It’s Not about the Benjamins in Blogland

Did you miss the blog and Tweet-splosion about the Avon AAR interview?

I have to say, Avon, that was not your finest PR moment. But moreover: what a missed opportunity.

This part in particular was a massive wiff:

May Chen: In my opinion, the online world still doesn’t have much impact on sales as, anecdotally, I’ve seen books get horrible online reviews but have done well. As far as I know, we still don’t include online reviews on our books, but that can certainly change if we see them start making a difference. Right now, the best endorsements for us still seem to be from NYT bestselling authors and from major traditional print reviewers.

Lucia Macro: Do the consumers recognize the source of the quote? I’m not sure that the vast majority of readers recognize all the online sites. When checking their rankings I’m often surprised at how little traffic they really get.

…However, we aren’t seeing that any review driven website has the power to “make” a book.

Good gravy, why the hell would you want us to?


Here’s what you need to know about online communities, particularly review type blogs which are, essentially, online communities with different interests, tones, issues of import, and styles. We’re not big enough to “make” a book. And we shouldn’t be, because we’re very niche-specific, and have widely varying tastes.

And moreover, I don’t know of many of us who are receptive to the push that creates a “made” book or who would want to create one ourselves. I personally respond better to genuine endorsement, even and including genuine and direct email from authors and publicists, than I do to a full-on blanket marketing campaign. Why? Because I don’t know what’s motivating the push to “make” a book – and I always suspect it’s not quality, and the approach isn’t authentic.  Most of the time, when I’ve tried a “made” book after a blanket campaign, I haven’t enjoyed it. Kresley Cole’s back-to-back releases last year are about the only exception, and even then, I was irritated by the method that made the two books virtually indistinguishable from one another.

I respond to authenticity, and it’s very difficult to be authentic on a corporate level – which is why online communities and the methods through which we communicate, like blogs and Twitter, are key. And communicate is the key element there: it’s a conversation. It’s not just you telling us what’s good.

To say that reviews don’t affect sales, and online communities don’t do much in terms of promotion of books seems to indicate a lack of understanding of how our communities work, and what we can do. And now that we’re talking, I want to discuss the ideal relationship between online reviewers and publishers.

First: we don’t work for you. And I surely do not think you work for me. I greatly appreciate review copies, but have never asked to be added to your lists. Most of the time, I was asked if I wanted some, then later told by a few publishers that I didn’t do enough for them and have subsequently been removed from lists.

That’s fine. I’ll keep reading what I want, whether it’s an ARC or a book I pay for. This is my hobby. This is not my full time job. I honestly wonder if I ought to buy books exclusively instead of getting review copies, because expectations seem wedded to the ARCs, and I’d prefer to read without them.

I understand that folks might not know what to do with us. We’re difficult to control, and often ornery, but very passionate about romance. Originally I started this entry by asking myself what the ideal response would have been to those questions at AAR, or what the optimal relationship would be if I could define it.

I can’t answer that question, because I don’t honestly know if you understand us, how we work, what we do, and why we do it. (Honestly, if you’d like to know more, or want to ask how we can work together better, feel free to ask me. I’m in New York, as are a few other romance review bloggers, and if you’d like me to show up and bring in noise, funk, and a bullet point presentation with flashy Power Point about “Who Are These Crazy Blog Reviewers?” I am happy to do so. Seriously. I fear no sales meeting, nor any marketing sub-committee).

The part about being difficult to control is only made more alarming, I’m sure, by the fact that we can’t be quantified either. We don’t fit any established paradigm, pie chart, or business parameter. I’m not sure how much sales power we have, and I absolutely do not want to know. I dislike looking at my own statistics. Gives me verbile dysfunction.

But here’s the thing: blogging and online reviewing is not about profit, and it’s not about me, and it’s not about one author or one publisher or one subgenre. It’s not even about one blog – we’re a community across several sites, and we can’t take readers away from one another.

Online review communities are about the conversation. Consider the Law of Publishing in Bad Economy According to Jaye Wells: “Any book that sells is good for all of us.”

