Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What Reviews Can Tell Us

During the first few weeks after my first novel's release, I would check reviews on Amazon and Goodreads almost daily. At first, all the feedback was from people I knew-family and friends who bought the book at my launch party. No big surprises there: 5 stars from my mom, all my cousins and the ward members who had to face me on Sunday. "Great book, loved it, couldn't put it down, and-- I know the author!" was what most of it conveyed, and although that kind of stuff is easy on the ego, it doesn't tell me anything about what could have been better and is not very helpful in convincing OTHER people to read the book.

Then the first wave of reviews from people I didn't know started coming in. Finally comments that offered opinions that I could see as unbiased and helpful with my writing. Most were positive, and a general consensus emerged: A good story, a little slow at the beginning, but gripping by the end, with well-developed characters and some surprising turns toward the climax. Some readers weren't willing to give it more than three stars, but couldn't really put their finger on why it wasn't better for them. I suspect some were reading outside of their favorite genre, or were expecting a romance and got a coming-of-age story instead. As will happen with any book, comments ran the gamut from "the best piece of LDS fiction I have ever read!" to "...a rookie effort and it shows...could have cut 100 pages and it would have been better."

So what am I to think about my reviews? Does my average rating of 4.07 stars from 23 text reviewers on Goodreads tell me my book is good? Not really. I suspect that's close to the average rating for ALL books. It probably wouldn't have been published if it didn't resonate with a majority of the people who picked it up, and most published books do if they're marketed to the right demographics. When I go to the pages of those Goodreads members who gave me 5 stars, I find that many of them give 5 stars to EVERY book on their shelves.

The most useful reviews, of course, are those that function as constructive criticism from avid readers who care enough to lay out exactly what they liked and didn't like about the book. More than anything, I want perception and opinion. I want a review that tells me what the reader felt while reading and what struck him or her as unrealistic or undeveloped.

Although it appeared in a major LDS internet site and says not one negative word about my book, this review, published just this past week, is probably the most annoying of all. Posted as a "book review", all it does is summarize the plot. That's right, the article is completely devoid of any opinion whatsoever. Either the writer was afraid of hurting my feelings (which I greatly doubt), or she simply does not understand what a "book review" is supposed to be. Worse, she spoils the ending of the book in a way that leaves nothing to the imagination (do not go there if you have not read and have any intention of reading The Rogue Shop).

It's all worth sprinkling liberally with grains of salt. You'll learn the most from those reviewers who clearly took the time not only to read but to think about what they read, and have enough distance from you to remove any filters from their honest perceptions. Of course, I'll never complain about my mom and everyone else who gave me an enthusiastic 5 star review. Those are the people who will benefit most from my magnanimous generosity when I get a seven-figure advance on my next runaway bestseller.


Maggie said...

I couldn't agree with this post more Michael. I actually love the three or four star reviews on Goodreads even better than the five because of these reasons: they're from folks I don't know; they usually have some specific information instead of just great book (which don't get me wrong, is nice to hear); and I can learn from their critiques.

Anna Arnett said...

I found this 'older' blog very helpful, as well as interesting. I'm self-published, so I have only my family friends, mentors and ANWA members to critique, and they're all so very nice to an old lady publishing her memoirs. I'd love some honest and useful critiques. When I try to pin anyone down, most tell me they ARE honest about it. So how do I get to the truth? Oh, of course. I can beg on my blog.

Anyway, I'm grateful for your insight. You appear to have a good head on your shoulders..