Posted by hyperpat on May 8, 2008
Just how is a consensus opinion about the quality of any particular book formed? And what impact does that opinion have on the book’s sales?
First I think we should look at the intended audience. Most books are not written to try and appeal to everyone. This is obviously true in terms of ‘genre’ books, but it is also true of those written as ‘mainstream literary’ works – the audience for this type of book is just as limited. Often there is very little crossover between books that appeal to, say, an SF fan, and one that targets potential Pulitzer prizes. ‘Best Sellers’, by definition, appeal to a larger proportion of readers than other books, but they still won’t appeal to everyone.
But within its target audience, each book eventually gathers some form of opinion about just how good (or bad) it is. How? It used to be that the word about new books was disseminated via a very limited communication method, reviews in newspapers, magazines, and journals by professional reviewers. Often libraries would base their purchase decisions on those reviews. Only after the book had been out for some time would there be any feedback from Mr. Average Reader by way of word of mouth to their friends and co-workers, and which books Mr. Average Reader looked at was at least partially influenced by those same professional reviews or by the book’s availability at the library. This made it quite difficult for new authors who didn’t immediately wow the professional reviewers to get much notice (or sales), unless their publisher really pushed to market the book (not something most publishers did with unknowns). On this basis, it’s quite probable that books were published in years gone by that deserved a wide audience, but never got a chance. Of those that did get noticed, it would often take years for a book that only received initial lukewarm reviews to start to gather a reputation for being something that should be put on everyone’s reading list. Within all of this, literary awards played a significant role. Books that won Pulitizers or Booker awards were almost guaranteed best-seller status, and a lot of attention from literary scholars. Winning one those awards, though, was then (and is now) something of a crapshoot, as the judges for these awards are a small number of people, each of whom has their own biases, likes, and dislikes. What appeals to this limited group of people may or may not appeal to a larger audience, giving these awards a somewhat limited utility as a guide to Mr. Average Reader – but because they are award winners, that reader is much more likely to give the book a try. More significant, though, is winning such an award gives the book a ‘marker’ about its quality. And it is the accumulation of such markers that eventually define its literary reputation.
Today there is something called an internet, and it is changing just how books accumulate such markers. First is the fact that critical reviews are no longer the property of professional reviewers only. Amateurs can not only write their own reviews, from their perspective, but have them prominently displayed for all the world to see on sites like Amazon. While many people still rely on professional reviews for determining what they’ll read next, these on-line reviews are gathering more and more credence as viable ‘markers’ of a book’s quality. And, while some of these amateur reviews are truly amateurish and provide little help to Mr. Average Reader, a great many of them are at least equal to the quality of those written by professionals, with the added benefits of having viewpoints different from those of the professional critic and not even potentially influenced by the effect of cash payments for the review.
Now most of these amateur reviewers are inspired to write reviews mainly for those things they read and liked (and the self-choice factor means they probably pick more books of the type they will probably like in the first place). But there are also a significant number who are just as inspired by books they hated, and the reviews they write about these books are often of great value to the prospective buyer/reader of same, giving very cogent and specific reasons for what they felt was wrong with the book. If there are enough of these negative reviews, it will eventually push the book into the trashbin of literary history, even if the literary academic world thinks it’s great. Literary greatness is not measured solely by its credit ‘markers’: its awards, the in-depth analyses it gets, its acceptance by the academic world, etc, but must also, somewhere along the line, impress enough ‘average readers’ that it has special qualities, that it is worth the time to read, understand, and enjoy, before it can really join the pantheon of ‘classic literature’.
Clearly, today’s publishing market has changed. While aggressive advertising campaigns can still push a book onto the best-seller lists, at least temporarily, the long-term sales outlook for a book is much more likely to be dependent on feedback from the readers than was true in earlier times. And its reputation for being a solid, worthwhile book, rather than a forgettable piece of fluff, is also getting more than a little of its assessment from those same everyday readers. The chances of a really good book that is not aggressively marketed (or marketed at all) getting noticed and achieving decent sales have improved as word-of-mouth via these on-line reviews travels faster and to a far larger potential audience than what was achievable via local reading groups and letters to editors.
Publishers are just beginning to realize the power of these ‘amateur’ reviews. Literary academics have so far ignored them, but they may not be able to much longer. It’s a more democratic world out there, with more freedom to publish via print-on-demand and other such vehicles, and more and more a book’s reputation is being established by a consensus of all of its readers, not just those who make a living critiquing books.