To All Book Reviewers – A Thank You

Thank you

Writing book reviews is tough. It doesn’t matter whether it is a couple of lines and a rating, or a well thought out essay, it takes effort for a reviewer to translate all the emotions and experiences they’ve just felt and translate it into something concise, considered and heartfelt. Many authors complain about how difficult it is to write a plot synopsis or promotional blurb, but it can be just as difficult for reviewers to condense everything they’ve experienced, complete with explanation and reasoning, into a few paragraphs. And then there is the worry about the reaction. Every author understands the anxiety of letting their work go, wondering if people will love or hate what they’ve written, but it is exactly the same for a reviewer, especially if they didn’t enjoy the work they are reviewing.

Some, lucky few, get paid to review books, but most book reviewers do it for free. And this is important for authors to remember. The vast majority of reviews are written out of a love of books.

For indie authors especially, reviews are our lifeblood. Without reviews, nobody would know we exist. Without reviews, few would take a chance on an unknown author regardless of how tempting the blurb or cover. Yet we often view reviews as an item to attain, rather than the end product of an experience. We understand the value of having multiple reviews next to our books and sometimes struggle – in our desire to obtain more – to remember that what we are really asking is for our readers to share their personal, intimate feelings to the world, readers who often have no idea where to start when it comes to writing a review.

And then there are the small number of authors who make reviewing a chore, or even worse a trial. Those authors who pester reviewers, believing reviews should be theirs by right because they have published a book. The authors who see a critique of their work as an attack on them as a person. Negative reviews can be painful but they come with the territory because nobody has written a universally popular book. Those authors who go to extreme lengths to defend their book after a bad review, their actions preventing many from posting negative reviews for fear of retribution, destroying the credibility of the review system on which the majority of us rely.

Some counter this by complaining about trolling, negative reviews written out of spite, complaining they unfairly skew a book’s rating. But these, while incredibly hurtful, aren’t common, and are balanced by the overly favourable reviews by friends in their desire to help an author out – and I’ve yet to hear an author complain about those.

The vast majority of book reviews reflect a reviewer’s honest reaction having read a book. It is the truth. A truth that is just as valid as the truth the author intended when they wrote their book. In fact it is possibly more true, because as authors we know that as much as we try, we can never truly convey the full experience we see in our heads through mere words. What the reviewer experiences, as every reader, is how well we’ve managed to do that, all through the own personal lens of what makes a good book. We don’t have to agree with the reviewer but we should always respect their opinion.

So, to anyone who reads this who has ever written a review, I thank you.

To every person who has written a glowing review, I thank you.

To anyone who took the time to write a review about a book that neither moved or disappointed them, I thank you.

To everyone who has written a review that contains criticism, whether you were pointing out small issues in a book you enjoyed, or major failings, I thank you.

To every person who has written a review to explain exactly why you detested a book, I thank you.

To everybody who overcame their discomfort and wrote a couple of lines on Amazon or Goodreads after reading a book, I thank you.

To the people who write reviews each time they finish a book, I thank you.

To the person who just wrote their first ever review, I thank you.

To authors who take the time to read and review the work of their peers, especially those who write both positive and negative reviews, overcoming their own fears of revenge reviews, I thank you.

To those who run magazines, e-zines and anyone else who gets paid to review books and promote the art you love, I thank you.

And finally, to book bloggers, who invest so much of their time to write about the thing they love, often despite experiencing the less attractive side of our industry through authors demanding a review or reacting furiously to a negative review, I thank you.

 

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The problem with reviews

5-star-reputation

I was having a Twitter chat yesterday with a good blogging friend about the recent controversy surrounding the author Kathleen Hale. Before you switch off, this post isn’t about the controversy itself (although if you want to know more, you can find a link to the original article here and an excellent response here) but a comment made during the discussion. We were talking about reviews in general and my friend said:

“As a reader and an observer of the self-publishing phenomenon: I don’t trust ratings of self-published authors.”

