Reviews – Why They Require Critical Thinking
When I visit online discussion groups for aspiring and independent writers (something I do much less often these days) I am struck by the frequency of topics that are in some way associated with reviews. An email I received recently from a potential reader of my book Roses of Winter on this topic has helped me focus my thinking a little more about what troubles me concerning much of what I read.
The email contained the following statement:
“Please be assured that I will read it and give it the very best rating I possibly can. I will post both here and on Amazon.com with a full review. If I cannot honestly give you a 3, 4 or 5 star review with glowing praise, I will let you know via message — and will post nothing negative for public view.”
Here is my response:
“Your offer to provide advance notice of your opinion about the book is very kind and appreciated. I would just like to share with you my philosophy about reviews. Every reader is entitled to their opinion about a book. It will not speak to everyone in the same way. I encourage you to provide your own honest reaction to the story. In that regard it is better for me to be removed from the process of responding to the book. My preference is that you publish whatever you want to say about the book, positive or negative, exactly as you find it and without prior reference to me. For me this is an attempt to preserve the integrity of the review process. I hope you understand. I have every confidence that you will be fair and balanced in whatever you decide to write. Also, thank you for offering to post your review on Amazon. Many readers don’t take that extra step.”
Let me say at the outset that I love to hear from readers and I like to read thoughtful reviews of my books, particularly when the reader provides insights about what they liked and didn’t like. This is important information to have. A writer should be willing to listen to the negative along with the positive. However, a pattern of negative comments may well indicate problems that should have been resolved earlier in the writing process. This is particularly true when comments focus on the technical aspects of writing and structure. It is much better to receive this type of critique from test readers before publication than after.
A bad rating or review, even if received after publication, does not necessarily reflect negatively on your book. It depends on the nature of the review. I quite often have the experience of liking or disliking a book and finding comments and rating completely at odds with my perception. The reasons for this are varied. There are a number of factors that come into play in the review process. Here are some of the major ones that come to mind:
Technical quality and production values,
Reading background of the reviewer.
When I published Roses of Winter I made every effort possible to issue a quality product. The book went through extensive editing and proofreading. A lot of time also went into choosing fonts, formatting the structure of the book and making it as appealing as possible from a physical standpoint. These were all matters that were within my control. Months of work went into the process. I was also reasonably confident that I had produced a compelling story based on the comments of test readers.
Following publication of Roses of Winter I promoted it as vigorously as possible. However, I had certain ground rules regarding reviews. One important rule was not to attempt to influence others to inflate ratings or provide favorable reviews. Nor did I rate my own book, something that I have seen some authors do but I believe to be problematic and of little value. The majority of reviews for the book have been received from people I do not know personally and were unsolicited.
In addition to being a writer I am a voracious reader, an obsession that has persisted from early childhood. I will often look at reviews before I purchase a book. Invariably there is a wide range of opinions and I will typically read a number of reviews associated with ratings that range from high low. While reviews can influence my decision to purchase they are not always that helpful. The reason relates to the last three items on my list above – reader preferences, reader expectations, and reader background and experience.
There are certain genres that do not work for me. It would be unfair for me to presume to write a review of a book that belongs in those categories. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I never read books in genres that are not particular favorites of mine. I am well aware that perceptions about genre can work against a book by creating a particular expectation. For example, Roses of Winter is set in World War 2 Glasgow, Scotland. For that reason the book typically is categorized as historical fiction. A number of readers have commented that they enjoyed reading about a setting and time that they knew little about. However, I am sure that there are also readers who have passed the book by for that reason. A five or four star review is less likely to sway a reader than their reading preferences.
A rating by itself, without the addition of a thoughtful review, is of little value. There is no way to derive much significance from a standalone rating. Also, there is no objective way to compare one individual’s five star rating with that from a different individual. A review will provide a sense of what the reader thought of the book and why. It also allows you to assess the background of the reviewer. Personal perception and even bias can certainly be found in text reviews. Written opinions provide more information for the reader to analyze and make their own judgement. When it comes to my books, reviews from other writers, particularly those with a successful track record, are ones to which I pay special attention.
Many poorly written books receive good reviews while better books are ignored. A visit to any website frequented by aspiring writers will reveal that many are expending a great deal of time and energy discussing how to achieve numerous good reviews. Reviews can provide important feedback and the more thoughtful ones add value to the reading and writing community. However, it is important to recognize their limitations, particularly in a publishing environment where so many are chasing five star reviews. For many aspiring writers they may supply the illusion of success and consume time better spent in producing good writing.
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