We’re talking about books across publishers, across subgenres, and looking at everything, from the top of the rankings to the midlist to someone brand spanking new. That conversation, that “trust network” (TM Kassia Krozser), is what drives new media marketing, and users searching for new ways to connect and converse will push technology development for better platforms on which to reach one another. We may not sell books to the numbers you’d like, but we are creating sales. But like I said, sales are not our goal. The conversation is what we’re after. That certainly doesn’t fit a business model, but in terms of marketing, it’s the best model we’ve got.

I hope you’ll listen to us and join in. And if in the meantime you think we’re not worth your attention, that’s fine. I’m still going to keep doing what I’m doing.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1

    I think I’ve seen blogs make books. Granted, they were “made” on much smaller scales—as in the publisher expected zero out of the book, the blogs pushed, and the publisher ended up doing a subsequent print run and renewing the author’s contract.

    I believe a few years back there was a dedicated blog “push” of Nalini Singh’s first single title. I was skeptical that it would make a difference. I don’t know how much of a difference it made, but the word of mouth sure as hell didn’t hurt, Nalini became a bestseller, and Jane from DA gave me a virtual raspberry for my lack of faith.

    I was so confused about the Avon interview, though. Wasn’t that quote from like 2003 or something, and the whole point to the article was that they had changed their minds in the last 6 years?

  2. 2
    SarahT says:

    Well said.

    The really sad thing is that the editors at Avon seem so out of touch with what their own authors are doing to promote their books. Eloisa James immediately springs to mind. She’s particularly media savvy and has arguably one of the most lavish author websites around. She writes a column for B&N, co-hosts a message board with Julia Quinn, does blog tours, and so on. And she’s not the only one. Avon’s own website, on the other hand, is a joke.

    With more and more people using social networking sites such as Twitter, it seems ridiculous that Avon would not actively pursue potential readers online. Their buying decisions seem firmly rooted in the past. With the economy in the toilet and ebook sales finally taking off, this is rather naive.

  3. 3
    Silver James says:

    In this day and age, this attitude simply boggles my mind, and I’m about as non-savvy when it comes to technology and the intrawebs as they come. That said, evenI realize the importance of blog reviewers, sites like DA and SBTB, and the on-line community of romance readers to romance writers. For those of us published by small houses, ya’ll are the only chance we have to make our mark.

  4. 4
    jinni says:

    One reason I don’t read historicals is that there are too many damn dukes, but I don’t think this approach is sound:

    May Chen: We actually have published some pirate romances by Edith Layton and Alexandra Benedict, an Italian-set historical romance from Loretta Chase and have a forthcoming Viking book from Sandra Hill. If the readers love these books we absolutely will do more of them.

    They’re going to base entire book buying and marketing on a few tries.  Established authors are not always the best in writing/starting new trends.

  5. 5
    SarahT says:

    Did you see that Avon’s PR director, Pamela Jaffee, posted a semi-apology to Lynn Spencer?

  6. 6
    katiebabs says:

    Avon- Open mouth, insert foot.

  7. 7
    Mary Stella says:

    I can’t tell you how many new-to-me-authors and books I’ve read because of buzz built online.  To me, it’s the web-based equivalent of handselling.  If I go into a store and a bookseller suggests a book because she read it and loved it, that impacts sales.  If an online site runs a review and 10, 20, 30, 50 people in comments say, “Wow, I loved that book/series/author because (fill in the reason)” I pay attention.  Heck, I’ve never read Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase, but after reading about it here, I’m damn sure going to find the book.

  8. 8
    JBHunt says:

    Online communities don’t “make” books in a vacuum, but they certainly can contribute to the promotion of worthy titles.  I’m thinking of the “Save the Contemporary” push on this site and DA. 

    I would never have known about Victoria Dahl or Jill Shalvis if not for the Smart Bitches.  So glad their books were recommended (and purchased and read and enjoyed).

  9. 9
    Kwana says:

    In my new book groups 2 of the books chosen, and not by me, were from blog recommendations and these were not from specific book review blogs but from a mom blog and from a decor blog. The online reviews do matter. The genre specific reviews do matter. Word of mouth matters. It’s not all about the NYT. It’s about recommendations from sources you respect.

