On Reviews…

I had a blog prepared for today, but I decided to bump it to next week. Instead, something came up this weekend I want to discuss (and no, I’m not referring to the horrific events in Paris right now — that’s not the sort of thing I talk about on this blog): Reviews.

There are two types of reviews.  Well, actually, there’s more than that, but I really only want to talk about two different kinds of reviews:  Editorial reviews and customer (or “reader”) reviews.  Editorial reviews, for the purposes of this blog, are reviews produced by professional reviewers (such as the New York Times Book Review).  These sometimes have to be solicited (you might even need to pay for them, and in this case it isn’t bad practice).  Reader reviews are produced by your customers, and should always be done for free (there are disreputable outfits who will sell you these kinds of reviews; Amazon has started filing lawsuits against these people.  For the record, it is NOT considered bad practice to give a free copy of your book away in exchange for a review of either type).

As a writer, you desperately, desperately want reviews — especially, when dealing with Amazon, reader reviews.  Reviews are your best source of “word-of-mouth” marketing, which is the most effective type of marketing for any writer.  Amazon is also known to provide you with some free marketing (in the form of “also-bought” recommendations, some e-mail promotions, and the like) once you reach a certain number of reviews, and more free marketing still if you can reach that number within the first month of publication.

But you should never respond to those reviews — it is considered unprofessional, in most cases (and yes, this is an unfair situation where one or more reviewers can abuse, sometimes even libel an author.  It is still considered unprofessional to respond).  Even esteemed writers have gotten themselves in trouble by replying to negative reviews.

In fact, it might be worth it to ignore your reviews completely.  Now, this can be hard (I’ve known several authors say “You should never read your reviews.  And if you can figure out how to do this, let me know too, will you?”), but it will probably do you a lot of good.

Some writers think that their reviews will provide them with wonderful insight into what their readers think, tons of constructive criticism, and hopefully even some encouraging words.  Now, the encouraging words is entirely possible, but the rest of it…

Yes, if you have a lot of people bringing up the same problem, you might be able to pinpoint a detail or two that can be fixed.  But… reviewers don’t necessarily agree on what the good and bad points of your writing are.  A few of your most vocal readers could be drawn to your writing through Aspect A, but vehemently dislike Aspect B.  Aspect B might also be the favorite thing that the silent majority of your readers enjoy.

Even professional reviewers won’t agree.  Now, I’m going to use an example from an entirely different artistic medium (in this case, quilting), because it’s partly what inspired this post, but it applies to editorial reviews, too.

My mother entered a quilt into the Houston International Quilt Festival.  This is a judged competition, and is sometimes compared to the Academy Awards for the competitive show quilt world.  The judges in these quilt festivals, in this case a team of three, are quite similar to those professional editorial reviewers in the writing world.  As I interpret the judges comments, and she mentioned on her own blog, the judges for her quilt thought it:

  1.   Was a good use of color.
  2.   Was a bad use of color.
  3.   Looked a lot like an illuminated manuscript, as set by an appropriate border.
  4.   Had a border that overwhelmed and detracted from the central figure.
  5.   Integrated the expected design elements well.
  6.   Integrated the expected design elements poorly.
  7.   Had a pleasing overall appearance.
  8.   Did not have a pleasing overall appearance.

Etc., etc., etc.  You get the idea, right?  These are trained, professional “reviewers” of quilts.  There are far more objective (or at least somewhat objective) elements for these “reviewers” to consider than what most reviewers of writing bother to consider.  And yet they are completely and totally contradictory from one another.

This is also why, as a writer, you don’t always have to agree with everything your editors tell you.  Editors are professionals, but they are not infallible.  You should at least consider everything they say critically.  Usually, what they tell you is something that needs to be fixed.  Sometimes they can point out a problem, but you might want to use a different solution than they provide.  Sometimes, however, your editor might be trying to fix a problem that isn’t there, though, and the solution is worse than your original text.

Editors at least make an effort to be objective in their edits.  Reviewers, however, aren’t reviewing your work to fix your problems like an editor is — they are giving you their entirely subjective view on what they liked and what they didn’t.  And everyone has different opinions about what they like and what they don’t, so it’s not worth it to try and pander to them all.  It’s a bit of a cliché to say it, but you need to write to please yourself.

You might want to have someone else read those reviews for you, though.  You write to please yourself, but you publish (or enter quilt shows, or sell your artwork, or whatnot) to make money.  If the majority of your readers have a problem with a certain aspect of your writing, give that issue a critical eye.  It might be something you’re determined to do, regardless, but if not it just might be worth it to address that issue in your future writing.

Edit:  Spammers are forcing me to close these comments for a while.  If you would like me to re-open them, please let me know.