Between write and wrong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 1995, 12:00am

READERS may think book reviews mean good business for the book trade, but it seems that isn't quite the case in Hong Kong's English language market.

Mark Evans, marketing co-ordinator with Publishers Associates Ltd, who import titles by Faber and Faber, HarperCollins and Cambridge University Press, thinks readers are hugely influenced by reviews.

'When I worked in a bookshop here, we were inundated with customers on Saturday mornings who had read the newspaper that morning,' he recalls. 'When there are 20,000 titles on display, a review can help them focus on a title.' But Mohan Mirchandani, manager director of the Bookazine stores, believes the actual effect on sales is not great. 'I would say reviews only affect sales by about 15-20 per cent,' he says. 'People inquire about books that are reviewed, but not that many pick up what they see.' And therein lies the problem: all too often, book traders complain, reviewers write about titles that are not on sale in Hong Kong.

'The papers don't know when books are available,' Mirchandani says. 'They get advance copies from publishers. This can cause a lot of frustration for book sellers. If reviews are to affect sales, they have to come out when books are available, or the customers just walk.' What kind of books reviewers choose to focus on is also a sore point.

'Reviewers want to review books that show how well-read and intellectual they are,' Evans says. 'They have a tendency to want to enhance their reputation by reviewing high-brow work.

'But if you look at films, there is no shortage of reviews for Sylvester Stallone-type popular movies, but it is very hard to get works by a mainstream author like Stephen King reviewed.' Claire Cumming, sales and marketing manager with Penguin, Hong Kong, points out that high-brow titles don't usually sell well; and with space a major constraint, stores are naturally reluctant to stock them. 'These books are very high risk, especially hardbacks. Very literary things by authors like Barbara Trapido just don't sell at all here. Everybody would like to stock a wider range but the book-buying public here are very cautious.' Margaret Lo Wai-ki, marketing manager with Oxford University Press, notes that books written about 'reflect the personal interests of reviewers' rather than the popularity of the work. A delicate balance should be maintained, she feels, between reviewers' preferences and books that are actually available in the territory.

Still, Cumming has no illusions about the increase in sales that promotional activity can generate. 'It's just a small market here, even a popular author will only sell around 2,000 to 3,000 copies. It isn't a market that is going to expand either,' she says ruefully.

As an example, she cites the non-fiction tome, Deng Xiaoping And The Chinese Revolution, written by ex-ambassador to China, Sir Richard Evans. While Sir Richard was visiting Hong Kong last year, Cumming organised a whirl of publicity for the book, including a lunch at the Foreign Correspondents' Club and an appearance on TVB Pearl.

'But we still only sold 300 copies,' she says.

Eric Wong Chak-man, who is in charge of the South China Morning Post Family Bookshops, says they have to have a minimum order of 10 copies before bringing in a book from abroad.

However, he has a few suggestions for improving the situation.

'Taking away my SCMP staff badge, I would say if book editors can let us know in advance that they are planning a review, it would be a good gesture,' Wong says. 'But it should not be the other way around, with the book sellers telling the reviewers what they should be writing about. Business controlling editorial would be totally wrong.' At the same time, he says, books editors could help clarify the purpose of reviews for their readers by adding a disclaimer when they are not sure if a book is available in Hong Kong.