  10. 10

    Well, some of that is just…peculiar…but I was surprised by the *question* that set up Lucia Macro’s answer.

    Here’s the question:

    Lynn S.: In our 2002 interview, you felt that the online world didn’t have much of an impact on sales. Much has changed in the intervening years, and more and more people – including more women – are online now and use reviews as a helpful guide to the buying process. Has Avon changed its thinking in this area? Avon, also, seems not to include many online reviews in books. Are there any plans to change that policy?

    There are really two issues here: 1) do women read reviews online and 2) should those reviews show up on the hardcopy of the book.  Those two questions are extremely different and got conflated, which I think caused some of the kerfluffle.  Of course some people read online reviews.  But if they do, they don’t need those same reviews reprinted on the book.  May Chen attempts to answer both questions, while Lucia Macro answers only the second. 

    Lucia Macro: Do the consumers recognize the source of the quote? I’m not sure that the vast majority of readers recognize all the online sites. When checking their rankings I’m often surprised at how little traffic they really get. We are all very plugged in, but many casual readers are just picking up a book at their local Walmart and barely have time to watch tv, much less wrestle the computer away from their kids. So an author quote might carry more weight with them.

    So, yeah, I think her answer is valid given the question.  I don’t pay attention to any of the promotional stuff in/on books—not the reviews, not the blurbs from famous authors—because none of it carries much weight, but I suspect she may be right about the fact that the author names give prospective buyers a way to say “oh, it’s going to be like so-and-so’s work,” which might be a better sales tool for in/on the book. 

    On the other hand, whoever at Avon (it just says “Avon” in the interview) says that review-driven sites don’t make a significant difference in sales…well, I sincerely doubt that’s the case.  I know I’ve bought books reviewed on this site and others, and I’ve stayed away from books bought on this site and others.  But here’s the thing…it’s because I read the whole review.  I don’t buy a book based on the number of stars in a review because I still might not like it.  I read the whole review and then choose.  That means there won’t be a nifty one-sentence “blurb” they can put on the cover that will entice me to pick up the book just because it comes from here. 

    If I like a book, I am apt to pass along that word to other communities of like-minded readers.  So the review from here means more reviews elsewhere.  I refuse to believe that doesn’t have an impact on sales.  (If I avoid a book based on a review, it has less impact because the avoidance stops with me.)  I’ve also bought books based on ads placed on sites like this one, particularly by debut authors I might never have heard of otherwise.

    Clearly they do see some things as important to do with the Internet as far as marketing is concerned, but the interviewer didn’t ask any of the more in-depth questions like whether they do contests, etc, online at all, or what their in-house publicists use the ‘Net for.  Marketing on the ‘Net isn’t just about review sites, but AAR let that slide, which I thought was a shame.

  11. 11
    Lori says:

    …if you’d like me to show up and bring in noise, funk, and a bullet point presentation with flashy Power Point about “Who Are These Crazy Blog Reviewers?”

    Sarah I think they should really take up on this offer. If they do just make sure that the meeting is scheduled so they bring in lunch. If you have to deal with PowerPoint you deserve free food.

    As for the idea the blogs can’t “make” a book I’m not sure what they mean. Like Mary Stella & Laura K. Curtis I’ve read quite a few books that I would otherwise not have read because I heard good things about them on blogs. I don’t pay any attention to blurbs or most ad campaigns, but I do pay attention when a book gets good word of mouth on from bloggers or members of blog communities that I know and trust.

    data59: Avon needs to look at their data about 59 more times because I think they’re missing some important information.

  12. 12
    Kelly Bishop says:


    So maybe I’ve been missing something. Other than the Romantic Times magazine who the heck else in the print world is reviewing romance novels on a regular basis???

    That’s why I love the online review sites because the major print critics pretty much ignore most genre fiction.

