Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Critical success vs. reader success: the correlation, by Yahong Chi

Take any random middle-grade bookworm out there. How much would you be willing to bet that they pay any attention to or place any value in the blurbs—brief lines of praise from big-name authors or review companies—on the cover of their current favourite novel?

If you said zero, high-five. Me too.

The reason for this varies, but I’ve found that it mostly comes down to the fact that readers like to find out what they like for themselves. If they’re not paying much attention to the book industry (and I’m operating under the assumption that most middle-graders don’t), then the praise of a sterile name like “Kirkus Reviews” or “Horn Book” doesn’t mean much to them.

Author blurbs are a little different, as readers do collect and remember past favourite authors. So if your middle-grader is a big fan of James Dashner, for example, they might be inclined to give some of the (many) books he’s blurbed a try. But in general, from my personal observations, our target audience—kids—does not place anywhere near as much importance on blurbs as we in the industry do.

So do those blurbs mean anything? Is there a correlation between a book’s critical success and its sales numbers (i.e. its reader success)?

Common sense says “yes”. If critics love a book, then surely all the aspects which were loved by reviewers will translate into readers’ reading experience, even if they’re not actively looking out for it, right? But there’s a marked difference here: while reviewers tend to know precisely what they’re looking for (and what is missing), such as a lack of character growth, immersive worldbuilding, or quicker pacing, young readers aren’t so specific.


To illustrate this point, I asked a middle-grader to describe what she liked about a recent book. She said she liked how it had superpowers, and super-interesting characters, and it had lots of good ideas. I asked her what she didn’t like about it; she said she felt it was too long, and the plot could’ve been “spun” better. When I asked her to elaborate, she said she didn’t really know, but she just felt like the author could’ve done the plot more differently, better.

Now, if a critic were reviewing the book, would they say the same things (in much fancier lingo, of course)? Or would they note completely different things, because they were looking for different things? This is a question which I as a reviewer am personally very interested in, especially when you look at examples like the Artemis Fowl series, which has been reviewed as “clich├ęd” and worse, and yet has had so much commercial success.

What do you think? What kind of correlation exists between critical success and reader success?

-Yahong

11 comments:

  1. I agree that sometimes commercial success has little to do with whether or not a book has gotten great reviews from Kirkus, etc. (and hey, Artemis Fowl got bad reviews??? I love that series! :)). At the same time, I think that some middle grade books depend more on library/education sales than commercial bookstore sales. For those books, a book blurb from a well-respected author COULD be the tipping point for a school librarian who's on the fence about a book. That can be huge, because librarians across the country may be swayed to buy that book for their school and expose their students to it.

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    1. That is definitely a good point, Jess, I do believe librarians pay more attention to critical reception. I've also heard of publishers sending ARCs to librarians, and in fact some branches in my city outsource these ARCs to young readers who then give feedback, which intertwines intriguingly with this whole question.

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  2. Very interesting, post, Yahong. It makes sense that kids wouldn't care about bits from reviewers. I didn't even know what Kirkus was until I was about 45 years old! I do think some critics are looking for different things than the average reader. That's why I appreciate the blog reviews by some superlibrarians, who discuss the books in terms of how they think readers will feel about it.

    Jess does have a point about school librarians helping a book out. So many books that don't get a marketing push from the publisher would disappear into obscurite without librarians advocating for it, and most do become aware of books through reviews.

    As to Artemis Fowl, my son loved that series so much, it's what convinced me to take up middle grade writing. He begged me to read them, and he read them over and over until the first set fell apart. It makes me wonder if someone should start up a review site with kid reviewers, sort of a junior version of Kirkus. :)

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    1. Ohh, it's so wonderful to hear that Artemis Fowl was what inspired your MG writing, Dee! And I think a junior version of Kirkus sounds fabulous. :D It's one reason why I love book bloggers so much. And you're right, librarians are a different audience than their readers, and so reviews do mean something more to them.

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  3. Well, I can understand what's discussed above, it's not that simple. At least not for authors.

    But I feel while lay readers are free to care less about blurbs, awards, or being reviewed by Kirkus, authors are forced to face this, especially newcomers like me, where just GETTING to the reader is hard enough.

    That's where I'm at.

    Though I understand what those commenting before me have said. If I ever get to blurb anyone, I'll be sure to keep in mind the reader's perspective like librarians would do.

    That said, I have read some books because authors I already read have enjoyed it, so it CAN help, it's just not as important to readers (Who aren't writers) as it is for authors for marketing reasons.

    I strongly feel this is one of those things that authors have to deal with in a way lay readers don't, whether kids or adults.

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    1. Oh, for sure, Taurean. I probably should've mentioned the author's perspective somewhere in this piece, but I am in agreement--it's something that we as authors weigh more heavily, whereas with "lay readers", it's more about the experience rather than how that experience was built. It's the same thing when it comes to reading, I think--as writers, our minds tend to analyze the book as we go (or at least I do!), which means the reading experience for us is different than for "lay readers".

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  4. I think the only real co-relation is both sides know what they love and what they hate. But I still think blurbs and critics are important for middle grade books because if they draw adult fans these things will work in their favour.

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    1. Very true, Sheena. And yes, if blurbs aid books in finding more readers, they still have a place in the industry!

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  5. That's my perspective, too, Sheena, and that's why this topic is so conflicting for me as an author, while I understand the lay reader's perspective.

    It can be hard to reconcile that when you go from being a lay reader to a writer. You do have to see it differently on some level.

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  6. My three sons and I all LOVED Artemis Fowl. It was initially introduced to my eldest by the school librarian, and the rest just seemed to materialise in our bookshelf the day they were released.

    I can say that none of the boys gave a jot about the blurb, but I'm sure the school librarian did.

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    1. Oh, KayC, I loved Artemis Fowl too! So when I read that negative review, I was pretty angry. And then I decided that critics didn't need to decide for me, as a reader. :D

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!