nyt book review

nyt book review

The Impact of Book Reviews on the New York Times

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1. Introduction

The New York Times Book Review is a weekly magazine that is seen in the The Impact of Book Reviews on the New York Times Sunday edition of The New York Times. It is a widely read and respected review section, giving the book author 800 words to review a book. This section is seen by many as the most elite book review section in the world, for the most esteemed authors will be asked to give a review for their peers. When the book review was started in 1896, it praised The New York Times for becoming a literary paper. And though the popular media section of The New York Times is not seen as a literary paper today, The New York Times Book Review still holds itself to that standard. Although the layout is appealing, there are no pictures or illustrations, The New York Times claims that they let their writing do the talking. And many agree that this is the place where the a book can either catch a major following or be completely ignored. With this in mind, I have decided to do an analysis of how the critics at The New York Times affect the sales of a new book, good or bad. Primarily, are readers more interested in reading books that get bad reviews, hoping to find that the critics were wrong? Or are they more interested in reading a book that was well reviewed in hopes of not wasting their time. This study will be done over several months in which I will compile lists of the current books that are being reviewed and to what extent these books are talked about in New York Times articles and best seller listings. I predict that books talked about more in an overall sense will be the ones who were poorly reviewed, with the public wanting to see for themselves if the critique was fair. The books that are talked about in relation to best seller listings will be the ones that were well reviewed, with the consumer hoping not to waste money on an uninspiring book. Upon compiling these lists, I will be able to look at the reviews singly and see if the intensity of the praise or critique seems to effects how much the book is talked about in the various article and best seller listings. This is just the first step in proving my hypothesis, as the final and most important part of this study is combing through The New York Times articles and reviews of these books and coming up with an overall review assessment. I will use the Lexis Nexis search engine to find mention of the book in articles and in relation to best sellers and will come up with a percentage of the intensity of the references compared to other books. Because I feel that the public places a high value on New York Times reviews, I believe that these assessments can show how the NYTBR critics may have changed public interest. This is especially true with the book’s position on best seller listings, for it is likely that the only reason a book would move up or down the list is due to consumer interest that was influenced by the reviews.

2. The Influence of New York Times Book Reviews

One way the New York Times book review wields influence is through its ability to make or break a certain book or author. The New York Times has the power and authority to elevate or diminish the status of a book or author in the eyes of the public. This is particularly true with books that are reviewed in successive editions of the New York Times book review. Sastry and Rao note that it is not uncommon for trade publishers to wait for a review of a particular book to appear in the New York Times book review section before promotion or advertising campaigns for that particular book begin (Sastry and Rao 130). This is because the New York Times review has the potential to impact the sales of the book and reveal the effectiveness of advertising campaigns for that book. An unfavorable review of a particular book by the New York Times has even led to publishers retracting that book from sale in order to avoid financial loss (Sastry and Rao 130). Seldom will a book review wield such influence that it causes publishers to change their advertising plans or retract the sale of a book. By contrast, reviews from other high impact sources for books usually have little more than some influence for a future book by the author in question or almost no influence at all.

There is a wealth of research supporting the idea that a New York Times book review can bring a significant level of attention to a particular book. This attention is brought about because of the perceived quality and selectiveness of the New York Times book review section. As Cole and Singer note in their study, a New York Times editor claimed, “because the NYT is so selective and reviews so few of the books that come out in any given year, their review is particularly meaningful” (Cole and Singer 1). This perceived quality and selectiveness will often influence a reader’s initial opinion about a book before they even read the review. In the cases where a reader is not influenced by the selectiveness of the New York Times book reviews, they are often affected by the reviews themselves. To put this into a numerical perspective, Leteff and Chyi found that as many as one in five Americans were influenced by New York Times book reviews to either buy a particular book or borrow it from the library.

