Authors and reviewers have always had a complicated relationship. Everyone’s heard that there’s “no such thing as a bad review”. About a decade and a half ago, this was absolute truth. It was almost impossible to have a successful book without reviews, but they didn’t necessarily have to be positive. A review in a magazine or newspaper was free publicity. When I picked up a copy of SFX, for example, the first thing I would do is flick to the reviews section. I wasn’t looking for recommendations, so much as I was looking for information. Those review pages were the easiest way for me to find out what new books were available in genres I was interested in. Sometimes a desperately good review would sway me towards one book over another, but I was most interested just in finding out what had been written in genres I wanted to read. Without the reviews page, there are dozens of books that might have passed me by.
It’s different today. Amazon recommends books I’ve never heard of everytime I pop by their site. The Internet in general offers me more new authors and books than I could possibly keep up with. Reviews are still important, but in a different (and in some ways better) way. These days, word of mouth leads book sales more than it ever has before, and opinion is more important than ever. When somebody reads a review these days, they really do want to know whether the reviewer enjoyed the book. With the glut of work now available, including a lot of self-published fiction, opinions help readers avoid the bad, and find the good. It’s what reviews always should have been for.
The reviewers have changed as well. There’s still a top tier, that can help put your book in front of readers who would never have found it. Publishers Weekly, The Guardian, The New York Times – these and others at the same level are publications where it’s still true that no review is a bad thing. Whether they like your book or not, they’re highlighting that it it exists to a vast number of potential readers.
Everything else has democratised. There’s a small army of book reviewers with their own blog-based sites and dedicated readers. These reviewers are often readers just like you, with a passion for books and a desire to share that passion. They tend to specialise in particular genres, based their own particular interests. Reviewing books is their hobby, and the size of their readership is often based on how infectious their enthusiasm is. They’re also, usually, exceptionally well read in their chosen genres – that’s where their passion comes from. I love these ladies and gentlemen, because they’re me. I love books. They’re my hobby too.
These reviewers also have a power that the professional reviewer lacks. Because they aren’t being paid to write the review, their circle of readers trust their honesty. If they hate my book, there’s a good chance I’ve lost a score of potential book buyers. The damage can be mitigrated – maybe their readers also follow another book blogger who loves the book, and that might change their mind. In isolation though, they’re reading this one blogger because they’ve found that he or she writes reviews they get on with. Gambino Iglesias didn’t get on with my novel Cuckoo at all, and I’m pretty certain that none of the people who read and enjoy his reviews were motivated to go an pick up a copy after he wrote about it. They’re gone. Lost. Won’t be buying my book. Bugger. On the other hand, Jim Mcleod dug the book big time, and I hope convinced at least some of his readers that it might be worth checking out. In the new publishing age, both of these reviewers represent the top tier of ‘word of mouth’ – they’re real readers, with genuine opinions. When many authors, including myself, are trying to find their readers one at a time, and slowly build a readership who trust us to entertain them, both of those opinions make a critical difference to a developing career*. Get too many book bloggers encouraging people not to read your book, and you’re in real trouble. If a lot start recommending it, you could be on your way.
There’s another level of reviewer with significant power over how well a book sells. That’s you. Unless you’ve a book blog of your own, people might not come to you for your opinion on what you’ve read, so you might not appreciate the power you have over an author’s career. However, when you read about the power of ‘word of mouth’, it’s you they’re talking about. It sometimes happens when you post about a book you liked on Facebook, or Twitter, or just mention it in the pub over a pint. It definitely happens when you review a book you’ve purchased on a site like Amazon.
