In February, I went to a Chicagoland SFF conference called Capricon. Among the engaging panels, I attended was one called “Book Reviews vs. Literary Criticism: But is it good?” Panelists included a publicist, a couple of writers, and a book reviewer for a newspaper.
The topic they started with was the difference between a fully-fledged piece of literary criticism and the kind of short, off-the-cuff reviews you usually see on Amazon or Goodreads. But they touched on a number of issues that might be of interest to readers who might potentially review a book or to writers who long for those reviews.
For potential reviewers
Reviews left at Amazon or Goodreads don’t have to be long or fancy. Writers love them anyway. Even apart from the joy that comes knowing someone read your book, the sheer number of reviews affects whether Amazon includes it in some promotions.
But writing even a short review takes work, so here’s my rather truncated practice. First, I don’t review very popular books. They have a lot of reviews already. They don’t need mine. So whew! On to the next book in my to-be-read pile.
I also don’t leave negative reviews. If I’m not enjoying a book, I quit reading it, so no review is necessary there either.
But, if I enjoy the book enough to finish it, I usually leave a short review saying what I liked.
There’s a caveat though. These days Amazon is wary of writers who pay for reviews or even get their friends to write them. If Amazon thinks a writer and reviewer are too closely connected, it sometimes removes the review. I understand the motivation but I know a lot of writers. We really do read one another’s books and it’s a shame if we can’t review them. Still, once in a while that issue keeps me from writing a review.
One consideration the panel raised was whether you should @ the writer you’re reviewing. The panel consensus was no. Pointing out your review to the writer is either a request for credit if you said nice things or a poke in the eye if you didn’t. A recent post at Book Riot argued in favor of tagging the writer. I think that’s wrong.
Here there’s one rule and some hopefully helpful advice.
Rule: Never answer a review. Especially never answer a bad review.
I first seriously thought about this question back when I was writing Tolkien fanfiction. Many readers of fanfic leave reviews and the writer is expected to answer out of sheer politeness. That’s because fanfiction is a communal activity. It’s done by people who all enjoy the same writer and share that enjoyment by writing and reading.
One site I used made it very easy for readers to comment on other reviews and people engaged in serious discussions. Both the story and the reviews were community actions, which is part of the pleasure of writing fanfiction. The reviews were for the writer, and from those reviews, I learned a lot about Tolkien and about writing. (Here’s a link to a typical discussion.)
But outside of fanfiction, the review is not for the writer. It’s for other potential readers who want to know if this is a book they’d enjoy or maybe have already read the book and want to see if other readers reacted as they did. The writer needs to stay out of it.
Nothing good ever comes from answering a negative review. Ever.
Hopefully helpful advice
It’s very difficult to get readers to leave reviews. They’re busy and don’t know what to say.
But I can think of two legit ways to increase your reviews. First, you can use a review service such as Itsy Bitsy Book Bits or Hidden Gems. You pay a small fee and provide your book in e-form. The service puts it up on their site and reviewers can choose it to review. In this sense, they work like Net Galley.
I’ve never done this because I’m too cheap. But one of the writers on the Capricon panel wound up with something like 30 reviews from using such a service. I’m reconsidering my cheapness.
Second, you can write to book bloggers and politely ask for a review. If you do this, personalize your request. Read the site first. See what else they reviewed. Provide a reason you are targeting them, such as the kind of book they seem to like.
A good rule for everyone
Generally, the best rule for everyone is to support one another. Don’t be a jerk. Help lift someone else up when you can. I’m not sure I believe karma will reward you, but you’ll feel better about yourself.
A longtime English Professor who taught technical writing at Iowa State University, Garlands member Dorothy Winsor, 72, pursued her desire to write fiction in retirement. “Although I read plenty of fiction, I never thought of myself as being creative enough to write it,” Winsor said. “Turns out I was wrong!” Winsor’s fifth young adult fantasy novel is currently with her publisher, and she’s eyeing a sixth.
Her advice to others who are considering pursuing their dreams in retirement: “Don’t doubt yourself! Be brave enough to try new things no matter what your age.”
Dorothy is a guest blogger for The Garlands. We are delighted to share her thoughts on writing . . . and just about anything else that crosses her creative mind!