Reviews–Ruling Our Writing Fortunes

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Online reviews have changed the entire retail and service landscape. You can look up nearly anything: a product, a service, and immediately see what people thought of it. Churches. Doctors. Historic sites. Everything is subject to being rated.

People have had opinions about books since the form existed. But for a long time, these opinions were seldom shared, except on a personal one-to-one basis or in a few publications. Even a decade ago, unless you were a literary author, at best your book might get reviewed in a few small magazines and newsletters devoted to your genre. Feedback then came from sales, and occasionally fan mail. Now, books thrive almost solely based on their reviews.

In fact, other than your book cover, nothing is more important to sales than reviews. The rating is right there, beneath the title of your book. People see it even before they get to the book blurb. If there are less than four stars, I suspect many readers don’t even bother reading the blurb. They will have already decided your book isn’t worth buying based on the rating.

I think this system skews success towards the authors who have broad, indiscriminate appeal, and makes it very difficult for authors who have a more niche market for their books to ever find their audience. I’ve seen it in my job purchasing fiction for a public library. I’ll read a glowing review in Publisher’s Weekly, but then when I look up the book on Amazon, I’ll see that it only has two or three stars. Based on the content of the professional review, I may well purchase book for the library anyway. I’m buying books for a diverse reading public, so I can give a chance to an author whose book may not be to everyone’s taste. But I’m making that decision based on the synopsis of the story in the review and what appeal the book might have for a certain group of library patrons who I know enjoy books like that. Buying books professionally, it behooves me to go deeper than a star rating.

But what about the average reader? In the current consumer model, the person who might enjoy a certain book may never get so far as to read the blurb. They never get a chance to realize, Hey, that book sounds interesting.

Reviews affect authors in another way: you need a lot of them to get noticed. If you get enough reviews, Amazon will start promoting you. Yet it’s a catch-22. You can’t get noticed if you don’t have many reviews. But how do you get those reviews when people aren’t finding your book to read it and review it?

And the system can be gamed. Authors send out ARC’s to get reviews. And it’s just human nature that readers getting free books are more likely to give positive reviews. Although the verbiage, I received a free copy but this is an honest review, appears in the text of the review, you can’t tell this from the star rating. And I’ve heard of truly dishonest ways authors have gotten lots of positive reviews through high-tech manipulation of the system.

Amazon has elaborate methods in place to prevent this from happening. But their attempts to keep the system honest often ends up blocking reviews that truly are genuine. How many of us have had one of our reviews removed by Amazon, because their system discovered we have some connection with the author? Our review may well be heartfelt and sincere, but it’s never going to show up.

Another issue is that because readers aren’t professional reviewers, they don’t always write reviews based on a book’s merit. One thing in the book may turn them off and they’ll give it one star. I’ve heard fellow authors complain about this many times. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like the reviewer even read the book.

And the internet seems to bring out the worst in people. A fair number of individuals apparently get satisfaction from hating. We’ve seen that over and over with social media, as if there was some urge in us as humans to tear down and disparage. Lately, this aspect of human nature seems to be in the ascendancy.

What’s an author to do about reviews? There isn’t much you can do, except not let them get to you. We have to accept them as just another way our modern world makes us feel powerless. Of course we do have power over ourselves and how we react to things. In this harsh world, as artists we have to nurture ourselves. And each other. Organizations like RMFW are especially important because they bring writers together in a positive way and offer support and validation for what we do. We have to band together and use our combined light to brighten this dark world.

Here’s to good cheer and positivity in 2022!

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