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Some Thoughts On Book Reviews

Yesterday was a great sales day for one of my books (currently I have three available). By the evening I was feeling pretty darned jazzed about it. So click I went to check its Amazon ranking and kaboom, two swift shots zinged by my head almost knocking me out of my computer chair. What happened?

Reviews, that’s what happened. Two one-stars one atop the other sitting there scorning me with their negative vibes. So it was a great day and a lousy day and here I sit trying to sort through the reality of reader reviews.

Let me say first of all that any reader who buys one (or more) of my books, reads them, and then goes back to Amazon or B&N or Goodreads to write a review, has my deep appreciation. Writing a review is certainly not a requirement. But what should I (or any writer) take away from reviews? Here are my review lessons in slightly more than a nutshell.

  1. Investment professionals will caution you against assessing your net worth at the high or the low of any market. What you’re worth at any time is always somewhere between the high and the low. When you get a glowing review, the tendency is to feel that you deserve it, your book is THAT good, darn it, and everyone should feel the way that 5-star reviewer felt about it. WRONG. If you believe that one review, then when you get a one-star that calls your book total dreck, you’re going to have to fight the feeling that you are worthless as a writer. So just remember that investment advice. You’re never worth the high or the low but somewhere in between. Which leads to point number two.
  2. A reader review is an opinion. Now if you’re lucky enough to be one of a few hundred books to be reviewed by The New York Times, by a reviewer with extensive education, knowledge, and experience in the field of literature and your type of work in partricular, you might be justified in taking what that reviewer has to say about your book more to heart than the random reader review at B&N. On the other hand, opinions do matter. If you can separate your ego from your reviews and read them as if they are about someone else’s book, then you can have what Oprah might call, a learning moment. That doesn’t mean giving in to rage or self pity, but instead standing back from your own work to assess its strengths and weaknesses and applying any lessons to future work. Which leads to point number three.
  3. Any search on any online book site of any reviews of any books – including classics that EVERYONE agrees are great books – yields the following results. There is NO book that is universally reviewed favorably by readers. I’m talking Nobel winners, Pulitzer winners, National Book Award winners – toss them all into the reader review pot and you’ll get mixed messages. There’s no way to definitively discern why a reader liked or didn’t like a book. It’s all subjective. I’ll bet if you asked ten friends what they think of your favorite book, at least three of them wouldn’t like it as much as you did. And one would probably hate it. Which leads to the final point.
  4. Writers tend to fret inordinately about reviews because reviews can lead to sales and sales lead to rankings and more sales. But you, the writer, can only control what you can control. And you can’t control reader reviews. All you can do is write the best book you can, move on to the next one, and make that one better than the last and so on. The writer controls writing. But the writer does not control reading. The writer brings a book to life but readers make it live. Reviews reflect on both the book and the reader. So for all you reviewers out there, remember that what you write about a book lives on and says as much about you as it does about the book you’ve reviewed. So if you’re reviewing a book, make sure your review reflects back on you well. And if you’re a writer whose gotten a review, make sure you keep it in perspective, no matter what it says.

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  1. May 5, 2011

    As you hinted at under 4): Sometimes a review says more about a reviewer than about the book he or she reviews.

  2. Karen Bennett
    May 26, 2011

    I read for entertainment. Can’t predict what will interest me. I shun the fairy dust/robot themes, however when it came to TV entertainment, many yrs ago, I was totally willing to sit down for 30 minutes to see what sort of antics ALF could get into this time.

    I’m willing to admit when it comes to books there are two parts. Story and the telling of it. I love to see the artful management of a thought or scene. When I see a beautiful sentence I am so proud of the author. I stop my cake eating, to savor the chocolate bit on the icing. (How was that for a simile? I relate many things to cake).

    I want a good story made better by the telling of it.
    The cake awaits. Ummmm, with icing.

  3. nadine
    May 26, 2011

    As a reader I like to see that a book has one star reviews. Do I care what they say, not usually. I just use it as a guide to the fact that there are some people who were willing to buy the book and cared enough to come back and say something.

    If a book only has 5 star reviews I assume rightly or wrongly they are just from friends and family.

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