3. The Role of Critics in Shaping Literary Discourse

This much is obvious, but what other literary functions do critics promote? Ascertaining that readers will comb through a review of anything they perceive to be a great piece of art, simply living up to the quality of literature to merit a review can be a success for the artist. This is only true for the high art forms, but it is significant that the work must be a book that is reviewed in The NYTimes.

As evidenced by the title of the book and the peculiar historical emphasis on the Sunday book review, Felton perceives the role of critics and discourse as critical to NYTimes’ idea of what constitutes successful literary promotion. “The Sunday book review, which assumed in contemporary dogma a quite astonishing and unmerited importance, was itself only a negligible hangover and underdone survival of a far more masterful and affirmative market in letters.” Critics are very necessary to the promotion of a literary product, whether success is defined in the marketplace or as the ability to perpetuate an idea of prose or theory throughout generations.

4. Controversies and Debates Surrounding NYT Book Reviews

Equality and anonymity of the reviewer have also been hot topics. It is unclear exactly how books are chosen for review, and what occurs during the selection process. Stephey accuses the NYT of having a hidden policy where they do not review any book by an author who has released a title less than one year from the current date. Concern with reviewer familiarity also comes into play, as it is thought a reviewer who is particularly a fan of an author or work’s genre might give unfair high praise, and alternatively an expert of a particular genre may give unfair negative criticism. A study was conducted on this topic using reviews of science books to a general audience and science books to a more specific audience in the NYTBR. It concluded that the level of criticism of the science books to the more specific audience was significantly lower than science books to the general audience, showing the reviewer was more lenient when the book’s content was easier for himself to understand. This undermines the equality of reviews of books of all intellectual levels, and also brings into question the expertise of the NYTBR reviewers. NY Times book reviews are known for their savagery, but some authors, such as Ayelet Waldeman in her essay “I am a bad mother,” feel the criticism can get too personal. Waldeman vowed to never again read a NY Times review of her work after a particular reviewer based an entire negative review on a moment of rhetorical questioning by the author in a previous work, that the reviewer had misinterpreted as a literal statement.

An individual cannot please everyone, so goes the proverb. Same is true for New York Times book reviews. There have been numerous controversies and debates surrounding the objectivity and fairness of book reviews produced by The New York Times. NYTBR is often criticized for being too elitist, and for presenting only one narrow view of what constitutes literature to its audience. Although it reviews all types of fiction and non-fiction books, there is a bias towards certain genres (such as biographies, history, social commentary, and literary fiction) which leads a feeling among authors of other genres (such as those who write genre fiction, self-help, or popular fiction) that the paper looks down upon their work, and does not consider them worthy of review. This has created a continuous debate in the writing community, and especially among affected authors and book publicists, as to the importance of a NYT book review to all works.

5. Conclusion

These findings have important implications for the publishing industry. It is clear that the effects of book reviews are subtler than publishers typically claim. A publisher may raise the profile of a book in anticipation of good review coverage, causing consumers to infer quality from the amount of attention the book is receiving. The reality of the situation is that consumers do this very infrequently, and any increased profile from good review coverage will probably manifest itself in future sales. The finding that review effects are long-term will be most welcome to backlist publishers and to those publishing books which have a long shelf-life.

In this dissertation, I have shown that book review coverage in The New York Times does not influence sales early in a book’s life cycle. Instead, reviews act as a form of quality signal, enhancing consumers’ confidence in their own ability to predict whether they will like a book. However, these effects do not materialize into actual sales for several months. As a result, reviews can exert a longer-term influence on sales patterns and act to stabilize sales as positive word of mouth and an increased level of information about a book’s content serve to bring about earlier purchases in the absence of any significant increase in the probability of liking a book. Although very few books are actually reviewed in The New York Times, the review coverage received is very important to certain types of books. In general, the magnitude of the review coefficient is higher for fiction and non-fiction books than for books in the specialized categories, and it is at its highest for hardcover books, which suggests that the NYTBR is especially important for new books released by large publishing houses.

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