Publishers Weekly kicked off its series of panels “Think Future: What's New in Book Publishing” last week with a discussion of whether book reviews still matter in front of a crowd of more than 100. The answer from the panelists was a definite yes, especially for certain readers. Peter Hildick-Smith opened the panel, moderated by PW Reviews director Louisa Ermelino, with statistics gathered by his company, Codex Group, which tracks the impact of reviews on sales.

Reviews, Hildick-Smith said, help both to raise awareness of a book and to persuade people to buy it. Codex's national survey of nearly 10,000 shoppers conducted before Christmas showed 5% became aware of the book they most recently bought from print reviews, and 3.5% of readers said a print review was the most important factor in buying the book. Print reviews are more important to men than women and for older readers than young. Just over 9% of survey respondents 65 or older said print reviews first made them aware of the most recent book they bought, a percentage that drops steadily to under 1% for readers in the 18-to-24-year-old bracket. The reverse is true for online reviews, with 2.5% of respondents 18 to 24 reporting that those reviews made them aware of a book, while 0.9% of customers over 65 said online reviews made them aware of the last book they bought.

Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman, who's also an author (his latest book, The Magicians, was a New York Times bestseller), discussed reviewing from two sides of the business. As an author, he said, he likes to get reviews, especially good ones, but is not convinced they influence sales. Grossman said there were reviewers he read for pure pleasure: “The best review is the action of a brilliant mind interacting with a book.” But he also said Amazon reader reviews are important because they appear “at point of purchase,” and as Hildick-Smith pointed out, “There's an increased need for quick info for making decisions, which is especially appealing to digitally trained younger readers.” As for selecting books to review, Grossman wants “to be surprised by a book,” to see an author doing something exciting and different.

Dori Weintraub, deputy director of publicity at St. Martin's, viewed positive book reviews as very important to a book's success, but claimed, too, that negative reviews cannot hurt a brand-name author. Carol Fitzgerald, founder and president of the Internet site the Book Report Network (, noted that she only covers books she likes. “People don't need me to tell them what not to read” and emphasized the author as personality.

The consensus was that the number one way of raising awareness of a book is displays at bookstores. Hildick-Smith noted his survey found 22% of respondents said browsing at a local bookstore was the primary way they became aware of the last book they bought, followed by personal recommendations at 15%. There was general consensus that blurbs from important authors help get books selected for review and purchase.

Even as traditional review vehicles close, Grossman observed that today there are more people commenting on books than ever before, and while he said he didn't have an opinion on “whether this is good or bad, it is a real sea change.”

The next panel in the series, “From Book to E-Book; Aesthetics, Design, and the Digital,” will be held March 2 at the Random House headquarters in New York.

% of Consumers Made Aware of Last Book Bought by Reviews

Source: Codex Group
18—24 25—34 35—44 45—54 55—64 Over 65 Total
Print Reviews 0.9% 3.5% 3.4% 5.5% 6.8% 9.2% 4.8%
Online Reviews 2.5 3.4 2.4 1.7 1.1 0.9 2.1