The "long tail" of reviewing, or why it’s hard to judge reader desire by momentary stats

September 3, 2014 § 6 Comments

Read a post today by Justin Landon on his perception that multi-volume SF/F series are declining and social media/the internet are at least partially responsible.  I thought several of his arguments were weak, especially in relation to readers not caring as much for latter reviews in a multi-volume series.  Ever since I started posting reviews here consistently seven years ago, I’ve tagged my reviews with the chronological year of review, in order to be able to retrieve older reviews.  In addition, this blog has reviewed a lot of older books and short stories; these too I’ve tagged for easy retrieval.  So when I saw some of Justin’s claims, I thought I’d just go through the nearly 650 reviews I’ve written and see what the page view points were for this.

Now there is a word of caution here:  Google/Blogger did not begin tracking page views on the current set-up until sometime in 2010, if memory serves.  Therefore it is very likely that the 2007-2009 page view counts are underrepresented here.  With that caveat in mind, here is what I chose to do:  writing down the highest review page views for at least the top 5 in each year since 2007 and placing a star beside the ones reviewed within a few months of first release, I was able to detect a few trends.  Keep in mind, however, that sometimes I chose not to write down the next-lower tier that might have been grouped together into clumps of 5-20, as was the case with many of my 2010 reviews of older books and series.  With this being said, here’s the raw page view review data by year (* represents new book/translation):

2007:

Gene Wolfe, The Claw of the Conciliator  – 2725 page views
Wolfe, Urth of the New Sun – 2643 page views
Andrzej Sapkowski, * The Last Wish – 2588 page views
Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer – 2484 page views
Wolfe, The Sword of the Lictor – 2146 page views
Wolfe, The Citadel of the Autarch – 1992 page views
Wolfe, Peace – 1754 page views

So for Wolfe’s four-part series, the rankings go in release order, but the coda was the second highest.  These were posted within days of each other and were linked to on a few forums before Twitter/FB came into play.  The Sapkowski translation is the only then-new release to appear on this list and it too was augmented by someone linking to it on Sapkowski’s English Wiki page.

2008:

Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony – 1623 page views
Junot Díaz, * The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – 853 page views
R. Scott Bakker, * Neuropath – 816 page views
Andrzej Sapkowski, * Blood of Elves – 779 page views
Joe Abercrombie, * The Blade Itself – 635 page views
Sapkowski, La espalda del destino/The Sword of Destiny – 605 page views

This is a more interesting breakdown, since with the exception of the Sapkowski being linked to on forums, I don’t think any of these really got much of a “signal boost” at the time.  Pleasantly surprised by the Flaubert, however.

2009:

M. John Harrison, The Pastel City – 1205 page views
Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson, *The Gathering Storm – 916 page views
Harrison, A Storm of Wings – 649 page views
Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword – 603 page views
Dan Simmons, * Drood – 493 page views

Yes, here is fairly clear evidence that older reviews do attract a crowd, although I only reviewed the first two Viriconium novels before other things came up at the time.  I believe the WoT book did draw some Twitter activity, but I didn’t have an account then, so uncertain.

And now for 2010, where I reviewed a lot of older epic fantasy and SF series.  I only wrote down some of the data due to a lot of clumping in the case of several of them.  I wrote down 20 data points, not for the 20 most viewed (although most of these are), but to show a few outliers in terms of genres reviewed here and how traffic can be drawn for those as well.

2010:

Brandon Sanderson, * The Way of Kings – 3442 page views
Robert Stanek, Keeper Martin’s Tale – 2015 page views
George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords – 1595 page views
Dan Simmons, Hyperion – 1583 page views
Steven Erikson, House of Chains – 1557 page views
Karel Čapek, R.U.R. – 1542 page views
Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune – 1485 page views
Herbert, Heretics of Dune – 1429 page views
Erikson, Memories of Ice – 1339 page views
Bisco Hatori, Ouran High School Host Club – 1317 page views
Fábio Fernandes, * Os Dias da Peste (Brazilian Portuguese) – 1281 page views
José Saramago, * Caín – 1234 page views
Jordan/Sanderson, * Towers of Midnight – 1230 page views
Terry Goodkind, * The Law of Nines – 1202 page views
Jorge Luís Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings – 1162 page views
Mario Vargas Llosa, * El sueño del celto/The Celt’s Dream (Spanish) – 1083 page views
Borges, El Aleph/The Aleph – 1050 page views
Herman Melville, Moby Dick – 1040 page views
Yuiko Takamura, Caged Slave – 955 page views
Momus, Book of Jokes – 951 page views

