Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Just So You Know: Your Reviews Are Everything

Recently, I saw an article link on Facebook, talking about how we need to adjust the way we review books. The article writer talked about the way we review, and what the rankings we choose from typically mean ... and she also addressed the way our current review standard is seriously damaging our publication standard. She talked about how sometimes as authors, we feel obligated to rate books higher than we otherwise might, out of some sense of professional courtesy. (Which essentially means something like, "I'm an author too, so I know from personal experience that you worked hard and put your heart into this. Therefore, even though it's substandard and perhaps not professionally done / well edited / any good, I'm going to give you the proverbial 'A' for effort.") She talked about the way we as readers sometimes rate books higher than we otherwise might, out of an increased sense of compassion and kindness. Pity stars, if you will.

The article writer talked a little about the value of a truly honest opinion, but here's where it all fell far short for me: there simply wasn't anything in the article that gave me the feeling of the author actually encouraging people to rate and review books as they deserve - for quality and content, rather than for pity and kindness.

And if you know me at all, you'll know that I have some things to say about that.

For those of you who have been following me for a long time, you'll know that for me to talk about book reviews is nothing new. You'll remember a while back when everyone in the book world was freaking out about fake reviews and "bully" reviews and reviews you can pay for (etc., etc.), and I weighed in on those topics often because back then, I still wasn't very good at keeping my mouth shut. Not that I'm much better about it now, but still, I'm learning. Thus, this post will hopefully be a bit less caustic than the others, though no less honest, to be sure.

In the years since my first publication, I've learned a lot more about the behind-the-scenes parts of the book world (and about how much easier things are when you ignore the inevitable virtual-office drama that can crop up in the book world). Sometimes, maybe I think I've learned more than I wanted to, and I've talked about that here too - the way the "should-haves" and the "have-tos" can get in the way of the love of this art form, the way the business can stifle and strangle and drown out the simple freedom of the love of creativity.

Even with all that new knowledge slowly combining with a growing sense of professionalism, I still have strong opinions about reviews and what they mean to authors like me. Not so long ago, I wrote this list of my Top 10 Most Favorite and Not-So-Favorite Things About Reviews.

You know what though? I still have something to say about reviews; I still desperately want you to know what they mean to authors and businesses like me. I even created this page on my website, so that you can get a sneak peek at why reviews are special, along with some tips (and reassurance) on how to write one.

We authors talk among ourselves quite a lot about technical terms like SEO and algorithms, but readers don't often know what these terms are, or what they mean. Truthfully, you don't really need to ... all you're looking for is a good book, right? You aren't into publishing, maybe you don't care about the work that goes on behind the scenes, and you don't want to know about it. So I'm not going to tell you all of it, but I'll tell you this: your review makes the difference between discovery and invisibility. Yes, yours. Your voice matters, even when it's only two sentences on one review, just to say you loved the book, or you hated the book, or the book left you feeling utterly cold and impassive. It matters. Right now, Fat Chance is free; it currently has forty-one reviews, with an average ranking of about 4.5 stars. People like it. But not enough people see it. Why?

Because speculation says Amazon's algorithms don't start really showing books until they take off on their own. Until they have over 50 reviews, regardless of the star ratings. Please understand that you don't have to have liked a book in order to review it. At least, not with mine, and not with any other authors who care about their readers, either. We want your opinions. We want your feedback. And yes, while there are a great number of thin-skinned authors out there who really just want a thousand pats on the back and a thousand "yes-man" reviews, there is a far greater number of us who want your honesty. So today, I thought I'd give you this short list of reasons your review means everything to me, in hopes that you'll go out and write one today. Who knows, maybe you'll even write it for me - and I'll be one step closer to getting my books really noticed.

01)  Reviews help authors (who read them - I do) to know what they are doing right, and what they are doing wrong. Obviously, this applies to both the negative and the positive reviews, which I believe are of equal value. For instance:
  • If lots of reviewers leave comments saying that the main characters are weak or unrelatable, etc., then that author knows they have to learn to work on character development. This applies to any aspect of writing, whether it's to say the cover didn't move you but you're glad you read the book anyway, the formatting was disturbing or distracting in some way, or even that there were a lot of errors in the book.
  • On the other hand, if lots of reviewers say that one particular thing was their favorite thing more than once, a writer begins to get an idea of what they're doing well, so far as the current trends in the market go. If people comment on the cover, the author knows that they got what they paid for with cover design. This, too, applies to all aspects of the book, from the initial writing and the talent of the author, to the skill and value of the author's production team.

