Thursday, July 21, 2011

What Makes A Great Review?

Last night we got the best review ever for Darker By Degree. Well, maybe not the best review ever, but a damned satisfying one, the kind that makes a smile pop out on your face throughout the day and gives you the warm fuzzies, the kind that lets you know you did what you meant to do. More about that in a moment.

Reviews are important, especially for those of us who've taken the self-pub route, and they're important for a number of reasons. First, most readers are reluctant to take a blind jump. If they've never heard of you, they may be reluctant to give you a try, even if you've got a nifty cover and a catchy blurb. But if they see other people dipping a toe in the water, and then caring enough to describe that experience, they're more likely to take the plunge. Second, well-done reviews give a little more information, and information from a reader's perspective as opposed to the author's perspective. We as writers sometimes miss what's best (or worst) or most compelling about our own works. Reviewers can point that out, especially to other potential readers who might be of a like mind. Third, reviews help you get noticed. They move you up in searches, they help you get linked, they drive people to your books.

So, yes, we want reviews. We need reviews. But we want good reviews. And by good reviews, I don't mean, "Oooh, that was the best book I ever read!" reviews. I mean thoughtful, meaningful reviews. Yes, we hope they're flattering and complimentary, but we also hope they add something to the conversation, that they pique someone's interest, that they illuminate.

I've seen people tweet about "Another 5-star Review!" But I've also learned that the vaunted 5-star review is not all it's cracked up to be. It's common knowledge that reviews can be gamed, and are gamed quite regularly. Many people don't "trust" a 5-star review, figuring that it's either friends of the author or the authors themselves salting the mine. I've read time and time again in comments hither and yon that potential readers are really interested in the 3- and 4-star reviews, because they tend to be better balanced, reasoned, thought-out, and explained.

There was an interesting post on Konrath's blog earlier this week where he sort of trashes the notion of 1-star reviews. I can see his point -- which was that a lot of 1-star reviews (hell, a lot of reviews, period) are nonsense because they're not really reviews, but instead knee-jerk reactions to what may or may not even be legitimate critical points, like the price of the book or the genre. As someone who often writes in the horror genre, I would like to personally pound anyone who gives a horror novel an automatic 1-star because they "don't like horror." But I do think Konrath kind of wanders off his main point just a tad by twisting things to say in effect there are "no 1-star books." In his defense, he did start off my stating something about "assuming a certain level of competence," but still, there are some pretty atrocious books out there. As always, nice debate in the comments section.

There's also mixed feeling in readers about soliciting reviews, mostly because many don't understand that's how any traditionally published book gets reviews: you send out arcs or free copies and hope that reviewers will read and review them. It's really no different than, say, using a service like the new BookRooster, which for a reasonable fee will give free copies to their readers (in your genre) until you've received a minimum of 10 Amazon reviews. The part that makes people feel squidgy about it is that each review has to start out with a disclaimer that the reviewer received a free copy to review. For readers who understand the process, this should be no problem, but more casual readers may think, "Hey, why do they have to GIVE the book away...." Hopefully, that kind of attitude will be dispelled over time as the practice becomes more common. After all, you're not guaranteed a "good" review, so it's not like an old payola scam.

And there are increasingly people and sites, like Red Adept, that will review self-pubbed books for free. Also joining groups like GoodReads, Shelfari, and LibraryThing can link you up to readers who are more likely to review your books.

But sometimes the best review is the one you haven't sought out, the reader who found your book, who enjoyed it, and who took the time to tell everybody why. Which brings me back to the most excellent review that we got last night for Darker By Degree. Yeah, it wasn't a "5-star," and it wasn't all gushy, but it was better than that.  First of all, it was by someone who does lots of reviews (over 600!), and they're thoughtful reviews, not drive-bys or love fests. And in looking over those reviews, the reader is not afraid to point out what's good and bad in a book. They didn't give away too much of the plot, but they hit they high points that they found compelling. And then at the end, they gave the best compliment a self-pubbed author could hope to receive:

"Maddie Pryce has a career as an actor, but not a lot of work. In fact her day to day bills are paid by her job as an usher in an elegant but crumbling old art deco theatre showing vintage movies.

One night after a triple bill of 30's and 40's classic horror, she finds one of her coworkers murdered. Another coworker makes himself scarce when the cops try to interview him about the homicide. One detective in particular, Kyle Oberman, takes a more than casual interest in Maddie, as it seems that she has managed to become the object of a stalker who is looking for a missing porn actress and thinks Maddie might know something about the missing woman.

With a dose of action, some good dialogue and Maddie's entertaining views on Hollywood, this mystery is well worth reading. I read it on my iphone and didn't notice any major formatting problems. In fact I would not have been surprised to pull this one off a library shelf in hard cover.


Yep, the best thing about that review, the thing that warmed the cockles of my cynical little heart? "I would not have been surprised to pull this one off a library shelf in hardcover." Wow. I will say, Susan and Harold and I worked our collective butts off to not only put together an engrossing read, but to present is as professionally as a traditionally published novel from a major house. For at least one reader, we accomplished that, and that is a fine, fine thing.

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