It was interesting to see how much social media impacted this one.  I recall receiving nearly 2000 page views the day I posted the Sanderson review, as he and others linked to it on personal sites, Facebook, and Twitter.  The Stanek is due to a very popular thread at Westeros.  Yet look at the older fantasy series numbers.  As I reviewed volumes in certain series over a period of days, it seems there is some statistical variance in terms of views, but not enough to argue anything other than readers were as likely to read a review of a latter volume than an earlier one.  Also interesting to see that there were many who came to this blog looking for a yaoi review…

Now that I’ve shown this expanded view for 2010 alone (it’s the only one where I reviewed a lot of older and then-current fantasy series), back to the top few for the remaining four years.

2011:

William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily” – 2481 page views
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, * The Prisoner of Heaven (Spanish) – 2390 page views
George R.R. Martin, * A Dance with Dragons – 1405 page views
Rubén Darío, Azul…/Cantos de vida y esperanza (Spanish) – 1051 page views

On another site, Gogol’s Overcoat, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Zora Neale Hurston are consistently the top pages viewed each day over the 2.5 years of that site’s existence.  There is a hunger (at least among students eager to plagiarize another’s essays) for reviews of these earlier stories.  The Zafón was one of the earliest English-language reviews, coming out a year before the translation was released, so its popularity is likely due to there being almost no other English-language reviews when I posted mine.  The Darío I think is due to people searching for some of the poems I cited.

2012:

Dalia Lu, * The Dark God’s Bride – 2135 page views
Rudyard Kipling, Kim/Captains Corageous – 1110 page views
Andrzej Sapkowski, * La dama del lago/The Lady of the Lake (Spanish) – 984 page views
Victoria Hoyt, Save the Pearls – 899 page views
Steven Erikson, * Forge of Darkness – 869 page views
William Faulkner, “Hair”; “Nympholepsy” – 832 page views

What a mixed bag.  The Lu and Hoyt were reviews of horridly-written and, in the case of the latter, objectionable books that were linked to by a lot of people on social media and their blogs.  The Sapkowski I again attribute to it being one of the rare English-language reviews of the concluding volume (which likely won’t be published in English for another 2 years).  Erikson is beginning a new trilogy here; the Kipling and Faulkner are likely again due to book reports.

2013:

Terry Goodkind, * The Third Kingdom – 2327 page views
Jordan/Sanderson, * A Memory of Light – 1598 page views
Three anthologies, Three Anthologies and Three Approaches – 1125 page views
Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice – 724 page views

I didn’t write as many reviews in 2013 and after this point, the “long tail” has begun to merge into the initial burst of views.  The Goodkind and WoT books again were linked to on forums, with only Twitter retweets.  The three steampunk anthologies that I reviewed together got a lot of traffic from Portuguese and Brazilian Twitter and blog accounts.  The Leckie was discussed somewhat on Twitter, I think possibly because it was one of the few mixed/negative reviews.

Now for 2014 at a glance.  The numbers are lower, in part due to there not being as much time for SEO searches and the like to pick them up (when I crossposted most of these to Gogol’s Overcoat, in some cases, the hits there were larger than here, likely due to more people finding them through Google searches).

