The Power of Book Reviews


by Meredith Maslich

book-reviewWe’re revisiting a topic we covered in a January 2013 post because book reviews of all kinds are more important than ever.

Amazon and Goodreads are changing the nature of marketing — specifically book marketing and distribution — forever.

When traditional publishing ruled the world, books that were not reviewed by major media outlets or professional critics were dead in the water. But that is no longer the case.

Take, for example, Keith Donohue’s novel “The Stolen Child.” Despite being published by a major publishing house, none of the major book critics reviewed it, and it was going nowhere fast. But then some of Amazon’s top reviewers got hold of it, and the rave reviews started to pour in. “The Stolen Child” quickly became an Amazon Fiction Best Seller, and reached No. 26 on the New York Times’ Best Seller list — a previously unheard-of feat for a book with no major critical reviews.

Amazon was among the first to really harness the financial power that comes from crowdsourcing — using the general public to provide information or guidance about what’s hot. As social networking has grown through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and a host of other platforms, letting strangers help you make decisions on everything from where to go on vacation to what to read while there has become business as usual.

Product reviews on Amazon are as important in selling a product as the photos or description. A product without any reviews is almost worse off than a product with negative reviews. At least with a negative review consumers can evaluate whether or not they agree with the reviewer’s criteria or the way he or she used the product. But no reviews? That’s really hard to overcome, especially if the product has been on the market for more than a few weeks. It’s hard to get past the thought that “if this was really a great product, someone else would have noticed it by now.”

This phenomenon is even more pronounced with books. A highly reviewed book on Amazon has increased sales not just on Amazon but on every outlet where people can buy books. An author with dozens of reviews, even if many or even the majority are less than raving, will generally rank higher in Amazon’s search results than a book with only a handful of rave reviews. This creates a cycle in which the more reviewed a book is, the more exposure (and sales) it gets, the higher it ranks in searches, and the more reviews it gets, etc.

But the opposite is also true: A book with only a few reviews or no recent reviews will sink lower and lower in the search results, getting less and less exposure, which means less chances for reviews and so on. You would not believe how fast a book can sink into oblivion on Amazon.

Who knows how many brilliant, hilarious, inspiring, or useful books are floundering on page 7 of a search just because its readers didn’t review the book?

And although Amazon is still the most powerful driver of book sales, it’s no longer the only game in town. Users of Goodreads (which is like Facebook for book nerds) have posted 25 million book reviews. Gillian Flynn’s best seller “Gone Girl” has more than 100,000 reviews on Goodreads and 38,000 on Amazon. It can’t be a coincidence that her book is also on the best-seller list and getting a lot of a word-of-mouth traction. Would Flynn’s book have hit the list without the help of Goodreads or Amazon? Maybe. Would the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy and the “Twilight” series have seen such success if they had had to rely only on critical reviews and traditional publicity? Definitely not.

For a book nerd and publisher like me, this power shift toward the individual reader/buyer is a beautiful thing. It levels the playing field and gives new and independent authors a chance for success like never before. And say what you will about “Fifty Shades” or “Twilight,” but they aren’t wildly popular by accident. There was a market for them, one that was probably largely ignored previously and one that those books would never have reached if they’d come out a decade ago.

The only catch is that we all have to keep reviewing the books we read. Whether you love them, hate them, or are just kind of meh about them, share your thoughts — on Amazon, Goodreads, Twitter, or even in person, if you’re into that sort of thing. Just don’t keep your thoughts to yourself, whatever you do.

You never know — yours could be the review that changes everything.

Meredith Maslich is president and CEO of Possibilities Publishing Company. She is also on the faculty at SpeakeasyDC, where she has been teaching the art of storytelling for more than six years.

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