It’s easy to under-rate what you’re doing when you take a minute to do this, but don’t be fooled. I spend a lot of time – too much – trying to get people to go to the listing for Cuckoo on Amazon. If I can even get them there, they’ve a choice to make. Do they take a chance on my book, and spend their money? Perhaps more critically – if they invest their time in reading my story, time they could spend reading something by another author they already trust, are they going to be glad of it?
it’s a dilemma. At that moment, they’re looking for information. At that moment, Amazon present exactly what they need – the opinions of people who have already been in their position. They faced the dilemma, spent the money, and read the book.
if I’ve got them to Amazon in the first place, there’s nothing I can add to this. If there are no reviews there, I reckon it’s I’ve a one in five chance they’ll shrug and try the book. There’s nothing to then other four over the edge, and encourage them to commit. A handful will try it, but most will move on. if there’s a string of decent to good reviews, I’m up to maybe a three or four in five chance they’ll take the plunge. They were interested enough to check the book page out, and they’ve found that a lot of readers tried the book and walked away happy. They want to be happy too, and they’ll give it a bash. A swathe of negative reviews? Unless the reader already knows that they usually enjoy my fiction, there’s no chance at all that the book will be bought.
That’s quite a lot of power, and it’s why I always encourage you to throw a review up after you’ve read one of my books. One decent-to-good reader review can spike sales like you wouldn’t believe. That can make a real difference to my writing career. It’s what word of mouth actually means.
Your power works on the honour system though, and it can be abused. I’ve seen authors send their friends and family in with the instruction to give a bunch of five star reviews. This only works once. If I buy a book I’ve never heard of that’s got twenty five star reviews, and find it to be a godawful piece of crap, I’m going to conclude that the author has a lot of friends prepared to lie on his behalf. Even the most critically lauded bestsellers have bad reviews attached to them, because not everybody can love the same thing. That’s why I never object when I see an honest review of my writing, that slates it (I might weep a little, but I won’t object).
On the other hand, readers can abuse the system too. World’s Collider was released on the 10th of the month, and within a couple of hours of being available, picked up this dreadful review from a reader. In this case, it’s a troll. I don’t know what pissed him off – maybe he’s a rejected author, who pitched to get into the book and failed, or just somebody with a bone to pick with one of the authors or editor. When I first read it, I was deeply suspicious – the book’s the length of a full novel, and I’m not convinced anybody could read it in just a couple of hours. When he commented that he’d got an advance copy of the book from one of the writers, we all knew it was bullshit, because out contributor copies arrived after he posted the review. An author could have sent him their story, but not the full book. Unfortunately, although it’s bullshit, it could easily scare off people who might enjoy this anthology. It’s the only thing there that a reader, wondering whether to check out the book, can base an opinion on. If it was a genuine review, I’d have to shrug and move on. Because it’s an abusive attempt to sink a project I’ve worked hard on, I formally object.
These things matter.
I hope some genuine reviews go up soon, good or bad, to give a genuine steer to people who might be interested. I can’t predict whether the book will go down well or not, though I finished it last night and genuinely enjoyed it. This kind of abuse though, perverts the power that you have as a reader. Want to kill my career? Go and plant some one star reviews of Cuckoo or Hiram Grange and the Nymphs of Krakow (you don’t have to read them at all), and watch my death throes. My career is tiny, and you can kill it. If I’ve ever pissed you off, this is the perfect way to get back at me.
You can also use the power that you have to give me a boost, if you want to. If you’ve bought and read a book of mine, or if you do so in future, please stick a few lines about what you thought of it online. If you bought it at Amazon or another online store, review it there. Do it with the next book, too. It doesn’t have to be much. If you do that, and some of the other people reading this do so as well, I figure there would be a range of opinion represented. Some people would have enjoyed it, some people not. The next reader to see the book page will quickly work out which camp they belong in, and either walk away or buy the book (and I’m fine with people walking away – I want my stories to be bought by people who will enjoy them, not by people who won’t, so as long as poor opinions aren’t actually abusive or malicious, they’re useful in hooking me up with the readership who will get on best with me). You don’t owe me this, but if you’re following along with my attempts to build a writing career, I hope you’ll take a minute to help me develop it.
You could wait for somebody else to do it. There’s a lot of that about. Problem is, everybody else is waiting for somebody else to do it first. A crowd of people who enjoyed a book has power, but only if they use. Somebody has to step up first, and I hope that’s going to be you.
* And I don’t resent Gambino’s at all – no point asking people to take the time to review your book, if you’re not willing to run the risk that they won’t like it, and tell people. I’m glad he took the time in the first place, and hope he’ll give Thy Fearful Symmetry a shot when it comes around.