We all tend to assume that a good review will sell lots of copies of a book. But it’s never quite as simple as that. A good review in the The New York Times will sell some copies of a trade book, but probably fewer than you’d think. What really sells books is buzz, publicity. We know buzz is at work when we see books jumping off the shelves, but we are not sure just how it gets started. A favorable review can’t do any harm, but it’s not enough.

It was ever thus. Here’s Elizabeth Hardwick in Harper’s Magazine in 1959* — “In the end it is publicity that sells books and book reviews are only, at their most, the great toe of the giant. For some recurrent best sellers like Frances Parkinson Keyes and Frank Yerby the readers would no more ask for a good review before giving their approval and their money than a parent would insist upon public acceptance before giving his new baby a kiss. The book publishing and selling business is a very complicated one . . . It is easy enough, once the commercial success of a book is an established fact, to work out a convincing reason for the public’s enthusiasm. But, before the fact has happened, the business is mysterious, chancy, unpredictable.”

A couple of years ago The Scottish Book Trust sent this piece from Me and My Big Mouth on the pointlessness (in sales terms) of book reviews. (The link no longer seems to work. I wonder if the blog has been shut down. Scott Pack now appears to be active on Twitter with the handle @meandmybigmouth.) The writer had observed from the vantage point of a bookshop what happens after reviews appear. I suppose his recollection is accurate when he says “As I recall the book that received the lead review in the Observer . . .  sold one copy the week after. Yes, one single copy. In the whole of the country.” And this, he implies, is not that unusual.

Now, one may have to add some missing context to understand this remark fully. When a book is first published the publisher’s sales reps will have ensured that bookshops across the country have plenty of stock on hand. When a review appears, the publisher is not necessarily going to sell any more copies right away — the stock present in bookstores around the country will be drawn down as people come in to buy a copy. Our reporter doesn’t say who it was who didn’t make a more than a single sale in the week after the review. If he means the publisher didn’t make more than a single sale, that wouldn’t be that unusual. However, if he means only a single bookshop made a single sale, that would be significant. However the testimony that a single reviews doesn’t unleash a bonanza of purchasing is generally realistic. Now, as in all things, there are exceptions, and the odd review can make a bigger impact. But by and large good reviews do not create bestsellers: the most they can do is help to create them.

Word of mouth is probably the number one means of creating a bestseller in the trade world. The “great toe of the giant” doesn’t create the buzz, though of course a rave review may motivate one or two people to pick up the book or to order a copy from Amazon. But more important for sales than the people who read the reviews are those who read the book, like it, and tell people about it. If these are celebrities that’ll work wonders.

Of course, as in all things, one needs to draw a distinction between different categories of publishing. With academic books reviews can be more important (or at least they used to be) as they are often used by librarians as a trigger to place an order for the book. There are publications directed not at the general public but squarely at librarians, providing them with reviews promptly upon publication. The timing of a review is important: there’s always a backlog. A good review of an academic book in a prestigious journal appearing a couple of years after publication of a book, serves merely as validation — anyone in the subject area will have bought the book long before on the basis of the author’s standing and the need for all in the group to have read the book.

Back in the old days when the only way to find out about a book was to read a review in a newspaper or journal, the sales consequences of a good review could be larger. The authority of say The New York Times’ reviewer was considerable, and their recommendations could move books: though by 1959, Elizabeth Hardwick suggests in her essay, this power was already in the past. Now that more and more online review sites are appearing, and print media are under more and more pressure, as printed review pages become steadily fewer the influence of the newspaper book review has diminished.

One constant remains, however; that the most effective reasons for buying a book are that you read everything this author writes, or that someone has recommended the book to you. It just becomes less likely that the person who recommends the book will have heard about it from a printed review. They become much more likely to get the word from some form of social media. It’s not insignificant that almost all publishers today have a growing staff putting out stuff on various social media.

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* This essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing”, is included in The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick, edited by Darryl Pinckney who was one of her students. This 640pp. book was published in October by New York Review Books at $19.95. (You can get it at 20% off from them.) There it joins her Seduction and Betrayal, Sleepless Nights, and New York Stories. All very appropriate as she was a co-founder of The New York Review of Books, the epitome of the serious print review.