    Kelly B

  13. 13
    Suze says:

    I thought it was a given that “word of mouth” is by far the best advertising on the planet.  And what are on-line book aficionado communities but extended opportunities to hear more words by more mouths?

    I can think of at least 5 books I’ve bought since Christmas based solely on the words of people on this site.

    I agree with Laura above in that AAR kind of blew it in the question-asking department.

  14. 14
    Karen S. says:

    @Kelly Bishop:  Depends what you mean by “regularly”.  I get to read a few of the trade periodicals thorugh work, and if I’m not blurring different magazines in my head, Library Journal does regular genre spotlights, while Publishers Weekly sometimes sneaks them in under the Fiction and Mass Market Paperback headings (usually the latter, IIRC).

    However, PW doesn’t always have reviews of romances in their issues, and for LJ, regular means…once a month, or every other month, I think?  Does anyone know, exactly?  I’m fairly far down the distribution chain for them, so I tend to get them in spurts.

  15. 15
    Bonnie says:

    Honestly, these people are beyond fools.  Yeah, I have my favorite authors, but without SBTB, DA and AAR, I wouldn’t have discovered many, many new authors. 

    They’re missing the boat and it will catch up with them. 

    Ah… well….

  16. 16
    Vicky says:

    I believe the rapidly changing landscape of social networking is influencing purchasing behavior & will continue to grow.  I’m a market research analyst (primary research – focus groups, surveys, etc.) for a F500 company, so I find the topic intriguing. While I recognize the value of quantifying findings, I also know that anecdotal (qualitative) information is valuable as directional data.  Sarah’s point about *conversations* is valid in terms of *increasing awareness* about authors (brands). For example, Twitter has influenced my recent buying habits. Granted, I am a writer (and recently agented), so I am not representative of the average non-writer reader. But the anecdotal info on changes in my buying habits suggests a potential change in how pure readers are/or will learn about authors/books (an hypothesis, in my market research speak-g). I recently bought 2 books based on Tweets that led me to check out on-line reviews. The first was Jennifer Ashley’s The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie; prior to seeing the buzz on Twitter, I had no awareness of this author, though she has published several books previously. The second was for debut author Jennifer Haymore’s A Hint of Wicked (I just bought it tonight). In both cases, Twitter created awareness for me. It is significant to note that the reviews provided details and highly contributed to my *purchase consideration.* In marketing, the purchase process is thought to work like this: Awareness->Consideration->Preference (loyalty in layman’s terms).  Going forward, it will be interesting to see how social networking tools influence readers buying behavior.

  17. 17
    AAJ says:

    To be perfectly honest, guys, I think this is blowing up a bit more than it should. Just because you disagree with how they make their decisions doesn’t mean they’re wrong. (For the record, I DO think it’s unbelievably stupid to make somewhat dismissive remarks about review websites to a… review website. And I think that the internet community is a powerful one, and it shouldn’t be ignored.)

    It’s a bit like a political campaign, though. Simply put, Democrats vote for Democrats and Republicans vote for Republicans. What campaigns have to worry about is everyone in between. All of us who care enough to be here are going to buy romance novels, no matter what. (I mean, I’ve been unemployed for all of 2009, and that still hasn’t stopped me from buying about 30 romance novels so far…) Just because we organize and talk to hardcore Democrats about Democrats (or Repubs. to Repubs.) doesn’t mean it’ll NECESSARILY make a huge difference in the number of votes on Election Day. It could or it couldn’t. What it seems like Avon really wants to do is find new/unsure readers and convince them that they should read romance novels. Build their reader base. Part of how they do that is by branding authors. And, what I think is really remarkable about the romance world, the author THEMSELVES seem to be the one doing a LOT of reader outreach through social media/internet. Authors seem to do a lot of the PR department’s dirty work, which, judging by the Avon responses, seems to be exactly what they want.

    I mean, they have their own logic, which seems to work perfectly well for them. It’s just old-fashioned logic. Just because I don’t agree with it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its merit. But, you know, going back to political campaign idea… Pres. Obama’s campaign worked so well because he not only used the internet and social media, but he did some of that “old-fashioned” work as well. If you can, talk to everybody. Obviously Avon’s missing out.

