Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Best Present an Author Can Receive

There aren't very many authors who are truly egotistical and self-seeking in the way some other professions will often feature.  Authors are no better than anyone else in terms of ethics and personal character, but most are very introverted and often shy.  As a group, we prefer the spotlight not be on us, which makes promoting our own work somewhat challenging.

We all write because we want to be read, and we publish because we want to be read as widely as possible and hopefully make some money at it.  So a purchase of our work is a fine acknowledgment of our craft, it is a compliment we appreciate.  Interviews and publicity, not so much.  Only a few authors really bask in attention and publicity, and I suspect most of us wish we could go live like a hermit and write all day.

Opus was not fond of the work
But I think, personally, even more important and rewarding for an author is a review written for their work.  Because that not only means the book was purchased, but it was read - and not simply read, but read carefully and thoughtfully enough to review.

Its like J.K. Rowling's magic system in the Harry Potter books.  People tear it apart online, making fun of the inconsistencies and randomness in which its presented.  But all those people bought and read all her books carefully and thoroughly to write these critiques.  And that's a very high compliment.

So getting a book review is not just a purchase but a thoughtful response to that purchase and evidence of reading - which is really all an author can ask for.  So if you like an author, or a book, if you'd like to give them some feedback or appreciation, the best things you can do are read their book honestly, talk about it and share it with your friends, and write a review.

It doesn't matter how long or sophisticated the review is; the more honest and real the review is, the more useful it is.  If your review reads like a PR release from the publisher or a college dissertation, buyers will tend to disregard it and it might even hurt sales by making buyers feel manipulated or talked down to.

But a few sentences on what you thought about the book and what it said to you is always very welcome.  And remember: even a bad review helps sales and definitely helps the author.  Look at Amazon.  See that book with 2 reviews and 5 stars each?  Do you trust them at all, or did their mom and dad write a glowing review?  Now look at the book with 17 reviews and 3 1/2 stars.  Now you get a sense of being able to trust the reviews and since so many people are writing about it, it seems more interesting and valid a book, doesn't it?

No one actually believes any of these people really like the product
Buyers respond to that.  They won't even necessarily read all the reviews, so bad ones get buried and become the foundation for a big stack of reviews, which looks impressive.  And as the saying goes: there's no such thing as bad publicity.  What you didn't like might be something someone else really enjoys in a book.

So how do you write a review?

First off, don't feel like you have to be wordy.  Short and to the point is actually pretty welcomed by readers.  If its ten paragraphs long, chances are nobody will read the review anyway.  Get to the point and say it briefly.  Quick and to the point is ideal for online readers, few of whom want to sit and read reviews very long.

Second, format it well.  A review that's one huge paragraph is hard to read online (see how I break up the blog post here?).  A few short paragraphs attracts eyeballs and is easier to read than one huge one. 

Third, be honest.  Say exactly what you think, not what the author wants or what will best help their sales.  Don't write an ad, write your reaction to the book.  "I liked this book because it made me feel comforted and happy."  "I didn't like this character because he reminded me too much of my ex."  Be honest, say what you really think.

Fourth, don't feel like you have to be a professional.  Don't feel like you need to be an author here, even if you are.  Write from the heart, write something easily accessible to others.  Don't feel like you have to understand literary criticism or have all the jargon right; most people have no clue what third person omniscient perspective means or how to properly use the word "trope."

Fifth, write about the story.  Focus on the story and its approach and what it said.  The shipping costs, or delays, or problems with your kindle or what have you are not review material.  That's for another section in Amazon: stick to the topic.

And finally, write what you'd find useful as a reader.  This seems obvious but its easy to miss because people think in terms of writing some literary critique.  That's not what reviews are used for.  Write a review as if you're writing about a blender or a car; write what people are wondering about when they want to purchase the book.  You're not writing for the NYT review column, you're writing a consumer report.

Do this, and like the book or not, you've done the writer a huge favor.  We learn from reviews.  We study them and they can help us get better.  And if you love a author or a book, your review can help others find it an love them too.  Its a wonderful gift you can give that author for all they've done for you - one that the author will directly appreciate and recognize from you.