On Book Reviews
By Micki Peluso
Do we, as writers, need a slew of five star reviews to sell books? Some readers claim they never read them, others say they do, and many claim not to be swayed by reviews to buy the book. Personally, as a high-ranking Amazon reviewer, I can attest to over 200 potential buyers telling Amazon my review helped in their decision to buy – or not.
As an author I feel that my own 60+ 5 star reviews couldn't hurt but truthfully don't see much increase in sales. Sales seem to be controlled by a book’s ranking on Amazon, raising it to a level where it can be more readily seen by purchasers. Basically, there are two types of reviews; the ‘all my gosh, I was up all night reading this,’ style and the formula type professional review, which is used more for pre-marketing, press releases and promotion. Both are necessary and needed in the ongoing battle with selling books.
The first one is actually a customer comment more than a review. Even bad ones like ‘you won't believe the garbage in this book’ will help sales as readers rush to see what could be so bad. Amazon stars mean little, and are simplistic in their rating which makes it hard for reviewers to use them. For instance, one star means ‘hated it,’ two stars, ‘like did a little,’ three stars, ‘liked it a little more,’ four stars, ‘really liked it,’ and five stars, ‘loved it.’ Seriously? The reviews that are important to writers are from review sites like The New York Journal of Books, Kirkus, Midwest Review, and various newspapers and magazines reviews.
Amazon sets the criteria for review formats now, but it is obviously ignored. They request honesty, prefer a summary, ask for a bestseller the book is similar to, etc., much like the professional review. I believe Amazon prefers the gushy customer reviews because they're likely to sell more books.
A professional review demands the criteria required by the review sites, publishers and publicists, and have specific guidelines. I am required to follow these when reviewing bestsellers like Nora Roberts, James Patterson, Stephen King, and others. The number one rule is to avoid the use of the word ‘I’ in the review. Instead, I might say, ‘This well-written romance will keep the reader turning pages.’
A professional review site expects a summary of the first 30-60 pages of the book, explaining the theme or premise, introducing characters and giving a general story line but with no spoilers. Next comes a description of the writer’s style, talent, if any, character development, general grammar and syntax, as well as outstanding errors and format. The New York Journal of Books prefers the reviewer find one thing wrong with the book, since according to them, no book is perfect. I tend to disagree an often ignore this rule, unless it's a bestseller who should know better. I also refuse to slam a fellow writer and my criticism is constructive to the point of almost sounding like a compliment. It's a gift. Lol Next comes a teaser regarding the ending, followed by the mention of other books by the author that the reader might enjoy as well. Then my byline and that's it. I do get pleasure from finding fault with bestsellers, but only because I see such talent among independent writers whose books cannot find their way to the top. I get the books mailed from the publisher along with press releases, synopses and other helpful information. It's a treat to find a short segment of review that I wrote in the back of a bestseller. Still, I mostly freelance because I love to promote my fellow writers.
With them I am gentler and when I do point out a flaw I generally take the author aside in an e-mail and mention it to them, suggesting that they make changes in their next printing. If a book is so poorly written that to give it a fair review would reflect upon my integrity as a reviewer, I simply won't review it. It's not the reviewer's job to critique, edit or suggest changes in a writer's style. It's my job to let readers know what the book is about and why I, personally, liked it – or not.
For me at least, my professional reviews which I use for all reviews are carefully crafted and as well written as if it were an article or essay. I believe that the better my own writing is in reviewing the book can only reflect well upon the author.