Unsurprisingly, the comment annoyed me, but as she explained her reasons it made me realise there is a problem with the review system, at least for new or first time authors (especially if they are self-published) of which we should all be aware.

Red Herrings

The issue is around the trustworthiness of reviews but not in the way you may think. I’ve read a lot of articles on self-publishing and many talk about authors trying to “game” the system; generating unwarranted reviews wither through the use of reciprocal reviews, paying for good reviews or even creating multiple accounts to award bogus reviews. I don’t doubt this happens (although I don’t believe this behaviour is restricted to self-published authors). However, the vast majority of authors I’ve befriended since I published my novels have been honest professionals working hard to build their careers as writers. I was approached once, many months ago, to do a reciprocal review (which I declined). To date this has been the only time it’s happened.

This doesn’t mean authors don’t, or shouldn’t promote other author’s work. I certainly do (via my Recommended Reads). I know some of these authors have read and liked my work in return. A cynic may view this as a reciprocal agreement, either by intention or through social convention, but I stand by every recommendation I’ve made. It’s not unusual to find a group of friends having a similar outlook, shared values and shared interests, especially if they me through a social media platform. I’ve once had a person – who had given  my book a great rating – upset with me because I didn’t like their book, but that could have been more to do with the clumsy way I approached the situation than with me not giving a review.

I don’t believe the majority of self-published authors, or even a significant minority, are trying to “game” the review system. I do, however, believe the majority of us are doing things, quite innocently, that are skewing the review system to the point where readers don’t trust it any more.

Proportionality

The issue has nothing to do with false reviews but whether the number of high-rated reviews truly reflect a book’s quality in the eyes of a regular reader. Let’s me use my book, Second Chance, as an example.

On Amazon UK, Second Chance has 30 reviews with a 4.8-star average. This is something of which I’m very proud. As with most first-time authors, the early reviews came from people I know personally.  Because of this, you might infer this personal relationship led to my book receiving higher ratings than it would otherwise have received. Knowing my friends, I would say this is highly unlikely. However, there is one level distortion I’m sure has happened. More of my friends bought my book than reviewed it. The reasons for this may vary (not read the book, not had time, forgotten) but for some it’s because they read it, didn’t like it but are too polite to say.

This isn’t just true of your friends. People in general dislike giving one-star reviews. I do. I know how much work goes into writing a book so if I don’t like it, I won’t leave a review (this is also why I call my reviews ‘Recommendations’ as opposed to reviews). It’s also becoming common for book bloggers to behave the same way, whether for the same reasons I don’t leave one-star reviews, or more worryingly because of fear of retribution. In my opinion this would be a bad thing, because if the review system loses some form of proportionality, us indie writers lose our greatest path to visibility.

The problem is this causes the review system to be skewed towards good ratings, especially so for newly released books and particularly so for newly released books by self-published authors. For many of us this is a nice little springboard to gain neutral readers and true reviews. What this also leads to is very poor books being rated highly, causing readers (like my blogging friend) to feel conned.

What’s the solution?

The simple answer is I don’t have one, at least not something that will fix the system, completely. I know Amazon are doing a great job in stamping down hard on those trying to “game” the system. At the same time, there are things we can do to help mitigate this effect. When you ask people to leave a review, always ask for an honest review. It doesn’t mean your friends are likely to pan your book, but it shows you are serious about understanding how good it is, or not. Send your book to bloggers for review. Don’t just send it to those you know, send it to complete strangers. For myself, it was only once I’d received my first independent review from somebody with whom I’d had no previous contact (thanks, Dave, I will always be in your debt), that I truly believed people might like my book as opposed to them just being kind. Also, be nice to book reviewers, even if they don’t like your book. Not liking something is just as natural response as liking something. It is not personal.

So what do you think? Do you trust the review system? Do you choose books based on reviews and if so, what is the deciding factor? I’d love to hear from you.