For Your Review – No Seriously

Upfront — this is an appeal. I’m asking you to do something. It’s not a favor. I hate favors. It’s something I think is a critical part of the writer/reader relationship. It may be something you don’t always think about, but it’s really, really important.

First, let me ask you a question.

How do you hear about books? Stop and think about it. What’s your favorite book? How did you first discover it? If it’s a lifetime favorite, probably a parent, librarian or a teacher read it to you when you were little. If it’s a favorite from your teen years, probably a friend recommended it, or some adult told you not to read it. (The Catcher in the Rye syndrome, I call that.) My all-time favorite book, I’m pretty sure, is Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein. One of my best friends in high school (and still one of my best friends today) turned me on to Heinlein. As an adult, you probably found some favorites just by looking on bookstore shelves. But somewhere along the line, if you’re a serious reader, you started asking, “What else is out there that I’ve missed?” And to answer that question, you did one of two things: you asked your librarian or bookseller to make a recommendation, or you read book reviews.

When I was working as a librarian, I had several customers who came in every Monday with the Washington Post Bookworld or the New York Times Book Review all marked up with the dozen or more titles they wanted this week. They were serious readers. Me, I like more genre fiction and more esoteric non-fiction, so I tended to read the reviews in Publishers Weekly or Library Journal. There were a lot more of them, and they tended to be a bit less snobbish.

The answer to where we find new books to read, and where we discover our favorites, boils down to one of four sources: The educational process (parents, teachers, librarians), word of mouth, book industry professionals (booksellers and librarians again) or reviews.

Now, in the days of online bookstores and eBooks, reviews are playing a bigger role than ever in how we learn about books. And, just as publishing books has become a lot more DIY, so the process of writing reviews has been delivered to the masses, where it used to be the province of a select few. Every day, thousands of reviews are posted on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, Smashwords and many other sites by readers. Not professional readers, but real readers. People who love books even though no one pays them for loving them.

And those reviews get read. Now I would wager there are more people who read reviews on Amazon than there are those who read NYTBR or Bookworld. And probably more people see the phrase “Customers who bought this also bought…” than ever asked a librarian or a bookseller for a recommendation. Amazon and other sellers bank on customer feedback. Indeed, there are people out there who will pay a lot of money to get that customer feedback. (I don’t know who, so don’t ask. I don’t care. I think buying feedback from readers makes about as much sense as buying autographs from celebrities–that is to say, it makes no sense to me.)

Reader feedback has become very, very important. Do you see where this is going? Remember I said I want you to do something for me? Yep. I do. If you’re a reader of my work, I want your feedback. If I don’t get it, our relationship doesn’t work. Yes, you paid for my book. Maybe. Let’s assume you did. If you bought the eBook, you paid less than five dollars. If you bought the paperback, I made less than three dollars. Sorry, kids, but that ain’t much. Not for months and months of skull sweat. Yes, I enjoy storytelling, or I wouldn’t do it. But let’s not pretend it’s not hard work. It is. Very hard. So a couple of bucks is not what I’m after. In fact, I don’t care about the couple of bucks. I mostly charge it so you’ll know the product has some value. If I gave it to you free, you probably wouldn’t read it. You might, but probably not. People are funny that way. They like to feel they have an investment.

And it’s not just me. You should give every author feedback, at least if you enjoy their work. You should give everyone who does you a service feedback. Buy something on eBay or Alibris? They ask for feedback. Their system wouldn’t work without it. Waiter served you a meal? There your feedback is formally codified. You leave a tip or a certain percentage. A good tip tells the waiter he or she served you well. A small tip says either they didn’t, or you’re a cheap bastard. No tip means… what? Bad service? You’re forgetful? I dunno. Neither does the person who served you. So next time, will they do better or worse?

Feedback. Every system depends on it. Authors depend on it, especially small press authors. Most of us don’t know how to get it. I stress “us” here, as I certainly don’t know. If I did, my books would have a lot more of it. I was embarrassed to see the other day that a self-published book that looked to me to be very badly written, trite in concept, too long by more than half, loaded with grammatical errors, had more reviews than most of mine by a factor of twenty to fifty. And, ironically, they were positive reviews! Oh, they noted the flaws in the book, but, largely they said, “Thanks for telling me a story. You can get better. Keep trying!”

