[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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SFWA President's Message

Online Bookselling:
A Big Change at Point of Sale

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1998 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Originally published in
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America FORUM,
August 1998

SFWA is notorious for being reactive, rather than proactive — for instance, we only made a stink about agents raising their commissions from 10% to 15% after most of them had already switched to the higher level.

Well, here's a fundamental change in book retailing that I think we should be addressing right now.

Online booksellers, such as Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble Online, and Borders.com, have been a real boon for many of us. Among other things, they have provided a ready source of our backlist titles, something often difficult for our readers to find in regular bookstores.

However, I have some real concerns about how they have radically redefined point-of-sale marketing for books. In a traditional bookstore, customers choose a book based on packaging, which includes cover art, endorsements by other authors, a blurb describing the book, citations of awards the author or the book has won, selected review excerpts, an "about the author" note, and, of course, most important of all, the chance to actually dip into the book and try a few pages.

Those buying from an online bookstore see only a tiny picture of the cover (far too small and grainy for one to be able to read such notations as "Hugo Award winner," or even "Book Three in the Spacer Series"). They cannot read the jacket copy; they cannot read the review excerpts from the author's previous books; and so on. Many of us fight for cover consultation in our contracts (including not just input into the art but also the text); if the art is shown only as a tiny thumbnail, the front-cover text is impossible to read, and the back-cover and flap copy isn't available all, then, as online bookselling becomes more prevalent, that hard-won contract concession becomes less valuable.

Online booksellers replace the carefully crafted marketing materials that form the book's physical packaging with the text of third-party reviews, often from Kirkus or Publishers Weekly. This is objectionable, in my view, for four reasons.

First, neither Kirkus nor Publishers Weekly publish consumer-oriented reviews; their reviews are aimed at librarians and booksellers, and are designed to familiarize these professionals with books, saving them the need to actually read the titles in question. Because of this, these reviews usually go far beyond newspaper and magazine book reviews in synopsizing plots (often going right up to and including the epilogue), freely identifying the murderers in mystery novels, giving away key plot twists and turns, and, frankly, often killing the fun of reading the book.

Second, Kirkus in particular is well known for a certain harshness; their judgments are often dismissive, and not necessarily useful to the consumer. (I've already had a face-to-face meeting with Leah Ball, the Author-Relations Manager at Amazon.com; she says that complaints about Kirkus reviews are the single-most common objection she receives from writers and writers groups.)

Third, neither Kirkus nor Publishers Weekly byline their reviews; there is no way to tell who, with what agenda, is writing the assessment.

Fourth, and most important, the pairing of reviews with books at point-of-sale fundamentally changes the traditional significance of reviewing. In the past, most consumers never saw reviews at all of the books they were buying. If they did see reviews, they were randomly selected (just whatever the consumer happened to come across), and the reviews were ephemeral (out with the trash when the next day's newspaper arrived).

The conventional wisdom used to be that a bad review didn't actually hurt a book, because all the reader normally remembered days or weeks later when he or she saw the book in a bookstore was that the book had been reviewed, but not whether it had been reviewed favorably. Featuring reviews at point-of-sale vastly increases the influence reviews will have on purchasing decisions, and makes the review more permanent than the book it is discussing (indeed, Amazon.com posts reviews of even out-of-print titles; the review, instead of being ephemeral, has survived longer than the book).

I believe that if online booksellers are going to post published reviews (and this should by no means be automatically assumed to be a good thing), then they should have an obligation to (1) use only consumer-oriented reviews, with negligible plot spoilers; and (2) contract with a wide variety of reviewing sources, so that no book is torpedoed at point-of-sale by a single bad review.

I also believe the reviews should appear on a secondary page of the online catalog, not on the primary page; customers should have to click a link to see reviews, rather than having them shoved in their face. (This is especially sensible if authors are participating in Amazon.com's or B&N Online's partnership programs, in which authors provide links from their own web sites to the online booksellers' site, in exchange for a kickback on copies sold. It hardly makes sense for an author to do all the work of making the sale on his or her web site only to have the sale kiboshed by an unfortunate, unavoidable review at point-of-sale.) Again, it's a question of giving appropriate weight to third-party assessments; they are not, and should not, be the primary sales tool, and in no other retail environment are they accorded such prominence.

On a related note: Amazon.com (but not BarnesandNoble Online) allows customers to post their own "reviews." In the past, when authors have objected to the qualifications of newspaper and magazine reviewers, the reviewing community has fallen back on the position that a reviewer is as qualified as an author, for precisely the same reason: that someone has paid him or her money to practice the craft. Now, though, reviewing is a completely unspecialized skill; anyone can do it, apparently.

The customer comments are a very popular feature of Amazon.com, and that's fine, but I do think there are ways to improve the fairness and meaningfulness of them. A simple, short questionnaire to give some context in which to read the "review" might help, specifying the customer's gender, age range, number of years reading the type of book in question, and the name of an author writing in this field whose work the customer enjoys. Otherwise, we're left with the real possibility of the only supposedly fair and unbiased customer assessment being a 14-year-old Star Wars fan panning, say, A Canticle for Liebowitz because it's nothing like what good SF should be.

Further: I believe anonymous reviews are gutless, and an invitation to mischief; out of fairness, I really do think online booksellers should ban unsigned customer comments.

Amazon.com (but not Barnes and Noble Online) does provide a chance for the author and publisher to each comment extensively on a book. I urge all SFWA members to take advantage of this. More, though, I urge publishers to make sure the full retail point-of-sale package is reproduced online for every title: cover text, cover blurb, review excerpts, and so on. Posting this information on Amazon.com should be a standard part of the publicist's job for each and every title (and Barnes and Noble Online should be urged to allow this material to be added to their online catalogs, as well).

Finally, I would very much like to see online-bookstore catalogs be willing to add links to author's own web sites, where sample chapters from the books can be found. The online retail experience currently divorces point-of-sale from the actual product being sold — the author's words — and that's just plain wrong. Amazon.com refuses to include URLs even in postings by authors or in author interviews (they simply delete them), and B&N Online has no mechanism at all for authors to annotate the catalog listings for their books. Hyperlinking is what the web is all about; providing links back to an author's own web site is not only true to the spirit of the web, but also an important, and reasonable, part of the online marketing of books.

I think it's important that SFWA take an active role in helping to shape the electronic bookselling environment of the next century, and I urge all our members — and all SF publishers — to get involved in this issue now.

Nebula Award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer is President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; he also founded SFWA's Canadian Region. His latest novel is Factoring Humanity from Tor.

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