Book Sales

Why Do Professional Reviewers Dislike Bestsellers?

One of the most interesting issues I’ve confronted in my years involved with traditional publishing is why some books sell well despite less-than-stellar reviews and why some with five star ratings barely move the sales needle.

It would be similar to films which win Oscars or top honors at film festivals but are barely noticed in the marketplace.

I recall attending a showing of a movie with my wife a couple years ago and after it was over, she commented that it was the worst movie she had ever seen. I didn’t particularly like it either, but I commented that it would probably win many awards and possibly a best-picture Oscar.

It did.  And that’s why I should be a voting member of the Academy.

The same issue applies in the Christian media marketplace. The most popular books often will not be reviewed well by professional reviewers and books receiving high marks from professional reviewers frequently (not always) do not sell particularly well. (I am not talking about online reviews, which are mostly reader-generated. I am referring to people who review books for a living.)

There is a parallel issue of professional reviewers commenting on a book, which is already selling well and dismissing it as less than worthy of being considered a good book. In general, high-volume books are not reviewed well by critics.

Why the disconnect? Here are some conclusions, which I have arrived at simply by observing:  (Translation: I could be wrong)

Professional reviewers are like anyone else

They have preferences for what they like and don’t like. It takes a unique person to look beyond their personal opinion and evaluate if a book is effectively doing what the author intended and if readers will enjoy it, or whether it will contribute to the society or not.

Professional reviewers are intelligent

Reviewers may view bestsellers as overly simplistic and not much of an intellectual challenge. Most bestselling books are written at a 6-8th grade reading level.  While certainly not a Christian author, Earnest Hemmingway routinely wrote at a 4th to 5th grade level, so it is no mystery why the literature pundits did not appreciate many of his works. (If you want to have some fun, click here  for a reading level analysis of some prominent authors and works.)

Professional reviewers are often trained in great literature

Bestsellers are a result of reaching a large audience, and most in society are not inclined to appreciate great literature. (Sorry if this offends…the whole “unwashed masses” issue again) Professional evaluations can be made based on a great classical literature standard and not on what a large number of readers will read. The two are often quite different.

All this explains some of the difficulty publishers have in deciding which books will sell well and which will not.  Editors at any publisher are intelligent, educated or readers of great literature and have personal opinions of what makes for a good book. Those who have succeeded in their work of acquiring for their publishers over a long period have learned to consider what the publisher sells well and what readers will enjoy and find most helpful.

In some cases they set aside their personal preferences.

This is about as subjective a process as I can imagine and explains why just about every bestselling book has been rejected by numerous publishers before it finds a publisher home.

There are many examples of bestselling authors who win sales awards and not literary quality awards and many who win literary awards but do not sell well. A few accomplish both, but not as many as you might think.

So why do professional book reviewers often dislike books which sell well?

Because they are human.


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How Self-Publishing Has Changed Authors

As a literary agent, not a day goes by when I don’t encounter the changes in thinking from authors caused by the expansion and availability of self-publishing. It’s understandable, because there are over twice as many books self-published every year in the United States than are published by traditional publishers. …

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Unreliable Statistics

Facts can lie…depending on how that are presented or understood. Today I’ll keep this blog post focused on writers choosing a literary agent, based on one question. When choosing a literary agent, authors need to make assessments. Some authors ask agents questions such as, “How many deals did you make last year?” …

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When Your Book Doesn’t Sell

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Book Sales Continue to Rise

Despite the rumors concerning of the demise of Christian books, bookstores, and especially Christian fiction  there is news that tells a different story. There were a couple statistics released this past week that show signs of encouragement! General market sales: According to the U.S. Census Bureau. Bookstore sales hit $698 million in …

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How Readers Make Decisions What to Buy

I hope you aren’t disappointed in the promise that I appear to make in today’s headline… I do not have the definitive, magic formula to successfully convince people to buy your book.  Like building an author platform, the answer is actually boring and possibly frustrating if you are in a hurry to …

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Adopt a Bookstore

Bookstores throughout the United States are going through the most challenging period in their history.  The combination of online purchase of printed books and the dawn of the eBook have combined to deliver a one-two punch to the business of book retailing.

For Christian bookstores, the challenges started over a decade ago when a substantial part of their business (in some cases over a third) began to disappear when music became a downloaded media (iTunes started in 2001) and retail sales of CD’s began to decrease significantly.  A second hit came when movies and video started to be rented and sold in numerous locations, then eventually becoming a downloaded or streamed media.  To a lesser extent, audiobooks becoming primarily a downloaded media was another hit.

Remember Borders?  They positioned themselves as a “media” retailer and the loss of music and movies put them into a spiral that resulted in their demise.  Of course, the fact that they were a publicly held corporation didn’t help.  Investors bail out fast when revenues drop and profit is marginal or nonexistent.  They were not able to make the changes necessary to survive.

Add all these pieces and history together and you have the story of the challenges to be addressed by Christian retailers in 2014. The Christian Bookseller’s Association is addressing the issues from the bookseller standpoint, but I have a proposal what authors can do.

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Thank a Bookseller

by Steve Laube

With this being Thanksgiving week I thought it appropriate to urge you to take a moment, visit your local bookseller, and say, “Thank you for supporting books!”

As I wrote elsewhere, it is tough to be in the retail side of the business. Online sales, rising rent and utilities, rising salaries, etc. are competition enough. I know many booksellers who are in the business for the love of the business not that they think they will become millionaires. They still enjoy the thrill of matching a customer’s need with just the right product. I still remember being honored when a customer came back and thanked me for recommending a particular book to them. One man even decided to go to seminary and enter the pastorate after reading a recommended title.

So before you join the chorus of pundits who seem to be gleefully announcing the demise of the bookseller, let us not forget they are real people with real jobs doing a real service to your community.

And despite the rise of e-books, the physical book is still at least 70% of all book sales. And a lot of those sales happen in a brick and mortar location.

We all have a part in a grand business. The business of changing the world word by word. Authors, agents, editors, marketers, public relations, sales, production, executives, designers, warehousing, accountants, shippers, printers, booksellers, AND readers. Quite a team we make. I, for one, am thankful for them all.

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