Are reviews useful?

In this blog-post, I want to talk about something that I’ve been pondering for a little bit – whether reviews affect sales in any way, either positively or negatively. Here, I am not talking about my reviews in particular, but just about reviews generally. There’s a specific reason why I’ve pondering this, which I will explain below.

As many of you know, until the beginning of this year, I ran a record label, an enterprise which I’d started in 2007 – 2008. As is the nature of such things, one of the ways in which to broadcast your product’s existence to the world is to send out review copies to magazines, webzines and radio stations, in the hope that some of them will do a write-up on them. And so, when I released the very first CD, from Swedish noise outfit Keplers Odd, I sent a goodly number of them out, here, there and everywhere. And indeed, within a month or two, the reviews started coming in.

And every one of them was a positive one. Even some nationally- and globally-distributed magazines thought that not only was the music itself good, but the whole package spoke volumes about the careful thought that had gone into every aspect of the release. One or two reviewers even hailed FracturedSpecesRecords as a promising new star in the underground music firmament, with a bright future ahead of it. Needless to say, the elation (and the vindication) sent me off on a high.

Every subsequent release had exactly the same thing happen – universally positive reviews (except one for the very last release – but that was still only one out of something like a hundred reviews altogether…). And each one of those releases I thought would be the breakthrough CD, the one that would kickstart FracturedSpaces into a regularly-selling concern. In parallel I was also running a small online webshop, selling not just my own CDs but those from other labels as well – with the uniformly positive reviews then it would only be a matter of time before more people would be visiting the website and that would be helping to pay for itself, too.

Alas, even after two years and a lot of money spent, the dream of making even a small living from the business turned into something of a nightmare. Sales were abysmal, even with the universality of acclaim for the label. A lot of the blame for its ultimate failure must be laid at my door – I admit that. Inadequte understanding of the market, for one. Releasing too many CDs for another. But there were other factors involved, like bad timing – launching a record label at the start of a recession wasn’t one of my better ideas.

But still, I would have thought that a good review would have had some positive influence on sales of the CD, in just the same way that a bad review would dent the figures negatively. I have had a few people say that one of my book reviews has actually persuaded them to buy it, for instance. So, the fact that even with good reviews people were still reluctant to buy the CDs (recession notwithstanding) came as somethng of a surprise. Perhaps those who buy music are either incredibly fussy or just more careful with the money they have. If they’re faced with an unknown quantity, they go for what they’re familiar with instead.

The experience has taught me some valuable lessons – this is why, for instance, Spectral Press is going to be on a much smaller scale. Additionally, the writers on the roster are either well-known or are starting to become noticed. They already have track records and fan bases. My ambitions this time are quite modest. I have plans for the imprint, but they will only come to fruition if things take off.

What I am asking you out there, both writers and publishers, is whether reviews have affected sales of your books either way. Also, have the readers among you ever been influenced by a favourable review of some book, enough to persuade you to go out and buy it? Is it, perhaps, just a case of  the markets in question simply being two very different demographics ie, the music-buying public is very different to the book-buying one? Therefore, that priorites are different as well. Also, did the depths of last year’s recession bring in an added sales-depressing effect, regardless of any positive reviews garnered?

By the way, I am not denigrating the efforts of reviewers here – quite the opposite, in fact. Publishers rely on them to do two things: make the public aware of new publications and to grade the quality or otherwise of the books in question. Sometimes, it’s a thankless task, because you occasionally get sent books which are so bad they’re practically unreviewable. I am not saying that reviewers can make or break a book (or CD), but that they can affect how it’s received and perceived by potential purchasers. How do any other reviewers feel about the points I have touched upon here?

Next year I will once more be putting myself (and my writers) at the mercy of the reviewers, as well as the book-buying public. I am hoping, of course, that Spectral Press will be an unqualified success for all concerned, and that any good reviews forthcoming will positively affect the sales. Being on this side of the table has given me an indication of how it all works, but my experience with FracturedSpaces necessarily affects how I see things as well. I do feel that book buyers, with horror book buyers in particular, are distinctly different to those who are more into their music. Only time will tell, though – and, whatever happens, I am excited to see what the future holds for Spectral.

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3 Responses to “Are reviews useful?”

  1. I’d say the majority of the books I buy online are purchased because I read a favourable review (sometimes the pesky covers sell me though).

  2. I can’t recall the exact figure, or the source either, but a while back I read a breakdown that attributed 25 – 30% of book sales to reviews.

    Certainly publishers seem to think they’re desirable, and one assumes they have research to back that up.

    The argument I most often hear put forward in favour of reviews, is that without them the book with the biggest publicity spend will do the best.

    Of course, the book with the biggest publicity spend will also have the most review copies sent out.

    • The more I read the commenst about this (here and om Facebook), the more I come to understand the completely different demographics and dynamics between the literary and music scenes. Certainly it appaers that book reviews are looked on as being a lot more useful in terms of helping decide purchasing priorities…. thanks for your input, Peter!!

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