Why I read reviews
The other day a question came up on Twitter: what value do you get out of reading reviews? I’d been thinking of writing about this topic anyway, so I thought it was time to put my thoughts in writing…
A lot of writers refuse to read reviews of their own books, on the grounds that if they read the good ones, they are honour-bound to read the bad ones, and they find the latter too painful. I can understand that attitude, and if that’s how you roll, you have my sympathy. Writing is hard enough, without getting stressed out about the things you can’t control—like reader reaction.
So why read reviews at all? Clearly you have to have a thick skin (or be a masochist), but I think they can be useful if you approach them in the right way. For me, it’s a kind of market research. We’re constantly being told that, as 21st century writers, we need to be aware of our audience—our market, to put it in even more commercial terms. But who is that market?
Some writers have an instinctive feel for it, like Jack Sheffield, who spoke at the Winchester Writers’ Conference a few years ago. He uses his experiences as a headteacher to write novels set in a fictional primary school in the 1970s, and he targets readers in their 40s who were at school in that period. Nostalgia, pure and simple. Maybe I’m just not commercially minded enough, but I don’t have a clear demographic in mind for my books. I simply write books of the kind that I would enjoy reading, and hope to appeal to the fans of authors whose books I enjoy: Lynn Flewelling, Tim Powers and so on. Hence, reading reviews by book bloggers and other fantasy fans helps me to find out who is reading my books and what they enjoy about them.
I should also point out that for these purposes I focus on the positive reviews and ignore the negative ones. Not because I’m looking for an ego-boost, but because if someone doesn’t connect with my books, they are by definition not my target audience. Of course if the majority of your readers are dissatisfied, you have some serious work to do, but if the critics are in the minority, you’ll just be shooting yourself in the foot by trying to please them.
Most importantly, it’s not about individual opinions so much as trends. The more reviews you read, the more you realise how idiosyncratic an individual’s response to a book is. One person may love Character A and find Character B annoying, another feels the exact opposite. Some reviewers say they find The Alchemist of Souls slow-paced, others that they couldn’t put it down. They can’t all be “right”, in the sense of providing objective criticism! So, I’m looking for a consensus, of the “this was a great book apart from…” variety. For example, I have to admit that the “slow” comment crops up quite a bit, so I have to at least consider whether I can up the pace a little in the next book without throwing away its other virtues.
I’m also on the lookout for comments of the “I love X and would like to see more” variety, where X is something I enjoy writing, and particularly where no-one else singles out X as something they hate. That’s a no-brainer for the writer, really. Sometimes you’re just too close to the writing to see what needs bringing out, so this kind of feedback is invaluable. Yes, a good editor may also provide this kind of feedback, but editors are individuals too and they can sometimes overlook the elements that really click with the audience.
One last word on negative reviews: never, EVER respond. It doesn’t matter how justified your complaint—baring your ego in public is not pretty, and will not win you any respect. If an Amazon review is offensive or totally irrelevant, you can ask Amazon to delete it, but for the love of God do not comment in person, or ask your friends to comment on your behalf. You chose to put your writing out into the world, and the reader is entitled to their opinion, however wrong-headed.
The only thing that really gets under my skin is when a reader accuses me of factual inaccuracy—and is wrong. I try not to over-explain everything in my novels, with the result that some readers will miss connections and go with their gut reaction. Still, I bite my tongue and hope that other potential readers seeing these reviews will also know that the reviewer is wrong. I know for sure that a comment from me will only hurt my case. If the topic is big enough, though, I might blog about it (as I did about homosexuality in Elizabeth England); that way I can have my say without attacking individuals.
What it comes down is that whatever you write, not everyone is going to “get” it—and you’re going to have to live with that. Either you stay away from reviews altogether, or you discipline yourself to take the rough with the smooth and learn from it, like with the rest of life. Your choice. Just choose wisely…