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September 01, 2006



The utilitarian nature of our society drives arts underground because the general public sees no consumer value in the production and distribution of the arts at all levels. I mean, who really needs to explore the dimensions of their humanity when they can go to work and grind down to an inhuman level. Maybe this is one reason the United States leads the world in suicide.

robert ferrigno


Here's the World Health Organization's list of national suicide rates. The USA is number 35. Capitalist paradises like Lithuania, Belarus, Cuba and France have higher rates.


More to the point though, centralized arts coverage--whether at dailies like the Dallas Morning News, or alternative newsweeklies like the Voice--means fewer books will be reviewed by a less diverse group of people. Regional coverage of books will dwindle. Some debut and midlist authors wouldn't get any recognition at all (sadly) were it not for editors who actively seek to cover local authors who may be more particularly interesting or relevant to their readers than Philip Roth or Jonathan Franzen.

Kevin Wignall

Robert, even happier to see the UK coming in at 47 in that chart. Particularly interesting not only to see all the former communist countries in the top half, but also to see the bottom half dominated by South America, the Caribbean and Islamic countries. You're missing a trick here, Robert - at least in your fictional America the suicide rate will drop even further!

As to the review coverage. Is it really so awful? Book sales are high, the internet has taken away most of the function that standard arts coverage provided, everyone seems to agree that reviews don't sell books. You see Sarah, you're part of the reason for this, but I see that as a positive.

David J. Montgomery

From what I've heard, the consensus is that reviews DO sell books. And it's certainly been true in my experience. That's why they matter so much to publishers: they're free advertising. (And Lord knows they hate to do any other kind!)

Lana Lang

I love to read but I must admit I rarely read reviews. I rely more on word-of-mouth and my own perusal of the first few pages of the book.

Books are selling well, and will probably sell well in the future. More baby boomers are reading as they age. I don't share the pessimism that others do about the industry.

Kevin Wignall

David, do you know of any research that's been done into the reviews=sales figures? I know it must be hard to quantify, but my gut feeling has always been that the role of reviews is diminishing. We all like to get them, and we like to quote them on our book jackets, but I do wonder...

Jenny Davidson

Just speaking off the top of my head, it has always been my belief that reviews have very little effect on sales to individuals but fairly substantial ones on library sales. Anybody got more details?


I don't have any numbers, and the weight of a single review is not what it once was, but they absolutely affect sales. You can always see a ping in sales the week after a major review. And even if you don't read reviews, perhaps the person you heard about the book from did. If not for reviews--how does a small publisher get its book noticed?

David J. Montgomery

It's not really the kind of thing that attracts research. (Publishing seems to work on a tradition basis, rather than a scientific one.)

Although a couple of economists did a study a while back on Amazon and B&N and found that positive reviews on those sites impacted sales more than negative ones did. (I realize this is a separate, though related, issue.)

I can say from anecdotal experience that many authors have reported significant jumps in their sales after particular reviews, and I have witnessed the same. (For example, I reviewed a book in USA Today once and its Amazon ranking jumped from 5000 to 300-something.)

It's hard to imagine how reviews wouldn't help, at least to some degree. Any time you're talking about a newspaper (for example) with a large circulation, just having a picture of the book and its title printed in there has to be worth something.

One of the papers I regularly write for has a Sunday circulation of over 700,000 copies. If even 1/10th of 1% of those readers bought a book as a result of a review, that would be 700 copies. For a lot of authors, that would be a huge number. (And, of course, more people than that actually "read" any given issue.)

On a related issue... I wonder if, as the number of professional reviews diminishes, this will increase the value of the remaining reviews, or if they will simply cease to be relevant.

robert ferrigno

One clear value of a good review is the way they fire up one's publisher and agent, enthusiasm which can translate into extended book tours and more promotional dollars spent. So good reviews must have some effect... or perhaps publishers and agents are just desperate for good news.
I agree with Kevin about the internet taking up the reviewing slack, but would add that smart newspapers would unleash their critics onto the net where they could write more extensive and thoughtful reviews. Nastier reviews even. David, I'm sure that while there are some books that you can review in brief, there are many others you wish you had the unlimited space that only the net offers.

(sidenote to Kevin) the reason that the UK ranks "better" than the US for suicide is that people contemplating suicide in the UK realize that, sooner or later, the British health care system will inadvertantly do the job for them.

Kevin Wignall

Robert, I suspect a similar logic explains Colombia's low suicide rate.

David, it's true that when Stasio reviewed "People Die" the Amazon numbers spiked dramatically over the following 48 hours.

And perhaps as you suggest, the loss of coverage in the Dallas Morning News or The Village Voice might simply make that spike even more dramatic.

Again, thanks to the NYT being online and the attentions of bloggers like Sarah, there are people in Dallas who now know and care what Marilyn Stasio thinks, people who might never have read a print edition of the paper.

patti abbott

If anyone's still looking, did this happen at the Detroit Free Press? Nothing but borrowed reviews for months. What chance do local writers have to get local people to buy their book if it gets no local notice.



Susan Schaab, Author of Wearing the Spider

I can further confirm, as the author of a debut legal thriller, that reviews do sell books. It is difficult to document, I suppose, whether the national/regional print media and prepub reviewers have as great an impact on consumers as they do on the bookseller and library industry, but they, at least indirectly, influence my reading choices. I would hope that these displaced reviewers would turn to the Internet, where their opinions are wanted and can be disseminated to many more readers over a longer period of time.

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