02.)  Reviews help readers decide what they want to read next. Sure, there's the (hopefully) pretty cover and the (hopefully) eye-catching book blurb, but what really shows a reader to a good book is a review. It doesn't even have to be a long one, because ... well, I'll let you in on a not-so-well-kept secret: Not a lot of people actually read the reviews. And if they do, they generally don't read many. Still, each review, whether it be a positive one or a negative one, is important. Here's why:
  • As a reader: The number of reviews x the average star rating = the general percentage of people who both saw and liked this book. For me, I don't always read reviews on books I'm shopping for. But I always look at these two main factors. Why? Because I feel that I can assume if one hundred/thousand/million people reviewed this book, and it's rated an average above four stars, then the general consensus is that it's good. Below three stars? Then I can assume, based on the ratings of most of the people who reviewed it, the book is not good, or poorly produced. Either way, this usually means I'm not interested. Except for when it means I'm intrigued, and then I'm compelled to read the reviews. What do people like - or dislike - and more importantly, how does this apply to what I like - and don't like? If people are complaining that the sex scenes are too clean and not raunchy enough, or that there isn't enough sex, I might assume that even though those are generally bad reviews, they mean I'll like the book, because maybe they mean that there's a lot more story substance to be had, which is what I want when I read. If they say there's not enough action or drama, even though those are generally bad review too, I'll assume that although the book might have a slower pace, maybe that allows for more of the beautiful prose I love to soak my spirit in. Here's the very solid core of why I believe even the negative reviews are equally valuable. Ever heard the phrase, "One man's trash is another man's treasure?" Well, that phrase has way more than just a kernel of truth hidden in it, and sometimes a review someone wrote about what they didn't like tells me exactly what I will like. Other times, those bad reviews speak into real issues that are alive and thriving in the publishing world right now, such as a lower standard of production, lower standard of grammatical mastery in both writing and editing, etc. Would you write a one star review if you bought a shirt, received it, put it on, and the sleeves fell off? You should. And you should do it with books, too. And on the other side of that, would you write a five star review if you bought a skirt, received it, put it on, and felt smashing in it because it was well made and beautiful, up to your standard of what works for you? You should. And you should do it with books, too. This goes the same for all points in between; the two-star, three-star, and four-star rating should be utilized and valued as a standard of communicating the quality of any product. If something is average, be it a book, a movie, a song, a pair of shoes ... then say so, and do it freely, with knowledge and confidence that someone with appreciate your input.
  • As an author: The number of reviews x the average star rating = what's popular right now in the general literary market. This doesn't mean an author should always strive to write what's popular, because I believe writing is a passion thing, it's a need nurtured deep in the soul, it's an art form that, if it is to be real and touching and solid, must bleed directly from the heart of its creator. You don't write werewolf romances just because they're popular if your passion lies in police thrillers. You write what you feel, and you find your market. But within your market, you can use reviews to learn that this type of character is well-loved, or this type of villain is exactly as despised as you want yours to be. You can learn that your market likes sex scenes with lots of "dirty" talking in them, that your market like sex scenes where you know what's happening but don't get to "watch." And this doesn't speak only to your own reviews: look at the reviews of popular authors that influence you, that you admire and want to emulate. What's working for them? What isn't?

03.)  Reviews drive the publishing business directly into the future of literature - and as such, they mean an awful lot to the importance of basic human literacy, which is in recent years falling by the wayside as we are convinced (and sometimes directly badgered) to accept lower and lower standards. At this point, we look upon the illiterate with such deep pity that we're too sorry to do anything about it. It has become to norm for high school graduates to not know the difference between various homonyms (or even that means, sadly), and it has become taboo to correct this ignorance, even if it is done in love. Needless to say, this lower standard of acceptable mastery of language has bled into our literature in the worst possible way, and if we don't change it, stop it, then it will continue to erode the hard-won literacy of the human race. And seriously, it's bad when my six year old stickler for the rules can bring me books published by the big five, books that are on bestseller lists, books that are well loved and well reviewed ... and accurately point out grammatical errors and awkward wording that countless professionals involved in production didn't even care enough to notice.

Please guys, go out there and review what you read. Pick a star rating, leave a sentence or two. I promise you, it matters.

Side note: This might also be a good time to remind you that if you review one of my books, you can send the permalink url for your review to authorbrandikennedy@gmail.com, with your name and mailing information, and I'll send you a small swag pack just to thank you for your time. Understand that this is no way meant to compensate the review and is in no way connected to the star rating attached; it's just my way of saying "thank you" for taking the time to point your review out to me personally.

And in the meantime, as always,
Happy Reading.
B.

2 comments:

  1. Nice article! I agree that we should review books, as well as experiences and businesses - why would we not want others to know about something great?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Or to protect people who trust our opinions from something terrible. I truly believe both viewpoints are equally valuable and equally necessary.

      Delete

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