What follows is a strategy for selling more books, especially fiction, but not the books of any particular publisher. Thus I expect it might be adopted by a bookseller like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or might serve as the basis for a profitable book selection website, one version of which is sketched below.
1. The Selection Problem(s).
There are many readers who enjoy reading a good book, but do not go into the bookstore – especially the fiction section — with much of an idea of what they want. Moreover, they either have little knowledge of the authors, books, or reviews currently prominent in the market, or little confidence that the books they have heard about are the ones they would like to read. For such people, there are two problems : (a) how to make a decision, given the large number of fiction choices, and (b) how to make a good decision – i.e. to select a book that will reward the time and money they put into it. I distinguish these problems because I think they are two problems rather than one. Research shows that an increase in the number of choices can actually reduces sales, even when the quality of choices available is the same or better. (See, for example, “When Choice is Demotivating”, by S.S. Iyengar and M. Lepper, in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2000).) —- And the number of fiction choices is typically large.
So, if we can make it easier – or even less time-consuming – for casual readers to choose, this will likely increase sales. If, of course, we can increase the likelihood they pick something that turns out to be rewarding for them, that too will increase sales, since it makes it more likely they will buy more books in the future. What follows is a strategy for accomplishing both of these that seems to be underutilized in the industry at present.
2. Quality and Taste.
We can – a little artificially – distinguish two things a fiction buyer is looking for – “quality”of some kind and compatibility with his or her personal tastes. By “quality”, I simply mean that the book is well done according to a standard that can be assessed by qualified reviewers. One function of endorsements by major literary reviews and newspapers (or their editors) – which are often listed on the cover or book jacket – is to provide evidence of this sort of generic quality. And of course this important. A really poor quality book — e.g. one my great-uncle wrote and self-published – is likely to be a miserable read.
However, choosing a book is a little like choosing a date. It is not only about how “attractive” my date is – attractive, that is, in a beauty contest sort of way — it is also about how compatible we will be. Even if my date won the beauty contest, that does not guarantee that we will hit it off. Likewise, curling up with a good book is an intimate experience. Whether it works out happily will, for example, often depend on whether the book makes a connection with the personality and life-experience of its reader. So obviously the reader cares, not only about quality in some “objective” sense, but also about compatibility between the book and herself.
Evidence of quality (e.g. standard dust jacket endorsements) does little to solve the selection problems described above, for three reasons : First, as noted, even if the books could be ranked by quality, that would not address the issue of compatibility. Second, most of the books on the shelf have lots of endorsements by “experts” of various kinds, so, from the point of view of the casual reader, the quality requirement doesn’t even reduce the number of choices much. Third, since there are no negative assessments on book covers, the most natural way of eliminating candidates – i.e. critical rejection — is not available. So choosing a book, like choosing a date or a mate, hinges largely on the issue of compatibility. How can the reader find one or two books with which he or she is compatible?
Of course the brief book descriptions on the cover may help. If I like to read stories about small Southern towns, I might find out from the cover that the book is about a small Southern town. However, these descriptions are inadequate in several ways, even for the casual reader. First, they are usually too long to be useful in screening the books efficiently. How many covers do I have time to read? Second, they are too short to reveal enough. Many books sound like they might be good, based on the cover description, but it is hard to be sure. Third, they often have a promotional flavor that undercuts their credibility as a source of information. In any case, it would certainly be nice if we could provide the reader with a little more help than she can get from a one-paragraph description.
3. Reviewers, Rise Up!
I suggest that what the casual reader needs to select a compatible book is a relation with a compatible person – that is, a person they know, trust and like, who is knowledgeable both about books and this book, can write in a clear and entertaining manner, and who seems to share their tastes and perhaps their cultural background. A logical choice for this role would be a compatible reviewer. Not just any reviewer, and not just a “good” reviewer – though I think a good reviewer is wanted – but one they identify with, have come to trust, and whose reviews are readily accessible.
But didn’t I say above that we are targeting people with “little knowledge of the authors, books, or reviews”? So doesn’t the proposal come down to trying to get people who don’t read reviews to read reviews? Well, it does in part. What the proposal comes down to is upgrading the role of reviewers in the marketing process, making it easier for people to know and trust some reviewers as individuals. There are of course lots of signed reviews and recommendations that appear on book covers and elsewhere, but, unless I’m mistaken, not much attention is paid to promoting recognition of reviewers as such, or to cultivating the relation between a reviewer and her audience.
