On Reviewing Books

September 18, 2011 § 10 Comments

A few of you, Beloved Readers, may remember that I started posting book reviews on this blog a while back. I talked of reviewing indie books in particular, as there are a lot of blogs that refuse to touch self-pubbed books. Then I didn’t really do a lot of reviewing.

That’s because I felt that it didn’t fit very well with everything else I was doing here. So I’ve resolved that dilemma this week by creating a separate blog for book reviews. I’m reviewing both trad-pub and self-pub books, mostly in the genres of fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, historical fiction and contemporary fic. I particularly like rating and reviewing for indie authors (and always cross-post reviews to Amazon, GoodReads etc), so if any of you have friends who are looking for a bit of review help in the above genres, please send them to:

http://ladylibrary.wordpress.com/

That brings me to the topic of book reviews and ratings in general. All-important, especially in the early stages, but so hard to get. Only a small percentage of readers take the time to write reviews (it’s often hard enough to find time to read, let alone to review as well). And there aren’t many incentives for people to take that time. So how do people do it?

Sitting back and waiting for a lot of time to pass is one option. A mildly frustrating one, but in theory books build up an audience over time. If you’re looking to speed the process along, well, there still aren’t many options. The relatively few blogs that will accept indie books tend to have months-long reading backlogs, so one is usually obliged to wait several months for reviews anyway.

It’s a problem. Anyone have any tips to share with the cosy little indie community we have around here?

Also, let’s look at it from the other perspective. As a reader, do you ever leave reviews? If you don’t, what might encourage you to do so more often? And if you do, how do you approach it? It can be tricky sometimes, deciding what rating to give and why. Personally I read to be entertained, so I try not to be too academic about reviewing; I’m mostly influenced by how much I enjoyed a book. If I was pretty well entertained, I’ll overlook flaws with the writing, plot or characters and give a book a decent rating anyway. If I wasn’t, then I don’t care too much how “perfect” it might be in the technical sense; I probably won’t rate it high.

And I hate giving bad ratings and reviews, especially since I’m now in a position to know how much difference a good or bad rating can make to an author’s day. But that leads to the question of honesty in reviews. Many people believe that indies cheat a lot: they get family, friends or fellow authors to leave 5-star reviews, even if they haven’t read the book, or didn’t really like it. From what I’ve seen, this happens, but on the whole indie communities are more honourable about it than many seem to believe. We want good reviews, but honest good reviews.

That said, pick up a traditionally published novel sometime and note the numbers of glowing endorsements offered by fellow authors. The wording on those things is so often virtually identical, I do wonder sometimes how often the author in question has actually given the book a close reading. Even if they have, some people will cheerfully throw rocks at indie authors for reviewing other indie authors’ books, because they don’t think those people can or will ever be honourable about it. But the same people often don’t see a problem with traditionally published folk giving each other a leg-up. It’s one of a number of double standards that still linger at the moment. Let’s hope these clear away in time.

Anyway, I’ve picked up some interesting indie books to review in the last week. While I get through those, I’ll be populating the new review blog with some other, relatively recent reviews that I never got around to posting here. Hope to see a few of you around in ReviewLand from time to time, and meanwhile, remember to share the new blog with indie friends if applicable.

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§ 10 Responses to On Reviewing Books

  • Unfortunately, as you say, there aren’t many things you can do to prompt reviews. The only real thing you can do is offer incentives, things like return reviews (which suffer from the problems you’ve mentioned, and only work if the person has something they want reviewed), or some free promotion for the reviewer’s blog or whatever else they have. You could also offer a little book of ‘extras’, like short stories, additional character interviews, scenes that didn’t make the final cut into the book, that sort of thing. Kind of like the extras you get on DVDs these days.

    As for negative reviews, they’re not always nice to find about your work but I still feel they’re important. I mean, a friend tells you when you’ve screwed up as well as when you’ve done well. When I see people who only leave positive reviews, it always plants a seed of doubt in my mind about how genuine they are.

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Dylan. You’ve some interesting ideas for incentives there, though you’re right that it mostly works with other indies (and that generates other difficulties). I really like the extras idea and will look into that. Thank you for sharing those thoughts.

      As for negative reviews, I agree with you to a certain extent. It’s important to hear the bad with the good. However, reading is such a personal experience and deeply subjective. So many books gather reviews that directly contradict each other; some readers praise one feature of the book while others detest the very same feature. So it’s hard to know how far to believe what readers say – that goes for the positive points as well as the negative. I suppose the thing is to watch for trends – if multiple people point out the same issue, it’s worth looking into.

