can only plead a poor memory for names and a certain amount of distraction due to the woodchucks who continue to hold me hostage.

David said...

Harriet Klausner rocks my world.

Anonymous said...

I don't buy on amazon but use it to find books and read reviews.

Like most of the replies, I read the reviews the way I listen to critiques - with a grain of salt and an eye to the person's biases. I've always got in mind that some of my favorite novels got scathing reviews on amazon because white people apparently didn't like being called racists, heh.

I never look at rankings - just don't care what normal people read.

Like Jen above, if I like a book I buy it for everyone I know because my friends don't go out and buy their own books - rely on others to feed books to them.

IMO, these people who give others books, and even more - the people who convince their book clubs to read their choices, are your 'early adopters' in the book version of cool-seeking. My one friend-of- friends who had a major best-seller seems to have gotten tons of the sales through book clubs, and then Oprah's club because of that. The people I know whe recommend to their book clubs tend to rely on nespaper reviews, but my sampling is people 50-plus.

Not coincidentally, this best-seller also does a killer in-store reading, with funny anecdotes and stories about the writing of the book that really make the reading an entertaining event to attend and not just a book-signing opportunity. Gets people talking about the reading as much as the book.

-CJD

Guy said...

I buy based on past experience with an author. It's like I find an author who's writing style I enjoy and content I find interesting (not the Minnesotan 'stupid') and I will pursue other works by that author.

That being said I chose to read that author in the first place based on reviews or chatter I hear throughout the web. For example, I started reading Gaiman based on a (positive) review I read about American Gods on slashdot. That's another biggie, reviews on sites that aren't solely devoted to book reviews.

I also chose to read an author based on awards (Nebula, etc.). This might seem unfair, but I figure they won an award for a reason.