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SFWA President's Message
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,
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
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
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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