Monday, September 7, 2015

Why Reviews Are Important

You may have heard it before. Heck, I've even said it before here on the blog. But it certainly bears repeating so I'll just go ahead:

Reviews are extremely important for authors.

Why, you ask? Excellent question, and even though I've blogged about the fact that they are important before, I've never really gotten into the why of it. So let's address that now, shall we?

First of all, we'll start with the obvious: Reviews attract new readers. Whether it's because they actually read the reviews to form an idea of whether or not they would like the book, or simply because they check to see what the average rating is and how many reviews generated it, the more reviews a book has the more likely it is to be read by someone new. This is true for many things purchased on the internet these days, and it is true for books as well. (And in case you were wondering, LOTS of books are purchased on the internet.)

Now let's move on to the stuff that you're not likely to have heard unless you're involved in publishing directly:

This meme has been floating around a number of author and book blogger facebook pages over the past few weeks and, as I'm not sure of its origins, it's accuracy may be suspect. However, I have read a number of articles from legitimate sources that confirm that some version of these numbers is correct. Whether it's 25 or 35 and 50 or 100, it is true that there are amazon algorithms that at a certain point push your book in front of more new potential readers when you reach a certain number of reviews. This is huge for an author looking to increase book sales. Amazon is something like 60% of the online market for books.

In addition, there are a number of promotional services for which books can qualify that require a minimum number of reviews (and an average rating above a certain number) and that number is often over 20 (and the rating is generally above a 4/5). Some of these promotional services are paid, and some are free, but the bottom line is they are trying to maintain a certain standard of quality for the readers who subscribe to their lists/websites and to do so they require a certain number of reviews. 

In other words: reviews are becoming the lifeblood of authors these days, and not just indie authors. Traditionally published authors are finding success or failure based on reviews too. 

Having a high number of reviews on amazon can be as effective in leading to sales as thousands of dollars worth of advertising. Yes, reviews are that crucial these days. 

So, now you're thinking, "Ok, Virginia, I get. You want everyone you know to go give you five stars on amazon and say your book was the best book they've ever read."

NO. I don't. In fact, please, please, please, DON'T do that.

Fake reviews--reviews written by people who haven't read the book, or who are obviously just friends and family of the author gushing over the book--will be taken down by amazon, and don't help an author in the long run at all. 

What I'm actually hoping comes of this blog post is that people will take the time to give their HONEST opinion about books that they have read on Amazon and other sites (like Goodreads) whether that opinion is good or bad (preferably a mix of both).

Here's the thing, the reviews that are most helpful to new readers (and consequently to authors) are reviews that are honest and thoughtful. They don't have to be long, they just have to be sincere. It's honestly in the author's best interest to have a mix of reviews that are good and bad, because then it seems like real humans are reading the books and having actual personal reactions to the book. Not everyone loves the same thing. This should show in the reviews.

I have read rave reviews for books that have made it quite clear that I wouldn't like said book, and scathing reviews of other books that have made me sure that I would enjoy them. How? If the reader gushed about how much they loved X in a particular book, and X is a thing I know I don't like, I'm unlikely to enjoy that book. The opposite is also true, "Oh I hated ____ because of all the ___" could make it very clear to me that I will enjoy that book. 

Until my first book was released into the world I never thought much about what constituted a well written review, or why it would be important to anyone. I'm generally of the type that doesn't care what anyone else thinks about the things that I like so it never occurred to me to write reviews for anything but the products that I thought either amazingly good or amazingly bad. 

There is no one way to write a review, and honestly it's more important that one writes them than that one writes them well, but I will say this again and I can't stress it enough: It's far more useful to the author that your review be thoughtful rather than a gushing 5 stars.

How to craft a well written review:

Note: ONLY WRITE REVIEWS FOR BOOKS YOU HAVE ACTUALLY READ and make sure they contain your honest opinion.

Now that's settled...

First, let's consider some examples of what not do.

1/5 stars: I hated this book. It's the worst book in the world.


5/5 stars: I loved this book. It's the best book in the world.  

Both of those reviews are completely useless to the author and anyone who might be interested in reading that book. Why you ask? Because they don't actually convey any useful information, or even a useful opinion. 

There are useful 5 star reviews, and there are useful 1 star reviews too. Examples? There are lots of them in the world, but I'll go ahead and make up a couple of short ones so that you can see that it shouldn't take a huge investment of time to get the job done.

