by Erin Mitchell
When I was a kid living in Seattle, my dad subscribed to the New York Times Review of Books. It arrived a week late in the mail, and I remember reading it when I was as young as six or seven. My biggest takeaway was big words. I learned a lot of 3+ syllable words that way. And I was always surprised that the books I enjoyed reading were never reviewed. (Today, more of the books I read are reviewed there, but I still don’t agree with their bias against Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie.)
I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes people buy books. I read studies. I combine and examine data. I ask people. Recently, I’ve been wondering about whether NY Times book reviews actually impact sales, and so I decided to gather up some new data.
VERY IMPORTANT CAVEAT: This is in no way, shape, or form a scientific study. I’m going to tell you a bit about 95 people who responded, but I want to be super clear that I’m not presenting this as quantitative, statistically significant data. It is qualitative. It is anecdotal. I still find it informative, but I don’t give it any more weight than it’s due.
This is the question I asked on Facebook and Twitter: Have you ever bought (or not bought) a specific book because of a New York Times review?
The people in the sample pool are, by definition, bookish because they’re either friends with me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter and I talk about books a lot in both places. Here’s the world cloud of my Facebook posts:
They’re geographically biased toward the US and toward cities:
My Twitter followers are similarly biased toward cities (although they’re more country-diverse):
The nature of social media is such that it encourages comment (beyond just yes-or-no), and some of the comments I saw repeatedly were:
- It matters who wrote the review. People trust some reviewers more than others.
- People in New York and those who subscribe to the Times are more inclined to base purchases on their reviews.
- All the Non-Americans who responded said yes.
- Sometimes reviews seem designed to incite controversy, rather than review the book in question.
And the results? Here you go:
I was surprised…I expected, given the biases in the sample group explained above, that it would end up a more dramatic yes vote. But given the tiny sample size and built-in bias of the sample group, this can be considered a statistical tie.
So what does it mean?
- The New York Times is and will remain—through our lifetimes, at least—a recognizable brand that carries with it a degree of authority both within and outside the United States.
- Bookish people (authors and those who work in and around books) do give NYT reviews weight, even when they don’t influence purchasing decisions.
- NYT is no longer the only place to get reviews (like it was when my dad subscribed back in the day), nor is it necessarily the most trusted for many people.
I didn’t count myself in the survey results, but I would have been a No. I buy books for lots of different reasons, but I’ve never bought—or not bought—a book (or anything else, for that matter) based on a review in the New York Times.
How about you?