Honesty comes back to bite you in the you-know-where

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 doesn’t have much impact on sales as, anecdotally, I’ve seen books get horrible online reviews but have done well. As far as I know, we still don’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 “How to Ruin a Business Relationship 101″ 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 customers… this interview and follow up are a an excellent example of what *not* to do when making public statements.!

Chen and Macro sound like they’re talking down to women who in our own lives don’t have a clue about how business works, when maybe it’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.)

9 replies
  1. PackingPadre
    PackingPadre says:

    Tess,

    Living in a small Maine town with no bookstore, I’m probably within that 3 percent who buy your books through Amazon.

    As far as fiction, word of mouth or a book by a favorite author, is more important than any review. Take you for example, I like some books of yours better than others, but you’ve never burned me with a bad one. The same goes for Nevada Barr.
    Daniel

  2. My Friend Amy
    My Friend Amy says:

    As someone who devotes a great deal of time to maintaining two lit blogs these kinds of interviews are frustrating.

    And while I understand about Wal-Mart and Costco etc, I do think that publishers and marketing people could be working harder to recognize that the internet may well be the future. Online sales are obviously a threat of some sort, because lit bloggers receive a lot of grief for linking to Amazon over independent bookstores.

    Lit bloggers are a passionate bunch. We are books biggest fans. And we are constantly looking for ways to increase our influence and readership. But we also have a long memory and low tolerance level for what is perceived as a lack of respect for what we do. (the Quirk incident?)

    So instead of simply accepting the status quo it would be nice if publishing was looking forward to a time when the internet was more influential, and while print review sources are drying up, helping to foster the online source. I’ll be on a panel next week at Book Expo America in which all the bloggers on the panel agree with this very idea.

    100% of my book purchases now are bought based on book blog recommenations for what it’s worth.

  3. Sandra_Ruttan
    Sandra_Ruttan says:

    One of my initial questions about this situation has to do with the fact that these women are editors. Editors are not publicists. I would expect publicists to have their finger on the pulse more directly when it comes to cause and effect with sales.

    We’re in a time of great change. This has already happened in the music industry, and it’s happening with books and publishing. I’ve had authors tell me that following reviews in Spinetingler their sales numbers have spiked on Amazon, but it’s hard to draw a straight line between the two, as a publicist, unless you sit at your computer and monitor the numbers as something goes live. Authors – particularly newer authors – have a tendency to obsess about amazon numbers in the beginning, but I’m not sure publicists track that kind of data at this point.

    That said, I’m going to defend them a bit. I absolutely, 100% believe that most consumers don’t know where most of the blurbs and endorsements on books come from, be it online or print sources. I say that because I used to be one of those consumers. Until I started writing myself I didn’t know about Library Journal or Booklist or Kirkus and couldn’t have cared less that they thought about anything. There are an awful lot of consumers like that.

    However, we’re approaching the turning point, because of the decreasing coverage of books in print sources. I review for Spinetingler, Bookspot Central and now the Baltimore Examiner, all online, and the number of arcs I receive is beyond managing and increasing all the time.

    These editors may be slightly behind the curve, but they’re not out of the ballpark. However, when it comes to marketing, no publisher should be behind the curve. You should be a front runner. In the future, publishers that are able to utilize the internet to generate sales will have an advantage over those who aren’t. Many of us form relationships with publicists and when we’re already overloaded with books, publicists who come to us later won’t have the same history with us. I have some publicists I know will send me exactly what I’m interested in, so I’m more likely to pick up their books first.

    I think publishers must monitor online developments closely moving forward. I know I certainly feel there are many valuable online sites and am glad to have a number of arcs of my own books sent to those sites for coverage.

  4. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    I check reviews of everything I buy on-line. I’m not outraged because it’s not the recognized form of review though. It would be interesting to find out if the editors are indeed slightly behind the times in their opinions… at least in relation to the Romance genre they were commenting on. There are a number of highly regarded Romance Review websites.

  5. Abe
    Abe says:

    Hi Tess,

    For me, I do not depend on on-line critiques of books. My choice depends on The NYT or through and independent source…a friend who has read the book that I want to read.
    Tess, I’ll be totally honest with you. I discovered your book Harvest on a book table at Costco. I have never heard of you before, but since I love medical thrills, I took a chance, and the rest is a love fest with your books. I had gone to Waldens and Borders and they were sold out.
    I rarely trust anything to do with on-line sales. There is usually a hidden fee somewhere, and who knows where your personal info goes?
    As the good Father Daniel says above, word of mouth is the best review, and you know what Tess? Sometimes it pays to check out the display at Costco or Walmart then to be shut out at your local bookstore and then have to order on-line. The NYT knows what they’re talking about. Tess Gerritsen, Stphen King, Sue Grafton, James Patterson, Nora Roberts. C’mon. The creme de la creme of the iterary world. Thank you NYT. You opened my eyes into the world of Tess Gerritsen.