  18. 18
    Kat says:

    What Laura K. Curtis and AAJ said. While I think Avon’s answer lacked tact, I also think it’s worth listening to what they’re saying about the current market. Yes, it’s changing, but I think people who participate in online communities probably think it’s changing faster than it actually is.

  19. 19
    ShellBell says:

    My favourite author list has expanded considerably ever since I started buying and reading eBooks .. ALL due to reading online reviews and recommendations. Not many of these new-to-me authors would have caught my eye otherwise.

  20. 20
    Jessa Slade says:

    show up and bring in noise, funk, and a bullet point presentation with flashy Power Point about “Who Are These Crazy Blog Reviewers?”

    You’re doing this at RWA national, yes?  Please tell me yes.  I admit I did real “bullet” as “ballet,” but even after rereading it correctly, I still think it’d be extremely useful.

  21. 21
    Kit says:

    @Karen S: Man, I just read a stack of Library Journals yesterday and now I can’t remember. They come out more than once a month, but there’s not a spotlight on romance in every issue.

    On the other hand, when they do a genre spotlight, they review a *lot* of titles. Several pages worth of one-paragraph reviews and a “romance in brief” sidebar. And I think there are romance titles (without reviews) in their prepub alerts, aren’t there?

    always79: There are always 79 back issues of LJ waiting for me to read and initial at work.

  22. 22
    Deb Kinnard says:

    I read this blog and DA daily. DAILY. When I do not have time to read blogs, these are the ones I read. When I find a review or a book cited that interests me, I go out and buy it.

    I don’t think I’ve read the NYT book reviews twice in my life.

    In my life as a book buyer, which has the greater power? I rest my case.

  23. 23
    Laura Kinsale says:

    I think you guys are talking apples and oranges here. 

    Why prefer Avon to give you PR when Lucia and May gave you some simple facts in answer to the questions they were asked?  Do you want to know what they see from their end (which is the end that counts when it comes to sales), or want online communities to be stroked by Avon hiding what they know?  Maybe they are incorrect or behind the times, but it’s their livelihood—they have some reason to analyze what they are doing with the best precision they can.  And significantly, they have access to ACTUAL sales numbers that nobody else has.

    They are clearly talking about the big numbers, because that’s always what has mattered and matters more and more in print publishing.  Walmart numbers.  If they are not yet seeing review blogs making an impact on those kind of numbers, that’s simply a fact, not an insult or a faux pas.

    I love the internet, and you guys and blogs.  I have a pretty strong and positive online buzz; it’s the web that’s kept my name around all those years I didn’t regularly have books out.  However I can say that the WEB has not translated into the sort of blockbuster sales that Avon is talking about.  I got those sales from the behind the scenes distribution stuff.  If that’s in place you get those sales.  If it’s not, you don’t.  Of course the book has to be what readers want but it also has to get off the shelves in a way that is paid for—not used, not free in some way or another.  That’s what Avon cares about and that’s what they are talking about.

    There’s a lot of illusion out there between the reader and the royalty statement.  For instance, SF/fantasy and mystery appears to have a big presence in bookstores and online, and yet the sales numbers per book are far smaller than typical romance genre.  They have lots of shelf space though and so it looks important compared to romance. 

    That’s simply the fact.  I don’t know why but it’s true. 

    I think the impact of online communities on book sales may be building.  Then again, maybe not.  What Avon said was so far they aren’t seeing it.

    I personally thank Lucia and May for their forthright responses.  I’d rather know the facts than make guesses.  And it’s hard to get at the facts that they know, because they are they only ones with access to those actual numbers.  You can try to put it together with various rather expensive sources of actual bookstore sales but I’m not sure in the end those are all that clear either.  You sure aren’t going to see it clearly in royalty statements or advances.

