As usual, I’m late to the controversy, and I’ll probably regret commenting on it. But there seem to be quite a few ruffled feathers at various online review sites, because of some remarks made by two Avon romance editors during an interview. It all started over at the site All About Romance . The two editors, May Chen and Lucia Macro, addressed a number of general questions regarding the state of romance publishing today. What got the internet review world up in arms was this section of the interview:
Lynn S.: In our 2002 interview, you felt that the online world didn’t have much of an impact on sales. Much has changed in the intervening years, and more and more people – including more women – are online now and use reviews as a helpful guide to the buying process. Has Avon changed its thinking in this area? Avon, also, seems not to include many online reviews in books. Are there any plans to change that policy?
May Chen: In my opinion, the online world still doesnâ€™t have much impact on sales as, anecdotally, Iâ€™ve seen books get horrible online reviews but have done well. As far as I know, we still donâ€™t include online reviews on our books, but that can certainly change if we see them start making a difference. Right now, the best endorsements for us still seem to be from NYT bestselling authors and from major traditional print reviewers.
Lucia Macro: Do the consumers recognize the source of the quote? I’m not sure that the vast majority of readers recognize all the online sites. When checking their rankings I’m often surprised at how little traffic they really get. We are all very plugged in, but many casual readers are just picking up a book at their local Walmart and barely have time to watch tv, much less wrestle the computer away from their kids. So an author quote might carry more weight with them.
The response to those remarks has been surprisingly vociferous, both on AAR and on Dear Author. Several of the comments accuse the two editors of being wrong, misinformed, and disrespectful to online communities:
This is â€œHow to Ruin a Business Relationship 101â€³ i.e. Boss gets involved and in just a few statements manage to undo lots of good work.
The response from the marketing director was dismissive and combative. Big fail. VERY big fail. …The first rule of advertising/PR is not to piss off your customersâ€¦ this interview and follow up are a an excellent example of what *not* to do when making public statements.!
Chen and Macro sound like theyâ€™re talking down to women who in our own lives donâ€™t have a clue about how business works, when maybe itâ€™s just the two of them who are clueless.
And on it goes.
Now, I’ve never written for Avon, and I’ve never worked with either Chen or Macro. But boy, am I feeling sorry for them right now. They were asked a series of questions, they gave frank answers based on what they know of the market, and now they’re the villains. I suspect it’ll be an ice age before either editor agrees to answer any other questions from that site.
What’s being ignored is that the editors’ answers are probably in step with the beliefs of most of their publishing colleagues. They are not the outliers; they are voicing what other publishers are saying, if people would just care to listen.
Let’s talk about internet sales. If a reader gets a book recommendation online, she’ll very likely go straight to an online site to buy the book. And while it’s true that online book sales are growing, it’s still a very small part of overall sales. When I look at my own sales figures, I estimate that my Amazon.com sales only account for 3% of my overall hardcover sales, and probably less than 1% of my paperback sales. Granted, I’m talking about the mystery/thriller market, and perhaps this has no relationship whatsoever to the romance market. But I think that most editors will tell you that for frontlist (new release) books, internet sales are is still a minor part of the equation.
As for online reviews, do they actually send enough customers flocking into stores to make a difference in sales? Can they make a book a bestseller? Here’s the answer the editor gave:
We aren’t seeing that any review driven website has the power to “make” a book. Yet.
Did the editor say this just to get people upset? No, she said it because she, as an editor, has not yet seen it. She is basing this on experience, and probably cold hard numbers as well. Yes, publishers do care about numbers, and they compile a lot of them. They know when sales spike, and where. Numbers may make people angry, but there’s nothing one can do about them. They just are.
As for the vaunted power of internet marketing, it’s utterly puny against the power of bookstore co-op, a sell-in to Walmart and Costco, and a smashing good cover. You can market all you want on the internet, but if the book isn’t in Walmart and Costco, good luck getting on any bestseller lists. This is why editors put so much effort into pushing the sell-in, and getting those books on store shelves. Books sell if they’re where customers can see them and pick them up and make that impulsive decision to buy. That’s what generates book sales in huge numbers, not the fact that it got a nice review on an internet site.
As for quotes from internet review sites, again, I have to agree with Ms. Chen that reviews from newspapers still hold more power than from internet sites. If I see a great quote from USA Today or the New York Times, I’m far more likely to give it credence than if I see a quote from an internet reviewer. I know that a glowing quote from a major newspaper is a tough baby to land, but a quote from an online reviewer whom I’ve never heard of? Can I trust it?
These editors gave their honest opinions. They got burned by it. It’s experiences like this that make people avoid telling the truth, and that’s to the detriment of us all. You see, I want to hear the truth about publishing. I want to know what editors and marketing people really think. We can’t function in this business when all we’re hearing are beautiful lies that make us feel important, but don’t educate us one whit.
One good thing about following the issue is that it made me look up something that was referred to on several of the sites: Google Page Rank. I’d never heard of it before. It’s a measurement of how popular a blogsite is. If you’re curious about your own site’s popularity, you can find out its rank (ranging from 0 to 10) at this website.
(My blog, by the way, is rated at 5.)