Reviews are vitally important for writers because reviews give some desperately needed attention to a book and to an author that otherwise is hard to come by. Reviews are especially important for indie writers who are in danger of getting lost in the ocean of books published every year. What it gets down to is this: who is going to read a writer’s book if they’ve never heard of it?
Researchers have learned that readers typically choose a book by these three factors: 1) the reader previously read a book by the same author and liked it; 2) a friend recommended a book to the reader; and 3) the reader liked the cover of the book. Reviews don’t really sell books. They are primarily useful to let readers know that the book exists and is available to be read.
Nicholas Erik, a writer of science fiction and a book marketing specialist tells us that the value of book reviews are primarily to provide what he calls “social proof.” That is, if the reader looks at a book on Amazon or Goodreads or one of the other sites, the reader is probably going to be less impressed by a book that has no reviews or only two or three. If the book has twenty reviews with four or five stars, the reader is more likely to take a chance on it. Second, those books with reviews qualify for “promo sites” which promote a book. A listing on a promo site, chief among them Bookbub, is much more likely to lead to sales. But many promo sites require that social proof first.
The third way that a review is helpful to an author is by providing feedback that the author can use to improve his/her writing. This is the greatest help of all. But this assumes the reviewer knows what s/he is doing, even when the review is very brief. Let’s look at this more closely.
What Makes a Good Review?
I took a two-semester course in arts criticism when I was an undergrad student. The professor was a filmmaker so we talked a lot about films, but books and art were subjects, too. My professor gave us three guidelines on how to write arts criticism.
1. What is the author or artist’s message or theme? 2) How well does the artist convey the message? 3) Is the message worth conveying?
Taking each one in turn, first, what is the author’s message or theme? A fiction book is usually categorized in a particular genre such as mystery, action-thriller, romance, sci-fi, paranormal or the more ambiguous term of “literary.” It’s up to the reader to determine what the message or theme of the book is. Perhaps we’re looking at a cozy mystery in which the author describes a clever and resourceful amateur woman sleuth who solves crimes in her small town (think Miss Marple) or a young man who discovers that he is a brave and determined warrior destined to save a revolutionary movement against an evil galactic empire. (Luke Skywalker).
Readers figure out what’s going on and then judge the book by how well this message or theme is carried out by the writer. The mistake many reviewers make is approaching the work with a preconceived notion of what should or should not be in the book, and then judging it harshly by these preconceived notions rather than judging it for what it is and on its own merit.
For example, if the reader loves cozy mysteries with a cat in them, a mystery book with a dog in it could be subjected to a negative review, not on the merits of the book, but on the fact that there’s no cat in the book! My advice is to find a book that includes a cat rather than trashing an otherwise good book because it has a dog in it.
I would never criticize a sci-fi thriller because there is no romance in it. I wouldn't criticize a romance for failing to have space opera battles. I don't criticize a mystery because I have the preconceived notion that all mysteries MUST be Raymond Chandler-style noir detective stories, If they are not noir, then they are no good. I look at mystery fiction in all its subgenres and start where the book starts. In other words, I look at the writer's message or theme, not my preconceived notion of what it's supposed to be. I wrote a blog, “Mystery Genres and the Elements of Fiction,” that addresses this issue. (https://www.cjshane.com/blog/mystery-genres-and-the-elements-of-fiction)
Here’s another example of this kind of faulty review. One of my reviewers said at the outset that the reviewer doesn’t like books written in the third person. My book is in the third person. This reviewer also complained about one place in the book where there was point-of-view switch (intentional on my part). The reviewer did not mention plot, characterization, setting, themes, etc. Only voice and point of view were mentioned. I did not find this review helpful because the reviewer’s criticisms were entirely subjective.
Second, how well does the author convey the message? This is actually the easiest one, in my opinion. If you are reading a suspense-thriller and find yourself falling asleep, then the writer probably didn’t do a very good job of creating suspense. If you are reading a romance and you find yourself disliking the characters and hoping they can escape each other, then that’s not very romantic, is it? What it gets down to is this. Are you enjoying reading this book? Why? or why not?
Third, is the message worth conveying? This is the trickiest guideline because the reader gets to decide what is worth conveying and that can be very subjective. It’s really easy to project your own notion of “unworthy” onto a work that could very well be considered “worthy” by other readers.
Recently I encountered a reader who disliked some passages of a steamy romance, then declared, “We shouldn’t have to be subjected that kind of stuff.” My answer to this is: YOU don’t have to subject yourself that kind of stuff. If you don’t like steamy, don’t read it! Keep in mind, though, that other readers love steamy.
The only time I refused to review a book, a crime thriller, on the basis of an unworthy message was because it had lengthy (20 pages or more) descriptions of the violent torture of women. The detailed descriptions went into how a serial killer abducted women, caged them in a barn, took them out individually, raped and dismembered each one while still alive and while the others were forced to watch. I sent a WTF? message to the writer. His answer was, “There are people doing that kind of thing.” Yes, I know! But do we want a “how-to” manual on it in a work of fiction? No. That kind of detailed description of a crime is often called “torture porn.” I don’t consider it a worthy way of treating that type of crime in fiction.
My first Letty Valdez Mystery, Desert Jade, took up the issue of sex trafficking and smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border. There were no explicit descriptions of these crimes which do exist in the real world, but which need no detailed, how-to instructions on the suffering involved.
A good review can be very helpful. I am grateful to those reviewers who complained about my failure to follow up and keep the reader informed about what happened to Esperanza in Desert Jade. She was introduced early in the book, people fell in love with her, and they were concerned about her welfare. They rightfully criticized me because I didn’t tell readers what happened to her until near the end of the book. Now, that’s good criticism. I won’t make that mistake again!
My message to, dear Reader, is this: Please give your author and his/her book the favor of your review. Just a couple of sentences will do. Post it on your favorite vendor’s site (Amazon, B&N, iBooks, etc.) or on your favorite reader-oriented website like Goodreads and Bookbub. You can help another reader discover what you discovered and enjoy a new book. You can help a writer to keep his/her fictional world alive and afloat in the ocean of books.