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Reviews Revisited

with 3 comments

So, I had a very nice evening, curtesy of a good friend of mine who sent me a copy of the best cozy ever written, Charlotte MacLeod’s Rest You Merry. 

It manages to be a cozy in the way I have defined cozies without driving me up a wall, and I don’t really know if I can analyze why that is.  There is a certain amount of cutesy, but it doesn’t cloy.  Everything is light without making me feel as if I’ve been transported into a world of sugarplums where a bloody corpse on the living room floor exhibits about the same level of emotion as a badly done steak at a moderately priced restaurant.

I knew Charlotte when she was alive.  She was a nice woman, exactly what you’d expect from the books–and very New England, in everything from taste in teas to politics.

That said, there’s another reason why I had a nice evening last night, and that had to do with the mail, which brought with it second half statements on sales of Gregor Demarkians last year.

Without going into a lot of specifics that are none of the Internet’s business, let me just say that it was obvious from those statements that Cheating at Solitaire is out there doing a lot better than my books usually do.

And it’s Cheating at Solitaire in particular, not the books generally.

Which brings me to a set of interesting questions.

Okay, questions that are interesting to me.

The first is that there is only one thing I can think of that was truly different about the publication of Cheating at Solitaire–and that was the reviews.

Specifically, the very print reviews, in prestige organs, that we were talking about the other day, and that most of you, and I, dismissed as being largely irrelevant to why we buy anything.

Cheating at Solitaire got starred reviews from all three of the big three major pre-pub review organs, Publishers Weekly, Books in Review and Kirkus.

That was, as far as I can tell, the only real difference.   Except that the book was, you know, not on a very “serious” subject.

And although the book was reviewed well in print, it wasn’t reviewed all that well online. 

Most of you say you read for escape.  I apparently have a number of constant readers who large read for escape from trash television and manufactured celebrities, so the worst online reviews I’ve ever gotten have been for Cheating at Solitaire and Wanting Sheila Dead. 

I wonder what it’s going to be like for the one coming out this summer, Flowering Judas.  That one is neither celebrities nor politics.  It’s just dead people in a small town.

But at the moment, the book business is in free fall.  One of the large chains is rumored to be days away from bankruptcy, and their sales have fallen off so badly that  even reliably best selling authors are off from last year, but just in that one store.

I’ve been thinking about the line about publishers publishing what people want to read, but I think that may be harder than anybody realizes.

For one thing, the audience is fragmented.

For another, you’ve got those people who don’t read much that you have to sell books to, and as far as I can figure out, they have very different requirements than Constant Readers do.

Constant readers hated the celebutantes. First time readers loved them.

Finding something that will satisfy everybody’s particular ideas about what they want to read this week would take a lot of calculating with a lot of unknown variables.

And I’ve never been all that good at math.

Written by janeh

February 13th, 2011 at 9:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Reviews Revisited'

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  1. Hmmm. I would have said CHEATING AT SOLITAIRE was on a MORE serious topic than the bulk of the Demarkians, or rather on a number of related serious topics–social class, personal identity and celebrity, especially. But a serious topic is “neutral” in sales, I think–good or bad, depending on how it’s handled. I’d also have rated the roman a clef aspect as another difference, along with the reviews, from other Demarkians.

    Fully agree about the fragmented readership. I’d give credit if I could remember my source–Gladwin, maybe?–but I think it’s true that you’ve got a lot of different clusters of fairly homogenous taste and interest, and the trick is gaining one cluster without losing others. This is why Mary Stewart’s women had adventures as well as being engaged in the last chapter, and why Sabatini’s heroes got the girl as well as the treasure–and why I have to share Tolkien with a bunch of Shire-worshipping “small is beautiful” types. The successful novels are seldom just one type of story, and seldom about only one thing.

    As for satisfying everyone, you can’t. The most successful novels of any era weren’t read by most readers–only by a larger minority. And in predicting appeal, you’ve arrived at chaos theory. A good editor or publisher can say with reasonable accuracy that Novel X is a loser–convoluted plot, cardboard characters, wooden dialogue or whatever. But he can only say Novel A MIGHT be a winner. Too many of the variables, from current events at the time of release to cover design to someone picking up a catchphrase are not just unknown but unknowable.

    Success is skill and persistence. Fortune and glory are skill, persistence and luck.


    13 Feb 11 at 12:02 pm

  2. “Specifically, the very print reviews, in prestige organs, that we were talking about the other day, and that most of you, and I, dismissed as being largely irrelevant to why we buy anything.”

    Yeah . . . but we’re not the ones looking at the marketing displays nor the ones deciding just which books to put on the shelves – or make those displays.

    Book store browsers can’t buy the book at all if the individual book stores don’t put in on the shelves, and if those reviews drive marketing decisions about positioning IN the store, well, there you are.

    It is NOT accidental that supermarkets put “sale” items at the ends of rows in the cross aisles,or candy bars and individual sized sodas in coolers next to the “women’s” magazines right at the checkouts.

    It makes a big difference in sales.

    I can’t know that that is in fact the explanation, but I have to wonder.


    14 Feb 11 at 7:14 pm

  3. Excellent point, Michael! Logically, a bookstore orders more and displays more prominently those books it expects to sell more of, but the converse is surely true as well.

    In this case we–well, Jane anyway–may be able to tell whether this was a factor. If the initial hardcover orders from B&N and Borders were larger, then presumably the title was easier to buy and probably more prominently displayed. If the initial orders were the same size, more or less, as previous orders, then probably we should look on larger follow-on orders as driven by sales rather than expectations. Amazon sales would be another indicator, since all titles pretty well have equally prominent displays there.

    But I’d love to know whether those first-time readers were those famous “one or two book a year” readers, or just people who hadn’t read a Demarkian before.

    I have a hard time imagining someone who reads two novels a year. He may well choose them by a method I don’t understand at all.


    15 Feb 11 at 6:11 pm

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