We'll start with a useful 5 star review:

5/5 stars: I enjoyed every moment of the Black Jewels trilogy by Anne Bishop. From the well developed characters (many of whom are badass women and girls), to the compelling pace, and intricate plot line, all three books kept me turning pages from start to finish. The world that Anne Bishop builds is detailed and engaging and fully transported me throughout the story. This is a book that I love so much I reread it when I'm feeling sick, or even merely homesick. There is some repetitive wording in the books that I've noticed more on rereads than I ever did when I read them for the first time as I was too engaged in the plot to be distracted. Also, if you do not appreciate dark fantasy these books will not be a good match for you. They contain lots of sex and violence and the antagonists are truly horrible people who do terrible things. 

So, five star reviews seem easier because after all, it's easy to say more when you like something. Still, that's a mere 154 words* to gush about what is ultimately one of my favorite fantasy series of all time. If I were actually going to write that review I would probably spend closer to 500 words on each of the three books because I struggle to contain myself when it comes to that series, and because I like to explain things. However, the review would be useful to anyone, including people who shouldn't read those books. Note the last two lines address problems/warnings. 

It's important to include either a criticism about something you didn't like, or at least a warning about things you think someone else may not appreciate in the books in order to give a well rounded review. 

There is some repetitive wording in the Black Jewels trilogy and if you don't like dark fantasy (fantasy containing a fair bit of violence, sex, and really messed up bad guys/good guys who are toeing the line of becoming bad guys) you really would hate those books.

Which brings me to... how to write a good 1 star review (yes, they exist).

1/5 Stars: The Black Jewels trilogy takes place in an interesting world with an imaginative premise, but after that the author lost me. Everyone in the book is constantly on the verge of violence and everyone's "hackles" are constantly going up. The repetition drove me crazy. There is too much violence in this book for me to enjoy and the antagonists get away with doing a ton of horrible things to perfectly innocent people. It was more than I could stomach, and I gave up after the first book in the series. I suppose that people who don't mind that much violence might enjoy the series, but I couldn't get into the characters even though I enjoyed some of the dialogue and world building. Lots of people rave about this series, but it simply wasn't for me.

So, I put myself in the place of someone who can't stomach any violence on the page and tried to imagine how they would have experienced the truly dark things that happen in the Black Jewels trilogy. I think they would hate it, and I think they would be so put off by the bad things happening that they wouldn't be able to enjoy a number of things that I did enjoy about the books. I found the characters well developed and engaging, but if I couldn't get past the violence of the books I don't think I would have been able to identify with those characters as even the protagonists are all pretty violent (it's one of the interesting premises of the Black Jewels world). 

That one star review is incredibly useful to readers, and consequently is useful to the author. It should keep away the readers that won't enjoy the story and thus reduce the overall number of 1 and 2 star reviews. It is thoughtful and considered. It isn't a rant. It doesn't insult the author or the author's writing, and it doesn't insult people who enjoy the books. It simply and clearly states the reasons that the reader didn't enjoy the series.

*Note that either of these reviews can be written in one or two sentences instead of a full paragraph: 

5/5 stars: I enjoyed everything about these books from the characters, to the plot, to the pacing. Not for those who are squeamish about violence.

1/5 stars: Interesting premise, but too much violence for me; the antagonists were heinous. Also too much repetition of certain phrases was distracting.

More difficult to write is a review in which the writing really did turn you off the book, but it's still possible to do. Sometimes it's helpful to break things into categories: plot, pacing, character development, quality of prose, editing, formatting etc. I have written some 2 and 3 star reviews in which I tried to find one positive thing for each category and then list the things that bothered me. Alternatively if you can at least find one category to gush about it's ok to say negative things about the rest. Here are some basic guidelines for writing useful reviews of any star rating:

And since this has morphed into a giant essay on review writing, I am going to go ahead and wrap things up here. But I will add two quick notes: 1. If you share the same last name as an author (because you're actually related to them) you probably shouldn't leave a review. Amazon is likely to take it down. 

And 2. A huge thank you to every single person who has left a review of any kind for any of my work and to everyone who takes the time to review any of the books that they read. YOU ROCK! Here, have a cute dog staring perplexedly at a river for your troubles:


  1. What an excellent post, along with a very useful 'how to' guide for leaving reviews. I also like how you've used the same book for all your examples.

    1. Thanks, Angie! I was hoping folks would find this useful. :-)

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