REVIEWS, REVIEWERS, AND THE INDEPENDENT AUTHOR
Recent media posts re book reviews have got me thinking. So here’s my (unpolished) rant on the subject. Let me know what you think and remember this is only IMO.
Authors need reviews. Many book promotion platforms, including the mighty Bookbub, require at least five 4-star reviews before they'll even consider promoting or advertising your book – and you’ll be paying through the nose for the privilege! (Many other services employ an even stricter criteria).
You can elicit reviews from paid review services, but these are often expensive and inundated with requests; you maybe waiting some considerable time to get your precious review.
Some bloggers and book sites may review your book for free, but again, you could be in for a long wait.
By far your best bet – as I’m sure many of you know – is to recruit your family, friends, acquaintances, and work colleagues to post reviews of your books on platforms like amazon and goodreads. Ask them respectfully: tell them how much it could mean – potentially – to your career as a writer and remember to send them a copy of the book! (Cajoling and bullying often ends in failure and recriminations, so avoid that particular temptation).
So, if you are lucky enough to have a fully supportive network of family and friends to help you in your writing career, you are truly blessed. Never take this for granted. Yes, it’s sort of cheating and it’s certainly against amazon’s official policy, but if you have a sister living in Toronto and a friend in Tokyo – or whatever – amazon will never know. It’s not as if amazon employ an army of private investigators to dig out your ‘illicit’ family connections.
Point is, these initial reviews will get you started. Your amazon detail page won’t be looking so bereft and you will have established the platform to increase the volume of your reviews by more legitimate means. Being the first to review a book can be off-putting for some readers, so seeing other reviews already posted can be a motivating factor.
I know this advice does not apply to all independent authors. Some indies, though not published by any of the major publishers, do have important connections and contacts within the media and publishing industries. These writer’s works will often pop up as book reviews in National newspapers and magazines and be showcased on radio and on social media. NZ is a small country, and yes it’s incestuous as hell, so if you have the contacts, make the most of it; wouldn't we all?
This brings us to: What is the role of the (fiction) book reviewer?
Most of us are familiar with the general guidelines: to provide a fair and impartial critique, taking into account such factors as plot structure, character development, quality of writing, etcetera. But what about personal taste, subjectivity, and in these days of political correctness; gender, cultural, and racial bias? All of these factors, if not taken under good regulation, can potentially influence the reviewers ultimate verdict.
We have all seen reviews which complain about racial stereotypes; the objectification of women, or the demonising of various cultural identities. Negative reviews based on these objections are on extremely dodgy ground for so many reasons: issues around freedom of speech, creative censorship, and political bias for starters. (Books which readers find objectionable will ultimately be ignored and binned regardless of any public vilification).
But let’s start with something completely apolitical: the structure of the novel. Eleanor Catton’s, The Luminaries is a case in point. While many critics lauded the ingenious artifice of the book’s design, there were also those who found it ‘pretentious’ and ‘contrived.’ Point being, a reader’s viewpoint is unavoidably subjective and dependent on personal taste, and book reviewers are no exception.
And anyway, who decides whether a book is well-written or even a modern classic? Take a look at the total absence of punctuation in James Joyce’s Ulysses, considered by many to be one of the most important novels in the English language, or the narrative style of Marlon James’s Man Booker Prize winning, A Brief History of Seven Killings, a novel written largely in an obscure Jamaican dialect.
Style then, is also a matter of taste. While some readers may love the short, sharp, staccato style of a Hemingway, others may prefer writers who use up multiple paragraphs describing the intricate configuration of an autumn leaf.
Some reviewers, particularly those from middle-class academic backgrounds, (am I showing my class prejudice here?) not only believe – self-righteously – that they are singularly equipped to judge what passes for quality and what does not, they are also prepared to impose upon the reader their own prejudicial ideas on ethics and morality, as if their own views were universally accepted – which, I can tell you – they aint. Any examination of the divisive issues we are grappling with today: abortion, immigration, and freedom of speech, to name but a few, will tell you that the world is bitterly divided on these questions and no amount of sanctimonious diatribe is going to change that.
