Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Timing of Book Reviews

As part of my Ongoing Quest for World Domination, I've been trying to optimize my schedule for maximum productivity. That includes time management as well as figuring out the best timing for sleeping, eating and writing that takes the best advantage of my biorhythms (which then feeds into the time management thing). My latest experiment: Last week, I started eating my big meal of the day for lunch. This strange waking up early thing has actually cut into my working time because I don't seem to get any additional work done in the extra time I have in the morning, and then I'm going to sleep earlier, so I'm not getting much night work done. So I thought if I had my big meal at lunch, I could use some of that extra morning time for cooking, and then in the afternoon when I'm getting work done, I wouldn't have to stop working to cook dinner and could just throw together a sandwich. It also helps during this hot weather to be using the stove mostly in the morning, when it's relatively cool, rather than in the late afternoon when it's over 100. I'm also finding that I'm not snacking as much in the afternoon and I'm sleeping a little better, so that seems to have been a good move. I can't believe I didn't think of it sooner, since I'm no longer bound by office-job practicalities.

Since Tuesday is the traditional new book release day, it's a timely day for a topic I've been thinking about ever since a post a couple of weeks ago on The Book Publicity Blog about the timing of book reviews. Publishers send out review copies far in advance of publication, in the hope that reviewers will have a chance to read the books in time to post a review on or about the book's release date. But now that publishers are looking to bloggers for a lot of book publicity, they're finding that bloggers get to the books a lot earlier and try to be the first to post reviews, sometimes weeks or even months ahead of the publication date, which is bad because if people read the review and are interested in the book, they can't go buy it right away, and since they're reading the blog online, they especially can't go straight to the online bookseller of their choice and order it. There's a fear that the book will be forgotten by the time it hits bookstores.

And that does make sense. On the other hand, it's not like we're not at all used to seeing advance publicity for things. We see movie trailers weeks, months, even up to a year in advance, and do we completely freak out if we find that we can't go see that movie right now? You can pre-order books online. You need some pre-release publicity to build buzz, and since the book business generally doesn't do much in the way of advertising, they rely on reviews for almost the entire marketing campaign for most books, and some early reviews can work for building buzz. People gravitate toward the familiar, so if you've read about a book on a blog, you're then more likely to notice the review in a newspaper or magazine or another blog, which then makes you more likely to notice the book when you're in a bookstore. My guess is that the majority of people don't read a book review and then immediately run to the bookstore or click over to Amazon to purchase the book, or even write the title and author down in their handy-dandy "books I want to look for" notebook. Most people probably think, "Hmm, that sounds interesting," before going on to read about something else, and then when they're in a bookstore or browsing on Amazon later, their eyes gravitate to that book because it's familiar, but they don't consciously think of that review they read.

The real issue is that publishers have unrealistic expectations of the amount of marketing they do. If a book is lucky enough to get co-op so it gets a coveted spot on that "new in fiction" table at the front of the bookstore, it's only there for a couple of weeks, a month at the most. Meanwhile, the publishers are relying on word of mouth as the best "advertising" for books, and they're relying on reviews to make early adopters aware of the existence of the book so they can buy it and then talk about it to their friends. And that's practically impossible. Even if someone does read the review and immediately rush out to buy the book, and then reads the book right away, it may be several days before that person has a chance to tell anyone else about the book, and then even if those people go right away to buy the book for themselves and read it immediately, that's several more days. So, even if you've got a significant number of people who drop everything to get and read the book, you can only get through a few levels of word of mouth before the book is no longer at the front of stores where people can see it and think, "Oh yeah, that's the book my friend told me about." But since we're in the real world where it may be a few days before most people go buy even something that really intrigues them, and then days or weeks before they get around to reading it, and then when they tell someone about it, that person says, "Oh, that sounds interesting," but doesn't make a note about it or write it down and will only remember hearing about the book if it leaps off the shelf at them in a store, book publicists have been given an impossible task, and they should be grateful for early reviews because that means at least some buzz and talk and curiosity will spread ahead of time, and people will have been exposed to the book a few times before it's released.

When I succeed in the Ongoing Quest for World Domination, assuming that part of that domination doesn't mean I get to dictate actually having a marketing budget for books that doesn't almost entirely go to the books that were guaranteed to sell well even without any marketing, I think I'd implement what I used to call a Rolling Thunder campaign back in my PR days. Start early by sending out teaser information to the relevant genre blogs -- "Here are some of our upcoming releases you might find interesting." And not in boring catalog copy style, but more of a conversational blogging style. Send some excerpts out a bit after that. Then the review copies, and don't worry too much about when the reviews hit. Professional reviewers will probably stick with the on or around release date tradition, while bloggers will be all over the map, which isn't such a bad thing. Early means buzz, late means legs.

I'm curious -- how do you respond to book reviews? Are you in the "write the title down, then go buy it now" camp, or are you in the "oh, I think I've heard of that" when you see it in the store camp? Do you get mad or annoyed if you read a review for a book that isn't available yet? Do you even read reviews or book blogs?

Now I'm off to have lunch with a former client, and maybe I'll see if I can actually find a swimsuit in July (they were putting out back-to-school stuff last week). Apparently, the mother ship from the planet Spandex sent out the kill order recently so that all the little Spandexians on our planet died all at once, and now almost everything I have that incorporates Spandex has died. It's a little freaky when your swimsuit suddenly becomes crunchy and no longer stretches (or no longer springs back when it does stretch), and I've had that happen to two suits, the one-piece and now the more modest two-piece. I'm down to bikinis, and I don't have the body I had when I bought those suits more than five years ago.


Bookpleasures said...

Hi Shanna: I loved your article particularly when I just received an email from a publicist who was not happy that I had posted reviews of books that were not released.

I pointed out to her that when she requested a review, she never mentioned to me that she would prefer that the review not be posted until the release of the book.

The points you make about an early review and that people don't automatically run out to purchase a book after reading its review are quite valid.

There is another factor to consider. As a reviewer, do we really care about the marketing aspect? This is not the job of our reviewers. Our tasks are to read the book and render a fair review. Nothing more nothing less. In fact, publicists, authors and publishers should be thankful that we take the time to review a book in the first place.

Thanks again,

Norm, Publisher & Editor Bookpleasures.com

Shanna Swendson said...

Bad publicist! You should never criticize or chastise someone who gave free publicity, unless they got something horribly wrong.

If they want to suggest review scheduling, that should come up front: "The book is scheduled for release on XX day, and we would prefer that reviews be scheduled around that date so readers will be able to get the book. If you review earlier than that, please mention the release date in your review."

Bookpleasures said...

And to this I say Amen!