Can Book Awards Poison Reader Reviews?

Top accolades may actually produce more negative online ratings.
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Top accolades may actually produce more negative online ratings.
(Photo: Nick Sherman/Flickr)

(Photo: Nick Sherman/Flickr)

You're in a bookstore deciding which of two books to buy. Book number one has a shiny gold sticker that declares it a National Book Award winner—one of America's top literary awards. Book number two hasn't won anything at all. All other things being equal, you choose the award winner, right?

According to a new study published in Administrative Science Quarterly, you might not like it very much.

Two business researchers, Balázs Kovács and Amanda J. Sharkey, at the Universities of Lugano and Chicago, respectively, analyzed thousands of reader reviews on Goodreads of 64 English-language books that either won or were short-listed for top book awards—including the National Book Award, the Man Booker Prize, and the PEN/Faulkner Award—between 2007 and 2011. To their surprise, while sales of the books that won awards skyrocketed following recognition, the online ratings of these same books plummeted.

While a book's popularity matters little to those who already want to read it, "status matters a great deal ... in attracting and influencing those who would not have been interested in a product or individual on its merits alone."

These results fly in the face of conventional sociological wisdom, which generally assumes that heightened status leads to more favorable perceptions, the researchers say. If award panels decide something is great, shouldn't it be more likely we think it's great, too?

There are two reasons we don't, Kovács and Sharkey suggest. First, some people are simply more critical of popular things. A snob may have liked Sherman Alexie's War Dances had they picked it up just after it was published in 2009, but they could have been tempted to look more closely at its faults once it won the PEN/Faulkner fiction award the following year. Secondly, as a book is read by more and more readers, it is subjected to an increasingly diverse range of literary tastes. Though this sort of exposure may sound like an author's dream, it actually may hurt the book’s long-term reputation.

While a book's popularity matters little to those who already want to read it, "status matters a great deal ... in attracting and influencing those who would not have been interested in a product or individual on its merits alone," write Kovács and Sharkey. "When audience members evaluating an object are attracted to it because of its status rather than its substantive features, mismatches between the focal object and the taste of the audience members are more likely to occur." Someone who reads a book only because it has a shiny award sticker on it, in other words, is a lot less likely to enjoy it—and a lot more likely to rate it negatively online—than someone who reads a book because of some inherent interest.

According to the study's data, a book not only gets more negative ratings after winning an award, but the number of ratings also begins to decline quicker than non-award winners' ratings after three and a half years. As the researchers suggest, authors face the double challenge of attracting not only a large audience but also an "appropriate audience" to secure their place in the literary pantheon.

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