Book Reviews: Do You Live or Die By Them?

posted in: A Writer's Life, Reviews | 0

Don’t you just love, get exasperated, get thrilled, even occasionally feel depressed at book reviews of your beloved creation? You pause, wallow in the feeling, and then, you tell yourself it’s as much about the readers as it is about you. Or better yet, it’s more about the readers than it is about you. At which point, you ought to relax, enjoy the good reviews. Or, shrug off the bad ones: After all, our diversity is what makes us interesting, our overt conflicts what make for engrossing reading.

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But you can’t shrug off the bad ones, can you? Regardless of how you rationalize them. Because every author takes pride in her work. And every author has more than a touch of vanity in her. Why else do we feel compelled to publish? At least, partly because we believe our thoughts and fantasies, our triumphs, or our travails are interesting enough, important enough, entertaining enough, etc., etc. that some people out there will spend money to read our creations.

Many authors live by book reviews. And, yet, what do they all mean? To the author, maybe validation. Or money—in the marketplace, everyone-in-the-know tells you it means a lot. Amazon may use them to select its featured books. No one seems to know, though, the algorithms this seller uses.

In any case, the conventional wisdom is your beloved creation needs a certain minimum number of book reviews. Or else, you won’t get anywhere with it. Most book promo websites won’t touch review-less books. Some won’t feature a book unless its mean rating is 4/5 or better for a given number of reviews.

Writer or reader, here’s my dollar’s worth (inflation, you know) on the subject: Situate book reviews where they belong— back of your frontal cortex, away from the seat of emotions (the amygdala?), and out there where they may live or die at the sellers’ sites. But that’s easier said than done.

Failing that, console yourself with this: People are starting to look more critically at consumer reviews. I, for one, get suspicious of all great ratings (5/5) especially when they come in sequence within a short period, not long after the book is published. They tend to come from a cheering squad. So says this article: The Ugly Truth About Consumer Book Reviews: Part One.

Reviews are not helpful when neither reader nor writer gains insight about the basis or reason for the reviews. The article also tells you to be suspicious of the lowest ratings (1/5). Some reviews are posted to serve an agenda, such as undermining a competition.

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As a reader, the best approach for me is to read the blurb, the excerpt (Look Inside feature), listen to the informative reviews, and trust my judgment. I look for great writing and a compelling emotional journey.

As a writer, I’m sensitive to signs that the reviewer actually gets what I was trying to do with a story. How I write may turn off certain readers. I don’t always follow an established format (usually a linear one) for a given genre. This is true, for the series Between Two Worlds where I’ve alternated chapters between two POVs. Sometimes, as in Hello My Love, I switch time periods. This approach can bewilder some readers, which they show in their reviews.

Every once in a while, some reviewer will see something I hadn’t intended, but which opens my eyes to some other way of reading the book. Such a rare review can be quite precious. The reader has taken the story and infused it with her very personal meaning. Your story ceases to be yours and becomes the reader’s property. The mark of all art. How satisfying is that!

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