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 “clichéd” 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?