Hey, Did You Know We’re All Irrelevant?

That’s right. Avon Books still believes that those of us out there writing internet reviews and reading them before we buy books don’t make a difference in the sales numbers. I was a little startled when I first saw this view expressed in Laurie Gold’s 2002 interview with Avon, but downright flabbergasted to see this expressed in 2009. After all, the internet is all-pervasive in today’s culture. People shop online, socialize online, research all manner of things online, and review all manner of items online. Therefore, it seemed a little odd to me to discount the importance of online book reviewing.

Various news stories recently have described the decline of newspapers as internet news sources surge in popularity. For a few examples, see here, here, and here. And if people are turning online to get their information about the world, it stands to reason that they would start turning online to get information about the book world as well. And that’s where I take issue with some of what Avon had to say.

After all, if people read the news online and shop online, wouldn’t it be reasonable to think that they pay attention to online reviews? Our experience here at AAR would certainly bear that out. Readership has steadily grown every year, with over 4 million unique visitors coming to the site in 2008. I suspect that owners of other romance sites have noticed this kind of steady growth as well. And in a 2008 survey on book purchasing habits(“The Reading and Book Buying Habits of Americans”), Zogby surveyed 8218 adults. While not strictly a romance survey, the survey did find that more than half of the respondents go book browsing online without knowing in advance what they plan to buy, and that close to the third of them stated that they rely upon online reviews for recommendations. While romance readers may differ in some ways (we tend to buy more books than others, for starters), I seriously doubt that our behavior is so unique as to make this data inapposite.

While I do think there’s some amount of truth to Lucia Macro’s description of the casual book buyer, the casual buyer isn’t the one picking up several books a month and reading voraciously. And it seems to me that by focusing so much on the casual buyer, Avon misses out on those of us who read often and who tend to provide a lot of repeat business to publishers and bookstores. While Avon does have some internet marketing of its own (the “Browse Inside” feature for their books and features on its website), they still seem to discount the reach of the Internet-savvy reader when saying things such as, “(W)e aren’t seeing that any review driven website has the power to “make” a book.”

And with regard to that power to “make” a book, I can certainly think of a few books and authors whose careers would not have gone where they did were it not for the internet. For a recent example, who here remembers Broken Wing? I know that I would never have heard of this book were it not for reviews I saw on various sites. This book was well received on both historical fiction and romance sites – blogger Kristie(J) even had a Quest to get people the read the book. It may not hit Nora Roberts-style sales numbers, but from what I see, the internet did a lot to “make” this book.

The attitude displayed in the Avon interview toward online review sites also bothered me because I see it as indicative of a larger problem in some publishing houses. There seems to be a tone overall of “This is what has worked in the past, so we will keep doing it.” In the current economy, that attitude strikes me as dangerous. Numbers from many publishing houses (including Harpercollins, home of Avon) show serious declines, so it seems obvious that something must change. Harlequin, on the other hand, has been turning in fantastic profits while also being lauded for their innovation. While there are certainly some valid criticisms out there for the manner in which Harlequin has handled the online community, they deserve rightful praise for their mission “to be wherever women are” – including on the internet. Though there’s been no formal study that I can find, I cannot help but wonder if some of the difference in profit outcomes between the two companies could be attributed to corporate views about online marketing and the online reviewing and blogging communities.

Avon has some fantastic authors writing for them, and they have historically been a powerhouse in romance publishing. However, the market is changing now, and it is my belief that the degree to which Avon adapts to this will have a profound impact upon their later sales. I greatly appreciate that the ladies at Avon took time out of their busy schedules to speak with me and I wish them all the best. However, I’d be leaving something important out if I didn’t point out that I also hope they will reconsider some of their decisions toward the online community.

-Lynn Spencer

73 thoughts on “Hey, Did You Know We’re All Irrelevant?

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  5. Ibd

    All I’m asking is if you find an illegal download on your travels on line, drop a line to Avon Books. Alternatively, sending a note to the author works well too, and thanks for reaching out to the author.

  6. PS When I came across the site it was through google while looking up reviews, I didn’t intend to look for pirated copies of anything.

  7. Carrie I have seen blogs that are huge advicates for ebooks do entries on how to stop piracy and also go over the reasons why it is so prevelant and easy, it is a topic that the online community has addressed, but as the online community is not in control of how ebooks are distributed there really isn’t anything they can do to stop it, other then make it clear what the impact of piracy is and float ideas for how to stop it. I don’t really see how that has anything to though with this debate, unless of course you’re saying that these online blogs are encouraging and spreading piracy. I find that to be far from the truth especialy because I’ve seen editors of epubs post frequently at other sites in the discussions, if they felt their sales were being cut because of those sites they certainly wouldn’t help them. Also I just this week emailed an author when I came across, through google, a site which had what appeared to be pirated copies of her book, so what else are we supposed to do.

