Jessica Crispin at Bookslut draws our attention to David Blum’s New York Post article tracing the reviews and sales of Joshua Ferris’s critically acclaimed novel “Then We Came to the End.” Linking it to the NBCC Campaign to Save Book Reviewing, Blum asks why Ferris’ great reviews translated to only good, not great, sales (it didn’t make it on the NY Times Bestseller list, and as I haven’t read the satirical book about office culture [sorry, but I’m not even a fan of the show “The Office”] I can’t offer an opinion on that).
What I will say is what seems to be his argument–that great reviews should lead to a novel’s sensational financial success–seems simplistic and flawed; it also seems to imply that book reviews have no impact on a book’s success even as he admits Ferris’s novel has done very well, especially for a first time novelist in a publishing culture that seduces memoir and nonfiction over fiction:
“It’s hardly fair to label ‘Then We Came to the End’ a failure. The book’s publisher, Little Brown, says it has shipped 50,000 copies. It’s in its fourth printing, and still selling well. That’s a goal rarely achieved by any writer, let alone a debut novelist. Its smart yet realistic editor, Reagan Arthur, accurately describes “Then We Came to the End” as “slow-developing but genuine success.” The book has already returned a profit for its publisher, has been optioned by HBO Films (with Mr. Ferris attached to write the script), and has come closer than most to hitting that ever-shrinking bull’s eye of best-sellerdom.”
Yet how can Blum, or anyone else, assert that excellent reviews in national newspapers contributed nothing to this, not arguable but definite and promising, result? He does not suppose this, even as he links it to the NBCC Campaign to Save Book Reviewing:
“Two weeks ago, picketers actually marched in front of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to protest the removal of Teresa Weaver, the paper’s book review editor. Others have howled about publications being gforced to move their book coverage to the Web. The Chicago Tribune’s book review section, once a part of the paper’s high-circulation Sunday paper, has been relegated to the tiny Saturday edition. No less a novelist than Richard Ford decried the shift as ‘another erosive loss to the public’s cultural discourse.’
“I’ll concede the point that book review sections don’t deserve to be whacked. But why doesn’t discourse result in sales? If Mr. Ford is right, then shouldn’t smart, alert readers have been lining up to buy the Ferris novel? Something doesn’t compute.”
In the end, Blum does save my opinion of his article by casting a wider net, pointing to the need for bookstores to pay more attention to reviews, perhaps by creating a section of the week’s best-reviewed books; for publishers to market books better, from title to advertising, and not pretend, as Blum puts it, that it doesn’t matter. With that, I’ll have to agree. There are clearly lots of digits in this equation.