2014:

Terry Goodkind, * Severed Souls – 352 page views
Jeff VanderMeer, * Annihilation – 311 page views
David Soares, * Palmas Para O Esquilo (Portuguese graphic novel) – 241 page views
Ian Cameron Esslemont, * Assail – 215 page views
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto – 210 page views
Clara Sánchez, Últimas noticias del paraíso (Spanish) – 193 page views
Rose Fox and Daniel José Elder (eds.), * Long Hidden (anthology) – 182 page views
VanderMeer, * Authority – 172 page views
Gabriel García Márquez, Cien años de soledad/One Hundred Years of Solitude – 172 page views
Chang-rae Lee, * On Such a Full Sea – 165 page views
García Márquez, La hojarasca/The Leaf Storm – 146 page views
Lev Grossman, * The Magician’s Land – 146 page views
Andrzej Sapkowski, * Víbora/Viper (Spanish) – 102 page views

These are the 2014 reviews that have received more than 100 page views as of right now.  Most of the others are in the 40-99 page view range, likely hurt by the rapid number of reviews (106 to date, around 2 more tonight) pushing reviews off of RSS feeds (and my front page).  The Goodkind was linked to on Westeros, the Long Hidden anthology received many more retweets than usual for a review of mine, the VanderMeer books are fairly close together considering the first was posted on Westeros right after release and the other is buried in a link within that page.  The Gabo books are starting to draw more SEO hits, but this is moreso at Gogol’s Overcoat (where the totals are nearly double for OHYS) than here.  The Grossman is shaping up to be on par with his other two (which were in the mid-hundreds) and the Sapkowski numbers are growing as well as more people seek out English-language reviews of this book.  And yes, there are many people curious about #fullcommunism and Premio Alfaguara winners, it seems.

So what to make of this data?  From what I’ve observed, with several grains of salt, that when it comes to reviews, people may click initially for a “hot new release,” but for a lot of works, there is a “long tail” that develops long after the “buzz” has faded.  Based on the numbers for the epic fantasies I reviewed in groups in 2010, there is not enough statistical difference to argue that readers are not as interested in reviews of latter volumes.  But even more interesting is the seeming desire for reviews of “classic” works, whether they be realist or speculative fiction.  Faulkner in particular draws a lot of traffic for my reviews of his short stories and novels, both here and on Gogol’s Overcoat, and I suspect part of it (beyond students trying to lift elements of my writing for their reports) is that people really want a discussion of something that they just read, even if it had been published decades ago.

Therefore, based on these small data points (which can be skewed by certain factors, as I alluded to above), it is strange to argue that there is a dying interest in multi-volume works, at least not without publishers’ data (which they are loathe to reveal, for obvious reasons).  If I had to guess, I would say that there is a steady stream of “backlist” sales from a variety of authors not mentioned in Justin’s article and that these often account for a healthy percentage of overall sales.  Perhaps the “long tail” isn’t as flashy or as visible as the initial “buzz” comet, but it does contain quite a bit of material to analyze as well.

§ 6 Responses to The "long tail" of reviewing, or why it’s hard to judge reader desire by momentary stats

  • Paul Weimer says:

    I don't see these statistics on where I post, so I am curious how much of a long tail my own reviews have.

  • Larry Nolen says:

    Do you use Blogger's tools? I just happened to have mine tagged by years, like “2010 reviews.” I then filtered them through in the Posts part of the dashboard and wrote down the titles/page count numbers. Laborious, but that's the only way I could collate these numbers.

  • acrisalves says:

    My stats on wordpress are similar. If i simple check last three months stats, i'll get the top:
    – Girl with a pearl earring
    – The Crusades Through Arab Eyes
    – The Vulture (Kafka)
    – several books from Italo Calvino
    – Dracula
    – O Físico Prodigioso – Jorge de Sena (if you don't know this one, you should)
    – Flatland.

    New reviews get hits in the first days, and a few after that. Some older books keep being searched for.

  • Larry Nolen says:

    I understand it's much the same when it comes to music buying as for publishing: the older backlist is a slow but steady plow horse that sells more than the flashier yet not as dependable new releases.

    Penguin Random House will never go broke publishing MMPB “classics,” after all.

  • Larry Nolen says:

    P.S. Some updated 2014 review page view totals:

    Turns out I forgot to list Kameron Hurley's The Mirror Empire. I posted the review on 8/27 and it now has 150 total page views. 58 for the past week and 0 so far today.

    Jeff VanderMeer's Acceptance has 132 page views through two days.

    Both reviews were retweeted frequently their first 48 hours.

  • acrisalves says:

    And also (i forgot to had):
    – Gregory Maguire series
    – Peter V. Brett
    – Anders by Hohlbein

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