  8. Charlaine Harris made the NYT best seller list with her latest book.

    Why did I ever buy the first one in the series? Because I read a favorable review on All About Romance.

  9. Shinjinee -

    (this off-topic, so I apologize to all other readers) is it possible that you were the reader at The Republic of Pemberley who, when I asked about regency romance recommendations at the Library Page in 2002, both listed a number of excellent authors, Diane Farr and Carla Kelly among them, and pointed me to Good Ton, AAR and TRR? I seem to remember your name. If that was you, thank you, thank you, thank you! That recommendation opened a whole new world for me, and this seems like a good opportunity to tell you how grateful I still am.

    Rike

  10. Anon author said that her readers came to her work via several sources. That is fine for her. However, other readers find their favourite books through other means. I got into reading romance and then romantic science fiction via two sources
    1. a specific book Madeline Hunter’s By Arrangement, which enchanted me at the time. I started to read all her work (i.e. glom her) and then looked online, which brought me to
    2. AAR where I participated actively for some years on the forums. I left for personal issues, and have mostly been offline since then.

    Another reader mentioned issues with customer reviews on Amazon. I agree that most reviews of romance books are fairly bland and positive. I used to write detailed reviews, and in doing so made a few friends and some enemies. Some readers welcome detailed reviews, and others don’t.

    Best wishes, Shinjinee

  11. Avon never said “irrelevant.” In my opinion the on line community is where the early buzz on new authors starts. Avon simply said the wealth of on line fans hasn’t made a key book hit the major bestseller list. Yet. The key work here is “yet.” It will happen; we just aren’t there today.

    I will tell you where on-line is making a distressing impact, and that is in the world of illegal downloads. Every day several authors contact us, distressed, that people are downloading their work for free. Imagine working on a novel for a year, and in the end all your hard work earns you less than you deserve. Often the on line editions of books have been downloaded thousands of times before we are able to contact the website, and in one case a book had 68,000 copies downloaded, royalty free, before we discovered it.

    I’d love it if the passionate online community helped us police those who would steal authors’ work. And think about it. Perhaps if all those books that were downloaded on line for free, actually counted as sales, an online community could “make” a book a bestseller. We can all dream.

    Everyone have a safe weekend.

  12. Anon author Says: “was recommended on Julia Quinn’s website”

    Am I missing the part where a website isn’t part of the online community?

    And as for friends and family recomending books where are those friends and family getting the idea to read the book in the first place. I have recomended books to my sister who never looks them up online time and again, and to other people, heck I’ve recomended books I’ve never read because they didn’t sound like me. I think what everyone is discounting is that the internest isn’t the be all and end all of the buying process any more then it is a nothing, the internet is more like a domino in the what makes a book chain, a reader sees a review likes it buys it recomends it to a friend, a bookseller sees some hype orders more books for their store, a bookseller reads a book review, likes said book, puts it on the recomended spot in the store. None of these factors can be tracked, but I think they are very relevent.

    Also one more thing, I didn’t like the lack of respect for the readers who do go online which that interview showed. We are aparently more passiante about what we read then a buyer who picks anything off the shelf, and as such we’re more likely to recomend books that are good. Avon claims the internet hasn’t made a book, but htese passionate readers have made a series, unfortunatly the publisher hasn’t gotten to see this as that series is out of print, which just makes it all the more impressive that readers would track down hard to find copies. Just think of PS’s The BronzeHorseman, and were did you all hear of it?

  13. I think it’s a little weird that someone working for a big publisher such as as Avon doesn’t think the Internet is important. I buy a lot of books from them and I use the internet to read reviews. Since I live in Sweden, it’s almost impossible to buy the books i want in the bookstore. Some stores import books from Avon, but they are all in big cities (far away from me). Don’t they want customers who don’t live in the US to buy their books?

  14. Lynn – as we discussed separately, your Avon source clarified that this comment was not a misquote: “we aren’t seeing that any review driven website has the power to “make” a book. Yet.” Apologies for that misunderstanding.

    We are supporters of AAR and its followers (we love our authors, we love readers, and we love romance); please know that we absolutely do not believe that anyone is “irrelevant” — as our editorial director noted to you, we all have more in common than you think!

    Hope everyone has a wonderful Memorial Day weekend.

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