  • Viv says:

    I’ve begun to review books that I enjoyed, but work has got in the way and stopped me doing much reading or any reviewing.
    One thing that I find makes my day every time is when a reader(someone I don’t know) takes the time to write a review. It’s even better when it’s a superb review.
    Some big name authors get such mixed reviews that it seems to polarise their readership into people who loved and people who loathed a particular work. I have also noted that people tend to take heed of one star reviews but not five stars. I wonder why?

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Viv, thank you for commenting. I think many readers find the same as you do; it’s an issue of finding opportunity. There are so many demands on our time as it is. So true though that great reviews or nice comments can really make a person’s day; that’s partly why I keep trying to find time to squeeze in review-writing time fairly regularly.

      Interesting that you pointed out the one star/five star issue. I’ve heard that some readers are so convinced about indies cheating – getting friends to write stacks of essentially dishonest five star reviews – that they simply don’t believe the 5-stars anymore. Others have noted that if a book has a lot of five star reviews and then gets a one star review, some readers assume that all the five star reviews were fake and only the one star was honest. Which might not be the case at all, of course, but that’s the climate that seems to have been created. It’s a shame and a problem. I don’t personally believe that the issue of dishonest five star reviews is nearly so widespread as that, but it’s impossible to prove it one way or another.

      Reading mixed reviews on the same book is interesting though. It’s worth bearing in mind that every book has its fans and its haters, and that getting some poor reviews is just part of the process. (But hopefully getting good reviews is, too!).

      • Viv says:

        I spent about half an hour reading reviews since I wrote this comment!
        It puzzles me why people take the attitude about five star reviews, but then people do puzzle me. I’ve got all five star reviews of my book, and they are genuine. But I would say that!
        I read a blog article recently by a writer who’d been targeted with one star reviews that were so clearly malicious that Amazon did delete it; the reviewers has given every other book in that genre a one star, except for one, which they’d given five stars to. The reviews for the one stars were all identical and vague. Odd.

      • Charlotte says:

        Viv, I’ve heard about the one-star-review-campaigns as well. I gather it’s an attempt to boost one’s own books by trashing those perceived as direct competition. Pitiful eh? There are always a few willing to dispense with all common decency in an attempt to get ahead. But I think they are the minority, by a long way.

  • DDW says:

    My deciding to leave a review or not, depends to some extent on whether there already are any, and how many. If I loved a book and it has no, or hardly any reviews, I’ll leave one, but I don’t want to hurt someone by leaving a bad review if it’s going to be the first review. If there are a ton of reviews I may write less, maybe just some comments directed at my friends, or nothing at all.

    What to include in a review depends a lot on context as well, I see no reason to try and summarize the story if the reader can just scroll up a bit and see one. In reading other peoples reviews I tend to not really care whether they liked something or not, more why. I want to know more details than the description might give. For instance maybe they really loved fantasy trope X, and I despise trope X or it could be the opposite. What’s the POV? (I’m more reluctant to try new authors when the book is 1st person.) I also tend to ignore gushing 5 star reviews. No book is perfect and if the reviewer can’t see a single flaw in something then I’m fairly skeptical of their judgement. I generally try to balance positive and negative comments in my reviews.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting a few friends to post reviews, though I would hope they’d have honestly read and liked it, I wouldn’t want people lying for me. Sock-puppetry can backfire. I came across a book a few weeks back that had maybe 2 legit reviews both less than 5 stars, and a bunch of gushing 5 star reviews that all seemed to echo the same phrases, in particular “though provoking”, which I thought was kind of sad if this was the author indulging in some sock-puppetry. As far as I’m concerned saying a novel is “thought provoking” is the literary equivalent of saying one’s blind date “has a good personality”. One imagines the main thought provoked was “Oh my god! What a pile of crap.”

    • Charlotte says:

      That’s an interesting viewpoint and one I agree with; I have the same impulse if I see that a book I liked has few or no reviews. Quite a lot of readers like to help out, I think, when they’ve enjoyed a book. Which is nice. Also a good point that reviews can help fill in more information than the book blurb. I’ve occasionally bought a book because a reviewer mentioned something that sounded really interesting to me.

      Reviews all sounding the same is a definite tell that there’s something fishy going on. Whether they are five star or one star reviews. (Though they do tend to be at one extreme or the other when that happens).

  • DarcsFalcon says:

    I’ve been using a site called Shelfari (http://www.shelfari.com) to track the books I’ve read and to leave a brief review of as many as I can. Mostly it’s just a sentence or 2, if I liked the book or not and why.

    Reviews are important. I know that when I check out books on Amazon, I’ll go through the reviews to see what other people are saying. In general, I think people try to be pretty fair about what they’ve read.

    Good luck with the new blog! I’ll have to check that out. 🙂

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