  6. Tess
    Tess says:

    There’s no question that lit bloggers are a passionate bunch, and a terrific source for book reviews and information, which is why publishers provide so many of them with galleys. There’s also no question that internet promotion is now almost universally done for books. No one wants to be left behind, and almost all authors maintain blogsites. Publishers routinely do internet promotions, and everyone’s doing online interviews. But with EVERYONE doing it, it’s no longer such a unique promotional tool. Which means that other tools become all the more important in making your book stand out.

    I don’t think the editors were being disrespectful of the power of the internet. They were simply saying that its power does not yet rival more traditional promotional tools such as co-op, great distribution, and author tours. The time may come when those traditional tools fade in importance, but at this point in time, they’re still more powerful.

    If you’re an author, and a publisher offers you these choices, which would you choose:

    Two weeks of bookstore co-op versus a month of internet promotion?

    A 12-city author tour, or a month of internet promotions?

    Ads in USA Today and/or the New York Times, or a month of internet promotion?

    And if you were given the choice between getting a great quote from a USA Today reviewer or a great quote from the most powerful online review site, which quote would you choose for your book cover?

    Faced with the either/or choices above, I think most of us would have to agree that the internet as a tool still doesn’t quite rival the alternatives. Someday it may. But not yet.

  7. M.J.
    M.J. says:

    Actually the stats prove alot of these suppositions false. A lot has changed. The Book Instdustry Study group just released a lot of stats that prove it.

    The single largest way that readers find out about books now – with 54% of them finding out this way- is via internet advertising.

    The single largest way people find out about reviews is online with over 60% reading reviews online vs only 23% in print.

    And online sales are now over 20% of all sales with Amazon being the single largest bookseller of all booksellers.

    And if given a choice of one ad in the NYT that reaches 1.2 million people (only about 200,000 are readers of any one genre) an author should beg his/her publisher to buy internet advertising instead where dollar for dollar you can reach about 100x more people.

    I don’t think people realize how small the NYT and USAToday audiences are. 1.4 million readers at the NYT is tiny – and at USAToday its under 2 million.

    Plus publishers can only afford one ad once in those publications whereas online you can advertise for weeks and we know repeated exposure counts more.

    For example. A full (inside) page at the NYT once is $40,000. It reaches 1.2 million people one day. And 99% of authors who get this only get one ad/one day.

    You could advertise on the top blogs/sites for six weeks and reach 25 million people five to ten times each and only spend $20,000. And then have $20,000 more for that tour or for more coop. Plus when you market online thousands of people click right over and buy the book in an impulse buy which can never happen in print.

    I would never ever take a 12 city tour over an internet campaign. A 12 city tour will cost close to $20,000. That’s six weeks of marketing to 25 million people online.

    Both is best – but given the choice? One is far more efficient. Yes authors need to meet booksellers and do media – but the way the question is phrased up above – with only a choice of one or the other? The marketing.

    No one can buy a book they don’t know is out or have never heard of. That’s what marketing does. You have to tell thousands of people about a book to have one of them buy it. The internet is made for that.

    I would never ever take any print advertising over internet promotion.

    As for a quote from the NYT or an internet site – yes – but mostly because it matters to the publishers and the booksellers – it does not matter to the readers – 90% of whom never read the NYT or USAToday.

    Yes, coop is important and given a choice of marketing or coop I’d take coop – but without marketing people won’t know to go into the store because your book is out. Without marketing you are still of 100 books with coop and unless you are already a household name the people in the store will pass you buy for the books of name authors or authors they’ve heard of via marketing.

    No one thing works. A combo works.

    Also being a NYT bestseller is certainly cool. But these days sell through matters – and if you sell 25,000 hardcovers over six weeks and don’t make a list (which you can do with good coop and good marketing and without Walmart or Costco etc) or sell 25,000 in three weeks and make the list – and the end of the day you’ve sold the same number of books.

    We just did marketing for a book that sold 20,000 copies in 7 weeks without any big stores and no coop – all with marketing and she’s now in her fourth printing and the stores are giving her free coop.

    The internet is a far more powerful sales tool now that the NYT or USAToday or even the two of them put together.

  8. therese
    therese says:

    We’ll all get to watch and see how things change in the next few years. Personal promotion is still going to be the best recommendation for many years. Whether that word is spread via friends/family and community or through another internet sensation, is yet to be seen.

    Thanks for the page rank link. It’s fun to see my blog is a 2 and my website a 1. At least they rank, and I don’t have a book out or anything else. 🙂

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