Social media influence growing but reviews remain 'holy grail', say agents and publishers

Social media influence growing but reviews remain 'holy grail', say agents and publishers

Book reviews in broadsheets remain the “holy grail” in driving sales for some books, but social media's importance in grabbing the spotlight is growing as the number of pages in newspapers shrinks, say agents and publishers.

With the reduction of review pages in a number of national newspapers owing to the pandemic, it is becoming more difficult to build momentum for certain kinds of books through the traditional channels, some say. Meanwhile, some readers are turning more to platforms such as TikTok and Instagram instead of review sections.

Jonny Geller (pictured right), c.e.o at Curtis Brown, said the lack of review space was proving a challenge, adding: “When you could assemble several glowing notices over one or two weekends from six or seven credible sources, you could build momentum. Now, there seems to be two or three with any clout and really only for use on the back page of the paperback."

Geller said that, for serious non-fiction and literary fiction, newspaper reviews are still “essential” and television and radio still propel books up the Amazon charts, but “for most books now it is about social media messaging and search engine optimisation”. 

Jess Barratt, deputy head of publicity at Simon & Schuster, said she doesn’t believe the influence of print reviews has reduced, even if in some cases the physical review space has. She said: “They have however become harder to secure, partly for reasons of space but also heightened competition, even in house, as publication dates have moved and bottle-necked at certain points of the year. Print reviews will always be perceived as the holy grail, especially for non-fiction and literary fiction, and are always a key focus – but we are having to pitch for review coverage much more widely, as they are less of a given.”

She added: “There will always be readers, book buyers and booksellers who look to and trust literary editors to guide them, and seasonally there will always be people looking for holiday reads and Christmas gifts. For a debut author to see their book reviewed in print for the first time, that never stops being a huge achievement. We hope the crime and historical fiction round-ups continue to have a place, as it’s less likely these authors will find space in the features or news pages, compared to non-fiction. Sometimes a cracking print review can lead to a broadcast opportunity, or encourage other media to take notice. And beyond any sales from the review coverage, it’s often more about securing those hardback reviews which can be maximised in marketing campaigns and ads, or on the paperback cover.”

She said the digital proportions of the publisher’s PR campaigns “have definitely grown” because there are fewer limitations on physical space and more potential for interesting video and audio elements as part of the interview or the review. She added: “It’s almost impossible to compare the importance or value compared to print – invariably these will be different audiences, so why not target both if you can."

Agent Madeleine Milburn agreed traditional newspaper reviews are “still extremely effective” for literary, upmarket and crime fiction. She told The Bookseller: “These outlets continue to have a very wide circulation through print newspapers and, more frequently now, digital newspaper apps. The reach of these outlets and the esteem afforded to them makes their review space extremely sought after and, in most cases, directly contributes to heightened sales and creates a ripple effect that assists with securing review spots in further print and digital media. For these reasons, securing one of these spots can have a huge impact on a book’s success, as so can the acclaim of having been reviewed by a prestigious outlet impact a book and an author in the long term.”

However, although women’s magazines are “still a brilliant way to highlight exciting commercial fiction to readers”, she said the influence of Bookstagram and BookTok is “really growing in this corner of the market". She said: “These platforms allow authors, readers, and reviewers to directly connect in a way that feels authentic, and people such as BookTubers are able to grow long-term relationships of trust with their audiences through online interaction and engagement, resulting in sales and authentic publicity for those books that they review and recommend. Bookstagram, BookTok, BookTube, and of course, Twitter, have been and continue to be brilliant and creative ways for people to connect over their favourite books, and as an agent it’s brilliant to continue to see new ways to convey this excitement as new platforms rise and develop.”

As Bookstagram and BookTok grow, what we regard as a "literary review" could also be changing, said Amy Baxter and Mireille Harper, review editors at literary magazine Bad Form.

Harper said the literary review “has had a lot of social capital and has been a really powerful tool for defining who goes on to become a writer, who goes on to become an established or esteemed author", and said she thinks people are now more trusting of online figures and moving away from only looking at criticism within literary reviews and newspapers.  

“There’s more of a younger audience swaying towards what is my favourite author on Twitter talking about, or what is this TikTokker talking about. The social capital is gaining a bit of momentum in that area and I think that’s where we are going to see things shifting somewhat,” she said. 

Baxter added that while she doesn’t know if book reviews on BookTok are considered to be a literary platform yet, it does raise an interesting question on what is: “Pinterest, Reddit, they are all out there waiting to be determined. I mean the Reddit books section is huge, they have huge, hundreds of thousands, millions of followers on those threads, doing really deep interesting criticism. So I think what a literary review is needs redefining.”