Death of the Book Review

Published book reviews don’t sell books anymore. All they do is act as marketing fragments for publishers and authors to spin for promotion. Welcome to the Amazon Review Cycle. [Viral Loop Chronicles Part 2]

book publishing

My first book, Spooked, a hard look at corporate espionage, came out in 2000 and received about 30 reviews in all sorts of publications. There were the usual suspects, like The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Wall Street Journal, and Library Journal, to the less usual–National Post, Electronic Business–to the now defunct (Business 2.0). My second book, Tragic Indifference, shed light on the Ford-Firestone imbroglio, when Firestone tires were blowing apart sending Ford Explorers rolling over at highway speed, leaving a trail of broken bodies in their wake. Published in late 2003, it garnered just seven reviews.


Now I’m on my third book, Viral Loop, which hit bookstore shelves
last week. It’s been reviewed exactly once–in SmartMoney magazine, which named
it one of the “7 Best Fall Reads.” To be fair, Publishers Weekly and Library Journal have scheduled reviews, but frankly it doesn’t matter. Book reviews don’t sell books anymore. All they do is act as marketing fragments for publishers and authors to spin for promotion.

Good reviews help, at best, incrementally, and bad reviews hurt, at worst, incrementally. They’re published then they disappear, living on as pithy testimonials on authors’ Web sites, or on the back covers or in the fronts of paperback editions.

It wasn’t always this way. A rave review 20 years ago in, say, The New York Times, Washington Post, or
Publishers Weekly could usher an obscure author into the limelight. Those were the days when there were dozens upon dozens of book review sections in newspapers and magazines. Since then their number has steadily diminished. The Washington Post Book Review is kaput and other newspapers found they couldn’t
sell ads in their book sections. Magazines can ill afford to devote the few pages they have left for editorial about books. Columbia University has even cancelled its course on book reviewing, given by critic James Shapiro. There was too little demand for it.


Naturally, there are survivors. But The New York Times Sunday Book Review seems more concerned with
big name authors–or with promoting Times staffers that Boss Sulzberger pays–than with surveying the mass of new talent out there. Publishers Weekly has a circulation of 25,000 (mostly book industry professionals). That’s less than half the number of people who attend New York Giants football games. The New York Review of Books reaches more readers, but while the reviews are elegantly crafted they are usually concerned with fairly esoteric subject matter.

Like news, book reviews have become crowd-sourced, with bloggers and Amazon readers leading the way. But these reviews, unlike those that appear in publications, do have an impact on sales, because they appear right next to the product being sold and persist in online perpetuity. Would you buy
an electric razor at Macy’s if the department store listed a bevy of complaints
from dissatisfied customers next to it? Indeed, an academic paper by Yale Economics professor Judith Chevalier found that while
positive reviews increase a book’s sales and negative reviews dampen them, “the impact of 1-star reviews is greater than the impact of 5-star reviews.”

It’s no wonder authors game reviews on Amazon. They are also victimized by them. Hence what I call the
Amazon Review Cycle: A book comes out and the first reviews tend to earn 5-stars–on the very day it is first made available to the public. Why is that? Because the author’s friends and family flock to the page to offer support; most haven’t even read the book. Characteristically the reviews are short, vague, and positively glowing. Then come the meanies who dislike the author. We all make enemies during the course of our careers, and what follow are the snippy, snarky 1-star disparagements, also submitted by those who haven’t read the book.


After friends and family come readers with no connection to the author, but they, too, often have agendas. On my Amazon page, Frank Todaro, from Houston, Texas, gave Viral Loop 1 star. Was it my research? My prose? My theories? No, he hasn’t read the book. He panned it because Amazon priced the e-book version above $9.99. “Why is the Kindle version too expensive?” Todaro wrote. “Do not buy this book till the Kindle version is priced correctly.”

frank todaro review

Dear Amazon: Please lower the price of the Kindle version of Viral Loop to $9.99. Hey, Frank! I’m the frickin’ author, not Jeff Bezos. Take it up with him. In the meantime, don’t buy the Kindle version if you can’t afford fourteen lousy bucks, but don’t blame the author for pricing. We have nothing to do with it.


Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner once took to task an Amazon reviewer named Loyd Eskildson, who, Dubner claimed, was re-dating his reviews–some of them months old–to give them greater prominence. “I noticed this only because the same two-star review of Freakonomics kept
magically appearing near the top of the reviews page,” Dubner wrote. “Eskildson’s preferences and predilections (including a fondness for exclamation points!) are pretty clear from a glance at his reviews, but his re-dating motives are, to me at least, less clear.”

But the dirty secret of book reviews is that they have always been rife with abuse, even when left to
the ostensible pros. Every author knows what I’m talking about, the reviewers (most of whom have never written books) that use their pulpit to settle scores.

In my case, business reporter Alison Leigh Cowan of The New York Times wrote an over-the-top, scathing review of Spooked, in which she not only attacked the book, she questioned my ethics, because I refused to cooperate
with the Justice Department, which was threatening to subpoena me so I would
out a confidential source at a grand jury hearing and potential trial. I quit
Forbes where I was a senior editor because the magazine’s lawyer was pressuring
me to work out a deal with prosecutors. Who was the source? He–along with his minions–had hacked, replacing Times content with their own, which was largely obscene and highly critical of tech reporter John Markoff. (History buffs can read up on
the incident here,
here, here, and here.)


Not only did Cowan have a conflict of interest because The New York Times–and one of its best-known reporters–had been attacked by the person whose identity I was protecting, she was friends with a top Forbes editor who never forgave me for taking my battle with the magazine public. According to those who witnessed it, the editor danced in the hallway the day the review came out.

Yet Spooked also received a starred review in Publishers
, the Dallas Morning News called it “a fascinating portrait,” an
“eye opener,” and The National Post said it was “an admirably well-crafted and informed
book on the subject of corporate espionage.” There were some mixed reviews, but nobody came remotely close to Cowan’s vitriol.

Oh, and The New York Times Magazine excerpted a chapter of the book the week before Cowan’s review came out. She neglected to mention that.


Then again, why would she? Cowan wasn’t reviewing the book. She was settling a score. And so do many of those littering book pages on Amazon with 1-star reviews. The difference is that these Amazon evildoers really do dampen book sales. Cowan’s ax job probably didn’t.

I’ll explore more of the ins and outs of marketing a book at a time when the old rules don’t apply anymore in upcoming posts of the VIRAL LOOP CHRONICLES on Fast Company.

Adam L. Penenberg is author of Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today’s Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves. A journalism professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Penenberg is a contributing writer to Fast Company.


About the author

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University and author of several books