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Book Reviews–Unintended consequences.

The unintended consequences of drive-by and detailed reader reviews.

There are three things that an author must absolutely do:

1. Write a great story people will want to read.
2. Pair it with a great cover that radiates genre and doesn’t give the story away.
3. Write a blurb that makes the reader want to look inside the book AND doesn’t give away the plot.

The order here is very important. It reveals the steps in sequence, but the truth is that #2 (a great cover) probably has more to do with whether or not someone will read the blurb and #3 (a great blurb) has more to do with whether or not someone will look inside and ultimately decide to hit the “Buy” button AND proceed to actually read the book. While “Buy” may seem like the end-all and be-all of the process, it’s not, because if the reader doesn’t finish the book, how likely are they to buy another?

Enter the poison pill of our times, the “review.” Now, I’m not talking about editorial reviews, which are a whole different animal. I’m talking about the “reader” review.

Authors beg for “reader” reviews, they tout the number of reviews they have, and they spend a lot of time and energy which could better be applied to any other area of life–including scrubbing the toilet–dealing with the OPINIONS of random strangers who may or may NOT have actually read, finished, or paid for their book (yes, this is true; Amazon requires that a person buy all other products before leaving a review, except for books; since they are such a huge chunk of the market, the way they treat books differently than all other items they sell, matters).

Unfortunately, sometimes authors get what they asked for, i.e. a review, but not what they wanted: something to help them sell more books. There is supposed to be some magic number (that no one knows) that makes Amazon’s algorithms kick in and it’s that magic number that authors desperately grasp for.

Word is, that it’s purely a numbers game, and that the content of the reviews matters not, but I don’t think that’s true. If it was true, people wouldn’t get so worked about the content of their reviews. Although most get worked up about negative reviews or critical ones, I’d like to point out how even a positive, well-intentioned review can have unintended consequences.

This bears repeating:

De gustatibus non disputandum.

There’s no accounting for taste.

First and foremost, we must keep in mind that one man’s feast is another man’s poison. This is why random opinions are not worth the 0’s and 1’s they’re written in and why word of mouth and a trusted friend saying “You should read this” still has value.

The drive-by

On one end of the spectrum we have the drive-by review (think drive-by shooting and you’ll understand the reference).

Drive-by reviews are left by readers spouting off about how much they hate the genre (yet have taken the time to read it anyway; allegedly). Or they go on about how much they hate anthologies (yet have taken the time to read it anyway; allegedly). Or they hate books with big words. Or short books. Or long books. It just goes on and on. The list is lengthy and varied.

“But wait,” you say. “I can just dismiss those because they are obviously not relevant.” Okay, fair enough. There are worse things though, that will affect your reading experience even more.

What could be worse than a drive-by review?

On the other end of the spectrum is the detailed review. Unlike the drive-by review, the intentions here are usually good. The reviewer is simply showing that they actually read the book. You can tell by how much work they put into it, sometimes going on and on about every plot point, as if they were writing an essay to be graded.

In doing so, they’ve just taken that well-written blurb and that well-designed cover, and ruined them. It’s one of the reasons I’ve stopped reading reviews of fiction altogether. They give away the plot and therefore make the book seem predictable even when it wasn’t written that way.

Such reviews ruin a lot of the hard work an author put into his or her book. If you see a lot of reviews that say that the book was predictable, check the blurb. If it gave away the plot, IT is to blame. If not, check the reviews. If they gave away the plot, THEY are to blame.

If you read a dozen reviews and each one gives away a different plot point, is it any wonder it seems like the story is predictable.

What a shame it is that an author’s well-written blurb and expensive cover are destroyed by their well-intentioned readers.

If you want to write a review for your favorite author, do them and their readers a favor. Don’t give away the story details. We don’t need a blow-by-blow. That’s what we get when WE read it. And even one detail here added to the further details left by others can gang up on and mug a person’s reading experience.

Keep it short and sweet.

“The action sequences were amazing” is far better than describing the action sequence and who dies or how the hero gets away. Yes, it’s vague. Yes, it’s taste, but it sums up YOUR experience without ruining it for others.

“The characters were unforgettable” is far better than going into detail about what made the character unforgettable because that inevitably leads to giving away details that will make the story/character seem predictable.

You can talk about how you felt–I couldn’t put it down. This was time well spent. It’s going on my re-read pile–all without ruining someone else’s reading experience.

And no, it’s not enough to say “Spoilers ahead” because you can’t control just how much more someone reads when they look at the review. Devices differ, and so does what is and is not shown when someone clicks on “…more..”

The truth is that reviews have became not just a marketing tool, but a weapon. While it’s easy to dismiss what is obviously a biased review (those are easy to tell to as they usually focus on personal attacks) or a drive-by one, it’s much harder to remain conscious of the fact that you read a dozen detailed summaries of the book before you read the actual book, and that’s why you set it down and never finished it.

And I’m willing to bet that the next time you see that author’s work, the one thing that will stick in your mind is that you didn’t finish their last book, not that you read a bunch of the reviews that spoiled it for you.

Just something to keep in mind before you dive into all those reviews and definitely something to keep in mind when you write one.

  1. OldNFO says:

    Excellent points all. Sigh…

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