What do I have in mind? To illustrate, consider the lovely weblog of Jesse Kornbluth – “HeadButler.com”. This blog largely consists of a steady stream of spirited reviews by someone who is avid reader and talented writer. Each review contains a link to Amazon.com. I think Kornbluth’s reviews are more apt to enable buying decisions and stimulate sales than are most reviews. Here are some reasons why :
(1) At HeadButler.com, we can see all the reviews of one reviewer (Kornbluth) collected together. This is surprisingly uncommon, as I will detail below. But this simple fact has some obvious advantages for solving the selection problem : First, by reading several reviews by the same reviewer together, it is easier for a reader like myself to get an idea of who the reviewer is and what he likes – that is to get to know him, not just the books he reviews. Second, if reviews of a single reviewer are grouped together, they are simply more informative. The reason is that the reader has a common baseline (the same reviewer) for comparing reviews of different books and gets a mix of positive and negative reviews.
(2) Over time, a reader who has some good experiences with Kornbluth’s reviews and remembers who he is can build trust in his recommendations, not simply because Kornbluth is a big name reviewer, but because she knows he tends to like what she likes or because she has come to trust him for some other reason. As a result, his recommendations will carry more weight with her than those of other reviewers (and certainly more weight than anonymous reviews). This can provide a basis for future buying decisions. These recommendations can play that role on the basis of a mere endorsement, even if she has not read the review in question.
(3) Kornbluth’s writing fosters a relation between him and his readers. His reviews tend to be self-revealing, to be reports of his own experience with the book, delivered in lively conversational style. In this way, too, the reader gets a sense of who the reviewer is and whether his likes and dislikes are likely to predict her own.
(4) He writes with an infectious enthusiasm that is contagious, and can serve as a catalyst for book selection decisions.
Now imagine a website with a variety of good, Kornbluth-like reviewers, with different ages, cultural backgrounds, and specialties (e.g. science fiction, gardening, underappreciated fiction, regional fiction). The variety, together with the design of the website, makes it easy to find someone you are comfortable with, someone who shares your tastes. And it makes the site friendly to non-literary types and non-critic-friendly types, as well as other book lovers. It would multiply the virtues of Kornbluth’s site.
To make things more concrete, consider the following ad :
“Saturday night? Don’t have a date? Like to curl up with a good book? Go to BookDate.com!”
At the envisioned BookDate.com website, one finds a large variety of good reviewers. For each one, you can see his/her picture, bio, and a number of engaging reviews, each with a link to a site where the book can be purchased. The reviews might be available in audio or video as well as text. (There is a slight ambiguity as to whether the metaphorical “date” is with the reviewer or the book.) Of course other search tools would be available as well. As noted, the variety of good reviewers makes it easy to find someone you are comfortable with, even if the literary scene is not your normal milieu. It also makes it easy to promote niche markets. The reviewers make money by getting a share of the book purchases generated by their reviews. The idea of the site would be to provide a rich variety of human access points to the book world in one place, and to give reviewers a more prominent place in book marketing. Book selection with a human face, so to speak.
Of course none of this will do any good if the reader never visits BookDate.com, so it would certainly be desirable to coordinate such a site with a promotional campaign in bookstores and media, with references to the site as well as to the reviewers in it. Finally, I admit that my ad cheats. Only when the day comes when a book can be downloaded instantly to an eReader — so that you get the “date with a good book” on the same night – will my ad be honest. On the other hand, a publicized, reviewer-centered site would certainly be in a good position to take advantage of the instant download when it comes, and thus to offer an instant alternative to TV and web-surfing.
I think this sort of strategy has something in common with the marketing strategy behind Oprah’s Book Club. There people buy books because they are recommended by an avid reader whom they like and trust. The proposed strategy might almost be described as : Let a thousand Oprahs bloom! But, of course, the idea here is not so much to use existing celebrities to sell books as to elevate reviewers to mini-celebrity status. A more accurate but less euphonious slogan is “Let a hundred Kornbluths bloom!”
5. Reviewers in the Closet
The sharp contrast between the proposed strategy and current marketing practices is remarkable. Much of the industry seems to promote reviewer anonymity rather than reviewer recognition. Items :
• Reviews or review excerpts on book covers are often either unattributed or attributed to publications (e.g. “Chicago Tribune”) rather than persons.
• Reviews in publications like Kirkus Reviews and Library Journal are unattributed, and reviews in Publisher’s Weekly are signed with only the reviewer’s initials.
• Reviews in the online review sites like Bookforum, Bookreporter, and The Complete Review are attributed, but none of them have a facility for listing all the reviews by a single reviewer together. This is especially remarkable at The Complete Review, which has an enormous database of reviews and a rich variety of ways of indexing them.
I conclude that what I suggest has not already been tried. So it might work.
Bruce Lacey is a contributing editor to The Muffin Post. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan. He resides in New York.