Published superstars v. the Independent Author.
The (esteemed) reviewer of the latest Harry Potter or Jack Reacher novel has a clear responsibility to the reading public. These books are not cheap to buy, and if the product isn’t up to scratch – in the reviewer’s opinion – then they have a duty to inform the reader. Well established authors like JK Rowling and Lee Child are public figures, and much like politicians, negative criticism comes with the territory. Their brands are so strong and inspire such a devoted following, they are practically bomb-proof. Critical reviews of their books may hurt an inflated ego, but are not going to seriously damage the brand.
Consider this against the world of the Independent Author. It’s a big enough struggle to get
reviews in the first place, without worrying that some imbecile will give your book a one star rating and in one fell (foul) stroke, decrease the average rating you have worked so hard to achieve.
I recently read a novel I thoroughly enjoyed which had garnered a handful of five-star reviews, only for the overall rating to be reduced because some cretin had posted a one-star rating and an enlightening comment along the lines of: ‘this book woz shit.’ Ok, so you didn't like it, was it really necessary to post your moronic opinion on a public platform?
Personally, I think there’s an argument for deleting abusive comments that don’t specifically address the content of the book or quality of the ‘product.’ Goodreads has a laissez-faire ‘anything goes’ review policy and amazon isn’t much better. Yes, we are all entitled to an opinion and yes I fully support freedom of speech, but crass abuse serves neither.
When I was offering my books to independent book review sites, I was pleased to discover that the majority of them included in their guidelines the condition that that they would not post a review, if in their opinion, the book rated less than 3 stars. This is a no-brainer to me. Given the tendencies we have discussed towards subjective personal taste and potential political bias, what is the point in rubbishing an indie author’s work in public? Given that the public duty factor is insignificant – compared to internationally best-selling authors – one is tempted to believe that much like the trolls that plague some of us on social media, the public denigration can only be an exercise in spite.
Okay, so what if a book is poorly presented or virtually unreadable due to spelling and grammatical errors? You should have worked that out from the ‘look inside’ on the amazon detail page. If not, I suggest you get over yourself and put it down to experience. You obviously won’t be going back to that author again, and the chances are you haven’t spent more than ten bucks and in most cases, a good deal less.
Please also bear in mind, that Independent authors do not have the luxury of editors, proof readers, cover designers or book-marketers, and most of us do not have the resources to pay for the services of any of the above. So before you post your review based on your subjective, tendentious, or politically motivated opinions, please think about how much time and effort, and how much honest sweat has gone into the writing of the book you are reviewing and remember: there's no accounting for taste.
Note for Authors: Tempting though it is to respond in kind to trolls and half-wit reviewers – and believe me I’ve been tempted; keep your power dry. Getting yourself involved in acrimonious exchanges with readers – no matter how great the provocation – is a rabbit hole that only gets deeper.
THE LAST WORD goes to fantasy writer and environmentalist, Glenda Larke:
... a good review should do one major thing: it should give a reader who hasn’t read the work an idea whether he would like it or not (or alternatively give a reader who has read it something more to think about).
It is not enough to retell the story, obviously. And it is certainly not enough to criticise the work – favourably or otherwise – without saying, coherently, why. There are three kinds of reviews which particularly bug me: the one that is dismissive from the start, e.g. the snide reviewer given a science fiction book to review by a newspaper editor when he loathes the genre, and who then has fun ridiculing it for being science fiction; secondly, the reviewer who attacks the author rather than the work, e.g. on his or her politics; and thirdly the reviewer who slams (or praises) a work but never gives a thoughtful reason.
As an author, I look upon all reviews as a chance for me to learn. What worked, at least as far as this particular reviewer is concerned? What didn’t? And why? If the reviewer can tell me any of that, I am pathetically grateful.