SPECIAL FEATURE What effect do reviews have?


When Emma Rea's book My Name is River was reviewed in the national papers, she was over the moon. But what, she wonders, is the effect of reviews like this on children’s book sales?

Writers battle with twin demons: doubt and hope. Doubt is awful. On Monday mornings you’re a toad. Same for every other morning of the week. And afternoon. But hope is worse. For two minutes on a Thursday the madness falls upon you. You start believing things. Generations of children will roar at your jokes. Live their lives according to your wisdom. Keep your books for their grandchildren. You’ll be made a Dame.


It’s a rollercoaster. I dampened my pillow for a decade. Then I made a pact with everything I thought holy. Let five children – just five – read and enjoy my book. And I’ll never ask for anything ever again.


My unholy pact worked. My first book, Top Dog, was published to a deafening silence.


Friends were kind. Some children were genuinely enthusiastic. Some even built copycat bike tracks. But it didn’t get a single review in a single publication. It was a slim book and my publishers, Gomer Press, had a small budget. I sent it to a contact at The Telegraph. Nada. I tried a well-known children’s book reviewer. Nope. But I was blissfully happy. My feet didn’t touch the ground for a year. Honestly, it felt indecent, how happy I was. A real book to hold in my hands. I would never ask for anything again.


So when the award-winning independent publisher Firefly Press offered me a contract for My Name is River, I waited for the thrill to settle. Then I took myself aside. I gave myself a stern talking to. I was not to hope for reviews. Certainly not in national papers. Absolutely and utterly not. I was not to go there even when the Thursday madness descended. A fleet of London buses with my titles on? Blue plaques wherever I’ve lived? A national treasure? Dream on. I admit to these because I know you’ve had similar fantasies. But reviews in a national paper? Not allowed.


In any case, what effect do reviews in national papers have on sales in a world where children’s books sales are massive but column inches are sparse? Print media is dwindling, social media is huge, and for every column of children’s reviews there are six for adults.


Megan Farr, the publicity manager at Firefly Press did for My Name is River what she does for all their books: 
  • Sent out advance review copies to the national press and local media. 
  • Included something memorable, in my case, a world map showing Brazil and Wales. 
  • Sent press releases to a much wider list. 
  • Chased up top reviewers close to publication date. 
My key job,’ she says, ‘is developing relationships with reviewers. There’s a handful of golden review slots: Children’s Book of the Week (BotW), Sunday Times Children’s BotW, Telegraph Children’s BotW, Guardian round-ups, Daily Mail round-ups, Sun round-ups, New Statesman round-ups, Literary Review round-ups.’

When she emailed to say that my book was chosen by Nicolette Jones to be a Sunday Times Book of the Week and was in Amanda Craig’s summer round-up of best books for children in the New Statesman, the old familiar madness popped up to say hello. I told the dog my wonderful news and we sat in silence on the front step, looking out at the Welsh hills. Our ambitions knew no bounds.


So that was nice.


But what was the actual effect?


Megan Farr of Firefly reckons it’s huge.
We see a big uptake in sales after a review in a national paper. Readers all over the country act on the reviews they read.
My Name is River sold a thousand copies in the first month – as many as Top Dog sold in six years – so if you ask me, reviews are magic.


I went to chat to a lady working in an independent bookshop in north London. She told me,
Reviews in the national press still matter. The first lockdown was the death knell to a wonderful book whose review came out a week before the book was published, by which time the bookshops had closed. And who remembers a review they read two months ago?


But not everyone sees it this way. Emma Corfield Walters at Book-ish in Crickhowell, winner of the Independent Bookshop of the Year Award 2020, says press reviews have no impact on her.
It’s all about the conversation going on in the industry, and reviews play no part in that because they tend to be just the books with the big publicity money behind them.
In choosing books, she uses the trade press such as The Bookseller and Publishing News, and relies on her staff who listen to reps from publishers and read proof copies. They check social media and look at what other independent bookshops are stocking.
We get grandparents coming in asking for recommendations and they trust our choices more than reviewers.Each independent bookshop is as individual as the person standing behind the till. There’s no industry standard.


What about the big boys on the high street? Are Waterstones swayed by reviews? Their employees aren’t allowed to talk to the press, but fortunately I have a mole, a branch manager. 'Book reviews in national papers are irrelevant to us because our hands are tied. The children’s buyer at Waterstones, Florentyna Martin, chooses all the books, chiefly from mainstream publishers. Regional Commercial Managers (RCMs) decide what a whole region will stock,’ she says. ‘A store manager can ask the RCM if they can add a local author, or something they’ve come across independently but it’s a slim margin’. The children’s market is hugely important, she says.
Children are our future customers and we need to be able to recommend books to them, so all large Waterstones have a children’s expert who enjoys the same level as an assistant manager. But they’ll be reading children’s literature and making their own minds up. They don’t need reviews.


So the jury is divided in the children’s book industry.


Who knows? Maybe reviews on Amazon are just as important? I encourage friends to buy at independent bookshops, or Waterstones, or at the new online shop Bookshop.org, but I’m still longing for my reviews on Amazon to go over 50. I’d love to start talking about algorithms.


But I’ll tell you one thing for free. A review in a national paper raises an author’s expectations. That awful Thursday madness comes upon you again and your hopes shoot fruitlessly into the ether. Hold onto your breeches or you’ll start thinking your book is going to rocket to the top of the bestseller list, be automatically shortlisted for every prize and piled high on tables in Waterstones. These things won’t necessarily happen, but reviews are still wonderful. They give a book a great initial boost, and it’s something you can quote forever. And many children – more than five – hundreds and hundreds, in fact – will be reading your story and loving it.



Emma Rea has been writing for sixteen years, with two unpublished adult novels and two children’s novels as works in progress. Her body is often in London but her heart’s always in Wales.


Find her on Twitter and at her website.

1 comment:

  1. I love this - all about managing expectation, wherever you are on the journey.


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