Granted a couple of my books had some proofing issues on first print. Mostly missing words. I run a small press, and I’m learning. Lesson learned: don’t ask your editor to be a proofreader as well. (And a note to aspiring writers: It’s often said that you must have an editor. It’s true. But don’t expect your editor to teach you grammar. Please learn proper grammar before you ask anyone to read your writing.)

But I think I know my craft well enough, after all these years, to know that my books are not bad. Maybe not your cup of tea, but not bad. Indeed, all the negative reviews I’ve ever received have taken issue with how my characters behaved, as if they were real people who’d made the reviewers angry. I think that says I did my job as storyteller. I made the characters come to life. I don’t consider that negative feedback against me!

How did that guy get so many reviews? With a book that’s obviously got potential, but is clearly not a good book? Again, I dunno. But I’m betting he was aggressive about asking for it. I suck at asking for things. But I’m gonna try to get better, starting today.

That’s the bad news. I’m asking for something. Here’s the good news: It’s easy!

There are dozens of places where you can give feedback on a book or an eBook, and do it in less time then it takes you to share that Facebook meme which condemns people who make tactical nuclear strikes on gay whales in the name of Jesus. Both Amazon and Barnes and Noble let you leave reviews of books they sell. You can also give them star-ratings. Most other eBook platforms do the same. Smashwords, which arguably offers more eBooks than anyone else, has a rating system. And Goodreads takes it a step farther. You can share with people what you’re reading right now, what you’ve read in the past, what you’re thinking about reading, and you can review a book or even give it a score without writing a review.

All of these sites help authors. Goodreads even lets you post your reading habits to your Facebook wall. And, lets be honest, doesn’t “Joe Blow is on page 387 of Crime and Punishment” make you look a little smarter than “Joe Blow just hatched fifteen pink electric chickens in Farmville?” (Maybe not. Crime and Punishment is a horrid book. If you read all the way to page 387, I doubt your intelligence and your sanity. But you get my point.)

So please, do us poor honest storytellers a favor, and use one of these outlets to let people know you love/like/tolerate our work.

And, because I’m feeling extra pushy, a couple of tips:

  • Please don’t review books you haven’t read. I don’t care how much you hated chapter one. It’s fine to put the book down. It’s not fine to write a review that purports to evaluate the whole work if you didn’t read the whole work. This used to be considered common sense, but I’m astonished by the number of people who find fit to review a book they didn’t read.
  • Try to be aware that your preferences do not constitute a style manual: “I gave this work only one star because it’s short, and I like long works.” I’ve been burned by this more than once.  Unless the writer deliberately shortened a work that, organically, should have been longer, that’s not a valid argument. Logan’s Run is a great book, no matter that it’s 50,000 words. It would not have been better if it had been artificially lengthened. It’s fine to have your preferences, but keep in mind that not everyone shares them.
  • Unless he or she is very successful, the author will be reading your review. Just remember that. Every cheap laugh you get at his or her expense will be a cheap shot taken in his or her presence. Would you want someone to do that to you? Avoid personal attacks, and please, please, don’t try to psycho-analyze the author based on his or her writing. That’s up there with reviewing books you don’t read as a good way to advertise to the world that you’re a colossal idiot.
  • Should you post bad reviews? Yes, it’s part of the feedback process, but… well, be careful. Remember, with a small press of indie author, you’re playing with his reputation. Unless you actually feel that a work is going to do damage to someone. Possibly if a work makes you so angry that you can’t not say something. But I tend to avoid bad reviews, or even giving one star in a ratings system. Better to just let that book go by without any comment from me. Because if I hated the book that much, the author probably can’t do better next time. We have a permanent disconnect.
  • Reviews don’t have to be long: “Nor Crystal Tears is a prequel to Alan Dean Foster’s popular ‘Pip and Flinx’ series. Foster tells a first contact story in which engaging characters who go outside the law to protect the future of the galaxy. I loved it!”

Okay? Go forth and give feedback.

Especially to me.

(Hint: I released four novellas this Summer. I know a bunch of you have read them. How about a little Goodreads or Amazon love, huh?)

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