This is the ninth part of a ten part series on process of producing a novel.
Reviews are both a mirror and a marketing tool. They are to be valued for both reasons.
Reviews – honest, objective reviews from strangers – are the very best way to assess your success as a novelist. Obviously, not every reviewer is fair or honest, and I have become disgusted with the number of reviewers who only regurgitate back what was on the cover blurb or in the “Forward” or “Notes” of the book itself. But increasingly, through online retailers, authors are getting a lot more feedback from real readers. These reviews may not be from famous critics and they may lack literary style, but they are from the very people you depend on to buy your books. The unexpected reviews from readers I never dreamed my books would appeal to are those that have been most exciting and satisfying, while complaints from readers about one or another aspect of my books make me rethink my writing. Thus the “mirror” function of reviews should never be neglected.
The marketing function of reviews is, however, increasingly important, particularly for the self-published novelist. In the absence of a large distribution network and well-connected executives, reviews are the single most important means of convincing readers that your book has value. Press releases may tell them about the content, and book signings might draw attention to the title. Ads may create a degree of name recognition. Interviews will generally focus on the process of writing and the author’s objectives. Reviews, however, offer readers more than all of the above. Reviews provide an assessment.
This has led many novelists into the temptation of buying good reviews or pushing family and friends into writing favorable reviews. Such methods work for a while, but even assuming potential customers don’t see through them from the start, people who are misled into buying a book that doesn’t meet expectations are the first to post their own negative reviews on the sites of online retailers. If you have as many one star reviews as five star reviews, readers are going to guess that the five star reviews were fake.
Furthermore, I have had readers tell me that they don’t bother to read 5 star reviews, assuming these rave reviews are just “hype.” They prefer to read the critical reviews because these generally address both the positive and negative, the successful and the less successful aspects of the book. These sophisticated readers, incidentally, usually also dismiss as “crap” any review that is simply insulting. In short, the reviews taken most seriously by these decerning readers are those in the 3 to 4 star category.
Nor should we forget the importance of quantity. A book with no or only one review looks like it hasn’t been read very much. It looks like a loser. A book with scores of reviews looks like a winner. Bestsellers have hundreds of reviews. So, let me take this opportunity to appeal to all of you – my readers – to post reviews of any of my novels that you have read. They don’t have to be long. Just tell others what you liked – or didn’t like – about my books.
(Note: My next entry will be January 28 after I return from holiday.)