When I was sending out ARCs (advance reader copies) for The Necessaries, and as I think about review venues for the essay collection My Caesarean (forthcoming in May), I’m surprised by how many sharp, avid readers are shy about posting reviews.
Maybe they don’t want to make a public statement about a book for fear that it will reflect on them forever. Maybe they fear they will hurt the author’s feelings if they don’t say something nice. Or that they will make an author angry enough that repercussions will ensue (remember that time Jonathan Franzen insulted Jennifer Weiner as writing “chick lit,” and she went after him?).
Maybe writing a review slows readers down they could be on to the next book already. But most often, it seems, the reluctance stems from a lack of confidence. Readers sense that the review is, or can be, a beautiful, concise, important form of writing all on its own, that’s there a trick and a pattern to it (all of these are true) and if they don’t know the trick, their review is less interesting or useful (not true).
The truth is, authors welcome reviews because we want to know what you think, honestly, about our work. Yes, sure, for some authors (ahem) there’s a wounded soul that begs for love and positive reinforcement, and a harsh review will send us, I mean them, into a tailspin of wretchedness and despair. (There are remedies for this when it happens.) For other authors (ahem), there’s an enormous ego demanding, ‘Adore my genius!’ that is shocked, truly shocked, when adoration, public accolades, awards, and bestseller status are not instantly forthcoming upon publication of a work.
Most of us go through the humiliation and effort and risk of putting our bare, raw creations out in the world because we want, for odd and varied reasons, to share them. We seek to communicate. We hope our words touch, instruct, lift, move, joy, nudge, or inspire. The communication is complete where we hear back what our readers are thinking. And most of us have learned, through the long process of workshopping, critiquing, submitting, and being edited, how to regard that information from readers as valuable feedback that tells as much about the reader as it does about our work–giving us insight into the minds that have engaged, even distantly, with ours.
It’s like a game of telephone: you know what you said when you started the loop, but is it coming through at the other end?
Of course, there are business reasons an author likes reviews. On certain websites, like Amazon, books appear in a “featured” or “recommended for you” section to browsers when they pass a certain threshold number of reviews. Having gold stars next to your book title on major websites feels like elementary school all over again (ahem).
More practically, the #1 reason author want reviews because reviews are the #1 reason people buy books. It takes a lot to get your book in front of a reader’s eyes, and even more to convince them that your book is worthy of the investment of their hard-earned money and even more precious time. As readers, most of us will admit we gravitate to the books that others seem to like; they’re a safer bet, as it’s likely we’ll enjoy them, too, and if a friend or family member or colleague we trust says “you absolutely must read this book,” we run right out and do so.
Reviews sell books. That’s why there’s such an industry for “blurbing” and “advance praise” — writers compete to see which important writers they can woo to say admiring things about their book well before it comes out. Members of an early-read community like NetGalley or Edelweiss can have a huge influence on how a book launches, to trumpets or crickets. Advance buzz on book venues and blogs, “Most Anticipated,” and other such lists are huge boons to visibility. Each review is a tiny piece in what becomes an intricate Jenga-like structure of a book’s influence and presence, beyond just the hard sales data.
If all of this is more intimidating then you’d like it to be, then think of this way: your review matters because it’s yours. In the crunching of aggregate stars, every review carries equal weight. And chances are the author genuinely would like to hear what you think.
You’ll hear of those authors, of course, who don’t read their own reviews–they’re out there. In most cases these are the ones for whom a slighting gaze will send them into a tailspin etc. etc., and they’d just rather guard against the possibility of that. This shouldn’t stop you from leaving a review. Remember, you’re not sharing just for the author; you’re sharing for a whole community of other readers and possible future readers of this book who will also be genuinely interested to know what you think.
So, if your opinion counts as much as anybody’s, and there are people out there who will be interested to know what you thought of the book, the only real constraints are time, Internet access, or knowing how to review. I’ll take care of the third of this list in part 2 of this series on reviews, and in part 3, we’ll talk about how to behave when you’re reviewed–addressing the tailspin thing and more.
What book are you reading right now that you’d like to review?