    But anyway, I’ve got a challenge for ya!  Make my new one coming out in February, LESSONS IN FRENCH, an internet hit!  I went with Sourcebooks because of their enthusiasm and maneuverability in a time when that seems to be the new way of things.  I’d love to see what can happen!  ;)

  24. 24

    I think ultimately what Avon was talking about was the lack of an ‘Oprah’ effect from a single blog. That’s what the publishing companies are looking at: the bottom line.
    While we as readers depend on blogs for reviews and recommendations, I think for the most part, Sarah hit the nail on the head. We’re not out here to ‘make’ a book. We’re sharing what we’re reading and our thoughts on it. That being said, I can point to several authors who have used the internet successfully to market their novels to much greater success than if they’d waiting for their publisher. Sherry Thomas is just one example of an author who uses the blog community to generate discussion on her upcoming releases very well.
    My point is simply this: just because it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it’s not coming. I heard about CJ Box from Twitter (yes, I’m living under a rock for having missed one of the best thrillers of last year) but I wouldn’t have heard of it had it not been for the internet.

  25. 25
    liz says:

    I dunno – if not for this site, I wouldn’t have bought Sherry Thomas, the Spymaster books of Duke of Shadows, and then I couldn’t have raved about them to others and put the authors on my auto-buy list. Aren’t those three hot new authors? Who made them?

    I’m sure the casual book buyer and I are different customers, but I’d look to the record industry as a What Not To Think model if I were publishing and try to figure out how to become itunes. Right now, it’s Harlequin who appears most interested in being that company. It’s a shame, I used to buy all of Avon’s romances and I just don’t anymore.

  26. 26
    rayvyn2k says:

    If not for reading SBTB, I would never have discovered Georgette Heyer, Robin Hobb or Loretta Chase. *(I KNOW.)

    I never buy any romance novel without checking this and other review sites. Books are too expensive to take a chance.

  27. 27
    ksquard says:

    i agree with the above: without SB and DA, I would never know Sherry Thomas, Merin Durran, and Joanna Bourne…oh the weeping and wailing you would have heard then! I too don’t buy unknown romances without checking the sites first – and often get the idea to do so from there too! My book buying cash flow is slim and must be carefully applied. Even my go-to authors these days may get a library pass until the MM comes out, or the personal budget improves. So I’m very grateful for the communities and highly-value them for this and many other reasons.

    I think as a grassroots, buzz mechanism, the internet and blogs like these are incredibly effective and affective. But I also agree that the pubs are looking for that Oprah get; they’re looking to quantify the influence into sales figures, something for the post-mortem of a book where direct influencers on sales can be noted and exploited. I would agree that the internet and buzz worthy blogs probably aren’t generating the rate of return that the pubs are looking for.

    We know better though, don’t we.

  28. 28
    GrowlyCub says:

    Laura Kinsale,

    you say these editors have numbers, but how are those numbers generated and how do they know from which sources these numbers come and what those numbers really mean in terms of how a sale is generated?

    If it’s a Walmart sale, how do they know it’s a Walmart sale that was generated by my walking by the pathetic book aisle and picking up a random Avon title (which btw, NEVER has nor will happen), or whether that Walmart sale actually only came about because DA wrote about Jennifer Ashley’s new book in detail and had a twitter book club that showed MANY different people liking this book?  And why would they think that a Walmart sale was generated by advertising or reviews in traditional print media.  How do they know this?  Well, I can tell you out of the three option, option 2, DA and twitter buzz got me to drive to Walmart (the only purveyor of books in my town) solely for the purpose of picking up this particular book.  Not browsing, not print media, online word of mouth.

    I think your and their argument contains a significant fallacy and shows a lack of understanding of what’s going on online.  Yes, twitter is an emerging technology, but you don’t have to look for Oprah numbers to understand that there is a tremendous potential to harness these new technologies to reach millions of readers in a fabulously short period of time.  Anybody who says that they haven’t seen those kinds of numbers to make a difference to them has totally missed the boat.  The reason they haven’t seen numbers is either that they aren’t looking, aren’t understanding what their data means or they aren’t doing their job to keep abreast of the times.

    It will be a long time before I buy another Avon title new.  Tough luck for their authors, but I do not support publishers who show so clearly that they are clueless and happy to stay so.

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