Sunday, May 17, 2009

What Do Reviews Do?

When you have a new book out, you hold your breath. Will the reviews be good? Or awful? Will your book be reviewed at all? Do reviews make any difference? There have been studies done on the reasons why people buy a book. Reviews come way down on the list. Top reason is word of mouth. I think it's why so many authors have leapt into blogging and Facebooking and Twittering - trying to create their own word of mouth. The jury is still out on how well it works, but in the meantime, we try it anyway because the reviews were minimal, or they were in magazines with a low circulation, or we received one bad one and we're trying to bury it somehow.

With the growth of the internet, reviewing has become an unpaid hobby for many people. There are readers who have posted hundreds of reviews on Amazon, readers who have reviewing blogs, readers who submit reviews on spec to respected magazines, like Good Reading. How much notice do we take of any of them? And what is their agenda? With a review in a magazine or journal or newspaper, the assumption is that this person is reviewing because they are respected for their informed, professional opinion. None of us want to imagine this kind of reviewer throwing our book across the room, yet there are reviews published where this seems to be what happened.

On the other hand, there are one or two famous reviewers who are famous simply for their ability to be totally vitriolic about nearly every book. That just makes me wonder what they eat for breakfast. But at least their agenda is fairly obvious - they're being paid to do a job. Other kinds of reviews can be problematic. One example is the person who writes a critical review, simply in order to promote themselves as an "expert" who could have written that book better. If only they'd been asked. Another example is the person who is trying to make a name for themselves as an amateur reviewer and tries to be deliberately contentious.

Yet another problem arises when the reviewer seems to mis-read the book, and bases their comments on misconceptions. Often I wonder if the reviewer ran out of time and just skimmed the book. Sometimes reviewers have a personal agenda unknown to anyone else but the writer of the book and his/her close friends. I've had the "pleasure" of my book being reviewed by someone who disliked me personally, and wrote a dismissive review. It's so hard not to sling some harsh words back when that happens, but it's usually not worth the trouble. You just make things worse. Far better is to take the best phrase or sentence out of its context and use it in your publicity!

Mostly, I think reviewers try to do a good job. I know of some who refuse to review a book they don't like, which is a positive thing to do. If you receive a bad review, you just have to suck it up and move on. There are many strategies for overcoming any bad publicity that might come out of it - the afore-mentioned social networking, getting your friends on-board to help promote the good reviews, or simply getting out and about and talking to people about your book (school visits, if you write children's books, are a wonderful antidote - thirty excited Grade One kids who want you to sign their book, for example).

The one thing you can't do is brood about it. I know people who have stacks of good reviews, but can quote word-for-word their one bad review. What is the point? Do you really want to constantly remind yourself of it? Why? Instead, think of how many reviews you've read over the years, and ask yourself how many have influenced you NOT to buy a book. I can't think of one, and I do read lots.

Yes, a good review might tempt me to try a new author, but if I analysed my reasons for purchase, they usually come down to "read a book by that person before and liked it" or "my friend recommended it". Or, best of all, I was browsing in a bookshop and found it and read the first few pages and that made me buy it. So instead of reading your reviews, go back and read the first chapter of your current work-in-progress and ask yourself if it would influence your intended readership to buy it.

I do post short commentaries on this blog occasionally, but I don't consider them to be reviews. I always look at books here from the point of view of a writer - what worked, what didn't work (for me) and why. And I also talk about what I might have learned as a writer from this book, e.g. setting from James Lee Burke. If I influence anyone to buy a book, I'm usually not aware of it. It's interesting when readers agree or disagree with me. But it's still just one person's opinion.

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