Monday, August 20, 2012

Reviewing Reviewing: What do authors want?

Reviews matter to authors, not just because they hope a good one will generate sales but because a good review helps ease the chronic writer’s fear they aren’t communicating the visions in their mind to the minds of their readers. There is no cure for this malady, not even years on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Reviews are also important for publishers, who need to know what people want to read so they can better choose what they’ll offer.

I’ve been all three: writer, publisher and reviewer. For more than two years, I edited an online review site called The Blue Iris Journal, one of the first sites to treat small press, self-published and traditionally published books with the same degree of acceptance. So, it was important to me that we not only advise readers which books we found worth reading but tell them why. We were very specific about what we expected from a review.

Although there are a wide range of review offerings available online now, they still fall into two categories: reader reviews and reviewer reviews. The difference? A reader review almost invariably consists of a synopsis of the story (hopefully but not always without spoilers) followed by a sentence or three in which the reviewer says they liked or disliked the book. A reviewer review might do the same thing, but in addition he or she will go into specifics as to why they liked or disliked the book.

As a writer, I much prefer the second kind of review, and on polling authors at Zumaya Publications the consensus was the same.

There’s been a great deal of noise about authors behaving badly when they receive a negative review. No sensible writer believes their work is going to appeal to everyone, and most will take that into consideration. However, a “review” that just says the book sucks and the writing is terrible or the characters are stereotypes isn’t helpful to either other readers or the author.

“To me, a good review is one that helps the writer grow,” Rie Sheridan Rose said.

In other words, while a reviewer is unquestionably entitled to his or her opinion of a book, we feel they should back that opinion up with specifics.

The same applies to positive reviews. Loved the characters? Why? Couldn’t put the book down? Why?

“What really makes a review for me is the inclusion of details about a character he/she liked, or a plot point that really hit home, letting me know where I really connected with the reader,” author Alana Lorens said, and bestselling author Dorien Grey added “A review should reflect the reviewer's honest opinion and specific likes or dislikes about the book and the reasons for them: what he/she found to be the book's strengths or weaknesses and why he/she thought so. Was the plot smooth-flowing and coherent? Were the characters believable? No one can ask or expect more.”

The simple fact is that it’s rarely necessary to provide a plot synopsis of a book being reviewed. Plot points and character identification can be just as easily done while providing the meat of the review—what the reviewer thought about it. Worse, it can be all too easy to end up with one or more spoilers doing that, and that can be deadly. Most stories can be described in one sentence sufficiently to let a review reader decide if it sounds like something they want to know more about.

And there’s another down side to starting your reviews with paragraphs describing the plot. If the book is reviewed widely, yours is going to sound like too many of the others. It’s so much better to have an original voice.
Do writers have pet peeves when it comes to reviews? Of course. They’re human. When a negative review contains incorrect character names or describes story elements that aren’t in the book, how could the author of that book not feel frustrated. Here’s someone saying “This is a terrible book” when it sounds as if they’re talking about a different one entirely.

Another irritation: those who feel the need to comment that they found typos or grammatical errors or wrong punctuation or some other mechanical problem in a book from a small press but never address such issues when reviewing a book from a major press. Given we all know those are just as likely to have those problems, it’s small wonder that’s become a sore spot with authors. Perhaps the rule regarding those matters should be that if they didn’t significantly interfere with the reviewer’s reading of the book, suggestions for their correction might better be sent to the publisher privately.

Finally, most authors, myself included, would ask reviewers to refrain from giving a negative review if our particular kind of book isn’t in a genre or style they like. By this, I mean that if the reviewer really hates dystopian fiction it benefits neither of us if he or she suffers through my dystopian fantasy then slams it six ways from Sunday. That said, an objective review in this kind of situation is fine. What makes authors cringe is when the resulting review is  little more than a totally subjective “I hate this kind of book so this one is awful.”

As a sort of online review pioneer, I’m thrilled that so many people are taking time and making the effort to share their thoughts about books, ours and everyone else’s, with other readers. It’s like we’re becoming one giant book club, and that means gems that previously might have moldered in the back corners now have a chance to be discovered. That kind of network, though, requires accepting responsibility for being thorough and honest, and remembering that one reader’s vinegar might be another one’s champagne.


  1. Very true. Thanks for the awesome article!

  2. Excellent. A thoughtful, germane, useful article. Of course, I agree. No spoilers here, if readers could avoid venting and write reviews that addressed, even cursorily, your main points, the literary world would be ecstatic.