Reviews click in during the brief period after the stage when authors attempt to get their book to publishers (a process that can take years) and before the stage, say about six months after publication, when a book becomes a has-been, an also-ran (infinity), and almost no bookshop is going to give it shelf-space. A brief window, and because it’s so brief people get a little desperate.
The whole idea being, surely, that if X or Y – neutral people, not on the publisher’s payroll – goes on public record as saying this is a book worth readers’ attention, then more people are likely to buy the thing. Reviews are a form of free advertising. (Other things also: they are a continuous forum for discussion of books; but from the publisher’s perspective, the other things are secondary.)
Do they actually work, as a lever to increase sales? Sporadically. At the top end, a review by Nicholas Lezard in the Guardian of a CBe book will add another 100 sales, often more; at the lower end, a review of a CBe poetry book in, say, Poetry Review or Poetry London may not sell a single copy; ditto, though it’s nice, a TLS review. They are good for a filleted phrase for the cover of the author’s next book, or for her application for a grant, but sales, no. What reviews primarily do (and this may seem pathetic, but it’s not) is simply endorse a book’s existence: they pay attention, and if no one pays attention then the book doesn’t even, effectively, exist.
In the given, received hierarchy of review-land, what a publisher’s publicity department is ideally hoping to net is a lead review in a broadsheet national newspaper – despite declining sales of print newspapers, and despite reduced space for book reviews in those newspapers. (Who, seriously, reads them?) Worth mentioning also, because though it seems pretty obvious to me, even in the book world I don’t think it’s generally understood: newspapers are newspapers, and their decisions as to which books to give review space to are determined more by whether a book is news (e.g., a new book by someone whose name readers will recognise) than literary merit.
At the lower end of the received hierarchy are blog reviews. I don’t need, I hope, to say that the online reviewing and discussion of books are, at their top end (invidiously, I’ll mention John Self’s Asylum, which has been running for how many years?), more informed, more intelligent, more open, than almost any print reviewing. And why blog reviews are not quoted more often on the covers of books, and above the broadsheet quotes, is simply down to the conservatism of the whole industry.
(Digression: 50 years ago, the stereotypical mainstream publisher’s office comprised: erudite but inarticulate-in-meetings editors, mostly male; bright and pretty young folk, mostly female, in publicity/marketing; hard-drinking production people; sales and accounts people, mostly male, strayed in from other possible and more lucrative jobs; and the post-room guy, best in the building. I don’t think much has changed. Mainstream publishers are basically estate agents, selling other people’s property for as much as they can get.)
What does sell books is a happy combination of the various opportunities for notice: print and online reviews, shortlistings for prizes (which by themselves make almost no difference at all), word of mouth (including Twitter).