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August 10, 2005

What Fear Lurks In the Hearts of Writers?

by Ron Hogan

I've been thinking about "conversion rates" a lot these last few months, ever since I made my initial plea for reader contributions (which you can still make, if you haven't already--I'm just saying) and heard from about 1-2 percent of my regular daily audience. So I was intrigued by this reflection from horror writer Caitlin R. Kiernan:

"A couple of months ago, I was talking with my agent, Merrilee, and I was lamenting the lackluster sales of Murder of Angels, even after the glowing review in Entertainment Weekly, which, regardless of its merits or lack thereof, seems about as mainstream a magazine as I could ever hope to be reviewed by. And Merrilee said that, in her experience, reviews in EW do not translate into sales. Yesterday, I looked up the magazine's circulation. It's supposedly 1.7 million (this from EW's website). So, I imagined what seemed to me a worst-case scenario. Let's imagine that only 1% of the 1.7 million people who read EW read the review and then bought MoA. That would still be a whopping 17,000 books sold, which is about twice the first printing of the novel. I know that didn't happen.

Then I decided to be more pessimistic. What if only one half of one 1% read the review and bought the book? That would still be 8,500 people, which would have sent the novel into a second printing. That didn't happen either. So, what about a mere one quarter of 1%? That's still 4,250 books, a very sizable dent in the first printing. But that evidently didn't happen, either. So, it would seem that even if one is lucky enough to get a good review in a magazine with a 1.7 million circulation, one cannot expect any significant increase in sales from that review. Tons of free advertising can be worthless. On the one hand, this is the sort of thing that all working authors need to spend a lot of time thinking about. On the other hand, it's the sort of thing that shuts me down and keeps me from writing."

This also reminded me that I really need to crack open that advance copy of her latest short story collection, To Charles Fort, With Love, I picked up at BookExpo. Because anybody who loves Charles Fort is aces by me.

But getting back to the "conversion" issue: Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press has had a couple of his house's books reviewed in EW, and he says "a B/B+ sells maybe 40-50 units, and a full page lead rave maybe 100-150 units." But, he adds, "a single review tends to do close to nothing. Itís all about achieving a layered density. Like advertising. To get the average Joe to buy a book for leisure reading, you basically have to tell them 15-20 times. The total number of reviews matters way more than the quality of the review or the book. The Irving book has received very tepid reviews, but thereís been a huge number of them; ditto John Twelve Hawks."

Which pretty much reinforces the point made in the Kirkus review for Until I Find You: "Is this Irving's worst novel? No doubt about it. Will it sell gazillions of copies nevertheless? Absolutely." (So why is Twelve Hawks already on the decline? As a first-timer, he doesn't have Irving's traction.)

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