That’s right. Avon Books still believes that those of us out there writing internet reviews and reading them before we buy books don’t make a difference in the sales numbers. I was a little startled when I first saw this view expressed in Laurie Gold’s 2002 interview with Avon, but downright flabbergasted to see this expressed in 2009. After all, the internet is all-pervasive in today’s culture. People shop online, socialize online, research all manner of things online, and review all manner of items online. Therefore, it seemed a little odd to me to discount the importance of online book reviewing.

Various news stories recently have described the decline of newspapers as internet news sources surge in popularity. For a few examples, see here, here, and here. And if people are turning online to get their information about the world, it stands to reason that they would start turning online to get information about the book world as well. And that’s where I take issue with some of what Avon had to say.

After all, if people read the news online and shop online, wouldn’t it be reasonable to think that they pay attention to online reviews? Our experience here at AAR would certainly bear that out. Readership has steadily grown every year, with over 4 million unique visitors coming to the site in 2008. I suspect that owners of other romance sites have noticed this kind of steady growth as well. And in a 2008 survey on book purchasing habits(“The Reading and Book Buying Habits of Americans”), Zogby surveyed 8218 adults. While not strictly a romance survey, the survey did find that more than half of the respondents go book browsing online without knowing in advance what they plan to buy, and that close to the third of them stated that they rely upon online reviews for recommendations. While romance readers may differ in some ways (we tend to buy more books than others, for starters), I seriously doubt that our behavior is so unique as to make this data inapposite.

While I do think there’s some amount of truth to Lucia Macro’s description of the casual book buyer, the casual buyer isn’t the one picking up several books a month and reading voraciously. And it seems to me that by focusing so much on the casual buyer, Avon misses out on those of us who read often and who tend to provide a lot of repeat business to publishers and bookstores. While Avon does have some internet marketing of its own (the “Browse Inside” feature for their books and features on its website), they still seem to discount the reach of the Internet-savvy reader when saying things such as, “(W)e aren’t seeing that any review driven website has the power to “make” a book.”

And with regard to that power to “make” a book, I can certainly think of a few books and authors whose careers would not have gone where they did were it not for the internet. For a recent example, who here remembers Broken Wing? I know that I would never have heard of this book were it not for reviews I saw on various sites. This book was well received on both historical fiction and romance sites – blogger Kristie(J) even had a Quest to get people the read the book. It may not hit Nora Roberts-style sales numbers, but from what I see, the internet did a lot to “make” this book.

The attitude displayed in the Avon interview toward online review sites also bothered me because I see it as indicative of a larger problem in some publishing houses. There seems to be a tone overall of “This is what has worked in the past, so we will keep doing it.” In the current economy, that attitude strikes me as dangerous. Numbers from many publishing houses (including Harpercollins, home of Avon) show serious declines, so it seems obvious that something must change. Harlequin, on the other hand, has been turning in fantastic profits while also being lauded for their innovation. While there are certainly some valid criticisms out there for the manner in which Harlequin has handled the online community, they deserve rightful praise for their mission “to be wherever women are” – including on the internet. Though there’s been no formal study that I can find, I cannot help but wonder if some of the difference in profit outcomes between the two companies could be attributed to corporate views about online marketing and the online reviewing and blogging communities.

Avon has some fantastic authors writing for them, and they have historically been a powerhouse in romance publishing. However, the market is changing now, and it is my belief that the degree to which Avon adapts to this will have a profound impact upon their later sales. I greatly appreciate that the ladies at Avon took time out of their busy schedules to speak with me and I wish them all the best. However, I’d be leaving something important out if I didn’t point out that I also hope they will reconsider some of their decisions toward the online community.

-Lynn Spencer