Miss me yesterday? It was a bank holiday here – but more importantly, it was the day the humidity broke. A perfect summer’s day meant that I took the holiday and enjoyed it. Hope you had a good day, too.
Recently I’ve been hearing a lot about book reviews, so thought we might talk about that today.
There have always been reviews, of course, and each book in the world has always gathered a collection of reviews that cover the full range of reactions. You can look at any book and discover that there were people who loved it and people who hated it. This makes sense and, in a way, it’s reassuring that we don’t all like the same things. If we were all in complete agreement about books, I’ve always thought there’d be one book published a month and we’d all read it in unison, like a massive book club. That’s a horrifying idea to me. I’d much rather there were thousands of choices.
Just as there have always been reviews, there have always been writers who were very sensitive about their reviews. This also makes sense – we spend a lot of time creating a book, then even more time taking it through the production process. By the time a book is published, an author has lived with it for at least two years and knows it inside and out. Quite frequently, the author also loves the book, so it can be crushing to realize that not everyone in the world feels the same way. A very common topic of discussion in writers’ groups is how to deal with bad reviews. (The good ones are never a problem!)
One of the things that has made reviews an even hotter topic in recent years is the ability to review books on online sites. There are two changes here. Once upon a time, only official reviewers with official review publications – like Publishers’ Weekly or the New York Times Book Review or Romantic Times – could post reviews of books. Now anyone can – that’s the first change. (The second change is the immediacy of reviewing – since such reviews are posted online, they appear instantly. Traditionally, reviews were printed in magazines or newspapers, so took more time to appear. ) This has meant a proliferation of reviews; it also has meant that a certain kind of review has grown in popularity. Reviews of this variety are more than just negative: they often include plot spoilers, inflammatory language, and can be personal attacks on the author. They can be venomous. The strange thing is that they tend to appear when a book is made free. Naturally, many authors who are troubled by bad reviews find these reviews particularly disturbing.
The thing is that we are all entitled to our opinion. Overall, I quite like this democratization of the review process: I like that anyone can post a review on Amazon or Goodreads. The world is full of avid readers, many of whom are more informed about the expectations in a particular sub-genre than the official reviewers who are assigned to review books for some publications might be. (I used to have a joke that a great review in one particular publication was a bad omen, because their reviewers often didn’t understand the expectations of the romance genre. In those days, the books that sold best for me were the ones with the crummiest reviews in that publication.)
If nothing else, we are all aware of what works for us as a reader. The really great thing about this proliferation of reviews is that they are not anonymous reviews: if I discover that a reviewer and I have similar tastes, I can follow that person’s reviews to find recommendations for new books. One of the things that is annoying about certain review publications is that their reviews are posted anonymously, just attributed to the publication. You can see that the reviews in any given niche would appear to be erratic if there are two or more reviewers in that niche (because we all have different taste) which makes the reviews less useful to readers.
One of the things I tell writers who get upset about reviews is that I’m not sure they matter in terms of sales. It has always been believed that a great review would propel the sales of a book, and that an endorsement from a famous author would drive sales. In my experience, though, it doesn’t seem to have happened – or if it has, the relationship between quote and sales is not perfectly linear. A good quote helps, but it doesn’t make bestsellerdom inevitable. Similarly, having only great reviews prompts suspicion among readers, so a book with all 5-star reviews might not sell well at all. Even a bad review can help a reader made an informed choice: if a reviewer complains about a certain plot element he or she dislikes and the prospective reader likes that element, knowing its there can make the sale. Overall, the popularity of my books doesn’t seem to have much to do with their overall reviews and ratings.
Despite that, I do think reviews matter. They can provide insight to the author as to whether a book met readers’ expectations for that genre, and whether the cover effectively communicated the kind of book it is. They can reveal weaknesses in the book, perhaps areas the author has more to learn. They can also be incredibly rewarding when a reviewer “gets” the book, just as the author intended. Reviews do matter and can influence sales, but I don’t spend hours poring over them, much less become devastated when someone doesn’t like my book. There are lots of books I don’t like – the difference is that I’d rather dive back into my TBR in hopes of finding one I like better than spend time composing a bad review. We’re all different, and that’s a good thing.
Do you read reviews of books? Do you write reviews? Have you ever disputed a review? If you’re an author, how do you deal with bad reviews?