The REAL function of reviews (and why they really do still matter)
In days gone by, book reviews were the province of the professional, published in broadsheet newspapers, Sunday supplements and other publications. If a critic didn’t like a book, this was a big deal and usually meant that sales of said book became unstable: some folks would buy a book just because of a bad review and others who might otherwise have had a punt at it, avoided it.
Then everything changed. Not only did Amazon allow reviews, now it even chases you up some time after purchase asking what you thought. Blogs and book review websites give their thoughts on books. Everyone, it seems, is allowed to be a critic now.
Now while many have criticised Amazon for all sorts of things (and rightly so) the company has given a very valuable facility to writers who by now might be running out of bottom drawers to store rejected manuscripts in: a place to publish at minimal or even no cost. It’s also given readers the chance to express their thoughts on favourite and not so favourite and even hated books.
It’s been a volatile combination. A few years back, someone (who? We may never know) figured out that there was a winning combination to be had from reviews. If a book garnered X amount of reviews, then it triggered an automatic promotion of the book from Amazon. It meant that emails landed in the in-boxes of anyone who’d bought something even vaguely similar, alerting them to a book they may like. If your book garnered some more, the promotion stepped up a notch. So, the race was on to reach the magic numbers of reviews and that’s when things went pear-shaped. Authors started to buy reviews, or created sock puppet accounts to review their own books, and brow beat members of their family and friends to review their books. They also stooped to even lower tricks like writing one star reviews for the books of perceived rivals to lower their overall star average so that they became ineligible for a number of prestigious review sites. Flame wars broke out on message boards and discussion groups. Readers lost confidence in the impartiality of Amazon reviews, and became suspicious of books that had only five star reviews, believing (despite evidence to the contrary) that all must have been written by the author or the author’s friends and family. Amazon itself cracked down on some reviews, and began to declare that it was against their terms and conditions for authors to review other authors writing in the same genres, but failed to isolate and deal with the swathes of negative one star reviews instigated by disgruntled authors and their minions.
The review system was declared fatally flawed and I’ve heard people say they pay no attention to reviews any more. I’ve no idea if the algorithm that triggered extra promotion still exists, because I am still short of the magic number (or the one I last heard of) and they’ve probably moved the goal posts anyway!
So, if readers don’t really read or take heed of reviews, what’s the point of them? Why do so many authors ask for them, send out ARC to folks so that within hours or days of publication, there are reviews brightening the page?
It’s complicated. We’re tribal animals, us humans, and we’re not all of us pioneers. It’s a rare person who’ll venture precious cash on something totally untried. Myself, if the blurb has interested me (quite rare now) I tend to glance at reviews (and I do look at one star reviews too), download a sample and go from there. If I like what I read, I will probably buy regardless of what negative reviews say. (As an exercise, I challenge you to look up one of your very favourite books on Amazon and read the one star reviews. That puts it all into perspective. I have a single one star review that upset me at the time but which now I treasure.)
So if reviews are not really for potential readers, who are they for?
They’re about a kind of dialogue that was never possible before the internet. The dialogue between author and reader. Yes, letters were written, but the very public nature of reviews means that anyone can read them. This is why it’s very bad practise for an author to answer reviews, especially negative ones, without a great deal of thought, if at all.
Being a writer can be intensely lonely. We build worlds in our heads and we let others into those worlds when we publish, but there’s a real anxiety that we didn’t do a good enough job. Do the readers see what I see? Do they feel what I feel about the characters? When a review pops up (or an email or letter for that matter) and it becomes clear that we succeeded in our aims, that brings the real joy.
Reading my own reviews has told me a lot of things. Here are a few:You can’t please everyone. Some folks love a happy ever after ending, some prefer things less neat. Some readers cannot cope with typos. (S&P needs a good sweep through for these; I am aware of it but finding the time to do it is harder than you’d think. I was rushed into publishing it, and had been assured it was ‘clean’. Lesson- be more discerning about so-called friends). Some people seek to find detective story twists in literary fiction and are disappointed they did not find any. People have their own ideas of where a story should go, and can be unreasonably disappointed when it doesn’t go where they thought it should. In a story with multiple strands, readers all have their own favourites and preferences for where they would like it to go in a sequel(this makes sequels exceptionally hard to write). Readers become protective and loving towards certain characters, and become attached to them. Themes that affect one reader positively can push the buttons of another.
As a writer, hearing that a story that I lived and wept over has affected someone means I have done my job and done it well. In these days where the push is towards having mega best-sellers, which fly off the virtual and real shelves in their thousands every day, it’s easy to forget that there is a relationship going on, an unseen dialogue between the author and the reader. As a reader, I often want to tell the author what I liked or didn’t like, and why. In some books that have profoundly affected me, I have reviewed them so that my experience validates the book in some way for another reader. Experiencing it from either side means I understand very well how much it can mean to a writer to hear that their words helped another person. As a writer, reviews give me a reason to continue when self doubt and depression knock me down, when sales are poor and when it seems like the whole world wants to read the latest blockbuster by a famous writer and small fry like me don’t really exist. Reviews assure me that I have skills and that people I have never met appreciated those skills.
Writers can be fragile beings. Hemingway once said, “Writing is easy. You just sit at a typewriter and bleed,”. Reviews (well, good ones anyway) are the salve on the open wounds, that soothe and heal and give us strength to go on bleeding.