Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reviews – and Why They're Always Valuable - Guest Post by Chaz Wood

Every writer needs reviews. That's a fact. Not every writer is great at going out there and soliciting total strangers to read their books and write about them, but unless you are a neo-Renaissance artiste who has devoted their remaining days to starving to death in a garret while penning poems of unrequited love with their own blood, then you will want some written publicity for your works. Most of what follows is written with the online world in mind, but the basics can be applied to any body or individual who review books, poetry or stories.

I won't go too far into the hows and whys of getting reviewed – except to say that I have never paid a penny for a review, nor will I ever. No offence to those who do, or who offer such services, but that's simply not my style. I would take an honest 2.5/5 score any day over a gushing 5/5 from someone who treats book reviewing as a business and who, having cashed my cheque, may feel duty-bound to sing my praises from the belltower. Good for the ego, not so good for sales.

While I've never had a truly bad review (yet!) I've had some that were better than others. Some reviewers have honestly admitted that a certain work simply wasn't 'their thing', which is as much my fault for not thoroughly checking out the reviewer's website or personal tastes beforehand. It probably goes without saying (says he, proceeding to say it anyway) that a little homework can help avoid the worst possible reviews. Don't send your sexy splatter-filled Satanic horror tale to a middle-aged Christian mother of nine, whose favourite book is Wind in the Willows. Try to pinpoint reviewers who operate within a certain genre - say, dark fantasy and sci-fi, or thrillers - as specialist reviewers will have a better grasp of the conventions and minutiae of the genre, which a general reader may not 'get', or comment negatively upon.

Having convinced someone to read your work, you need to prepare yourself for the result. Don't assume that a chatty, friendly email conversation will necessarily result in an awesome write-up at the end of it. Don't be cynical, but don't expect drooling adoration either. Aim for somewhere in the middle when it comes to how you take a review on board.

Don't let great reviews go to your head - it's only one person's opinion. However, enjoy the lift and the encouragement that those kind, glowing words give you - feel vindicated that all of your hard work has succeeded in making someone else happy. I remember when I got my first 5-star review on Amazon, I was genuinely moved that a random reader had cared enough about my work to post her thoughts online. Straight away, I left her a comment, thanking her for her kindness.

Similarly, don't let negative ones get you down - again, it's only one person's opinion. Take from them anything positive that you can, and don't instantly consign your manuscript to the fire because of it. Obviously, if five reviewers from completely different backgrounds all say the same things, then there is likely some truth in the criticisms - in which case, accentuate the positive and look closely at your work and how you can correct those issues in future to avoid a sixth kick in the teeth.

No matter the outcome, always be polite and don't argue with the reviewer once their words have been published. Thank them for their time - reading a full-length work of fiction, then writing about it, demands a serious commitment. If the review stinks, then accept it and move on. And don't make lame excuses either: “Oh, but it's still only a rough draft...”

Also, check previous reviews beforehand to ensure that the reviewer is at least competent. There are now insanely high numbers of book review blogs out there on the web, most of them very good indeed, but don't assume every reviewer with a free blog page is necessarily worth your time. If their own site is filled with typos, sloppy grammar and incoherent writing a la 'i likd it, it was funy' , then ignore them and find someone who actually seems to be literate. However, it's pretty unlikely that such reviewers would convince many readers anyway (such as those pointless 1-star reviews for products on Amazon which moan about totally irrelevant things, such as the packaging the item was posted in, or some problem with Amazon's delivery service or the order).

At the end of the day, if your review is worse than you could ever have feared, don't stress or get angry about it. To cheer yourself up, consider how many authors who are far more famous and rich than you have suffered rubbish reviews in the past, and in far bigger newspapers and journals than yours have appeared in. Of course, rich and famous authors will have their armies of fans who will purchase their works irrespective of reviews, but that doesn't change the words of negativity (nor did all rich and famous authors start out that way, either). Words may hurt, but they're still just words. Sometimes, a bitterly negative review can succeed in driving sales, by outlining things the reviewer disliked but which a passing reader may actually enjoy: for example, "...I hated it - filled with sex, swearing, and blood and guts..." could easily sell a work to those who enjoy that kind of thing, or who are not remotely offended by adult or extreme material.

For example, the first book in my 'Trinity Chronicles' series, Maranatha, opens with a rape and a double murder in a Serbian church, all within the first 5 pages. I had one would-be reviewer who couldn't get any further than that opening section, and I accepted her reasoning – I didn't press her into reading the rest “because it calms down after that.” If an individual finds something too disturbing, too dark or graphic, too silly, boring or confusing for them to cope with, then leave it be and chalk it up as an example of the old cliché about meat and poison.

Be judicious, too, in the excerpts of reviews that you choose to promote your work. An overall 2 or 3-star review may still contain some positive or colourful comments that look good on a back cover or a press release, and (assuming permission agreed beforehand with the reviewer) you'd be silly not to use them to your advantage. Try not to quote too heavily out of context, or cut and paste unrelated words and phrases to create something that was never said – that's only likely to get you into trouble with the reviewer, and a reputation for dishonesty. Ultimately, nothing is more important than your reputation. Be generous, professional and courteous at all times, with everyone and anyone in the industry (no matter how small – today's self-published blogger could be tomorrow's superstar) – you never know when you may meet them, or require their services, again.

Writer and illustrator Chaz Wood runs Fenriswulf Books, publishers of dark and quirky fiction, graphic novels, and more.

1 comment:

Rainy of the Dark (Rainy Kaye) said...

Good post, Chaz :) Reviews are a cost effective way to spread the word, receive useful feedback and see different perspectives all at once. Great topic.