Do Reviews Matter?

If you’re an indie author, there’s a marketing philosophy that reader reviews matter. I suppose that strategy arose out of the fact critical reviewers (those who write for literary or trade publications) for the most part won’t consider an indie book.

Books, experts, publicists — all of them tell either the publisher or the author that you have to get your book out there for review, with the idea you’ll then clip pithy lines for promotional purposes.

But does that really work? To be honest, I’m not sure. As both a publisher and an indie author I pursue that avenue of thought, but not as an exercise to gain good reviews, but rather by way of simple exposure, using the philosophy any publicity is good publicity.

How I came to that conclusion is the result of much scratching of head and muttering to the walls. My own books have been up on Goodreads and LibraryThing for review, and I’ve noticed a trend. People generally feel fairly strongly about what I write, so that reviews tend to come in very positive, or very negative.

For example, my historical novel, Shadow Song, has 66% of Goodreads readers giving it a five or four star review. 68% of readers gave From Mountains of Ice a four or five star rating, and 60% of readers rate my short story collection, And the Angels Sang at four or five stars. That remaining 30-40% of readers tend to rate the books at two and one stars.

For a time this concerned me. It’s important to make sure, especially as an indie author, that you’re not simply stroking your own ego, that you’re paying attention to the craft of writing the best work you can. I started examining the ratings and reviews of other authors whom I admire and consider mentors. You might find the results of that research a bit surprising.

The Satanic Verses, Salman Rusdie: 62% 4-5 stars
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry: 73% 4-5 stars
The Bishop’s Man, Linden MacIntyre: 50% 4-5 stars
Through Black Spruce, Joseph Boyden: 74% 4-5 stars
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood: 66% 4-5 stars

It’s also interesting to note that of those readers who rated my own works at one and two stars, it was as if they had read something other than what I’d written. Clearly there was miscommunication on a profound level. I’d been accused of not doing my research in Shadow Song, of rewriting the Gladiator movie in From Mountains of Ice, and challenging a reader too much in And the Angels Sang.

It would seem my mentors above faced similar perplexing reviews:

The Satanic Verses, Salman Rusdie: too many moment of abstract non-sensical story; he used a lot of big words I’ve never seen like “orotund” and “obsolescent”
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry: quite vulgar and has a lot of sexual promiscuity; Nothing good happens in the characters life.
The Bishop’s Man, Linden MacIntyre: This book would have gotten 4 stars if the storyline was changed to be linear, or possibly if I was able to read it in one sitting. the story seems aimless and slow for a good portion of the book….
Through Black Spruce, Joseph Boyden: I think Through Black Spruce should start from scratch all over again and the author rewrite his story. Spent most of it wanting to smack characters upside the head. 
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood: lacking in substance; plot really isn’t going anywhere

So it would seem I’m in good company.

What did I learn from this exercise? Some people will understand what you’re doing as an artist. Others won’t. That’s just the way of the world, that there are a variety of opinions, tastes, paradigms and levels of enjoyment.

Now, to continue the search for the grail of the best-seller.

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1 Comment

  1. Good food for thought, Lorina. My first indie book just came out today, so this is at the top of my mind right now. I've been looking at it, as you said, as any publicity is good publicity. Since I'm an unknown quantity, reviews of any sort give some additional information about the book to potential readers who stumble upon it.

    Also, no author, especially an author whose books trigger strong emotions, will get all good reviews. Every time I read a negative review, I'm reminded of my dad's comments about movie reviews in the Boston Globe. He always disagreed with the reviewer's option. But he still found the reviews helpful for that reason – if the reviewer hated the film, he knew he'd enjoy it. I think if reviews list reasons for liking/disliking a book, even the negative ones still can entice some readers who know that if Reviewer A says X, Y and Z made this book horrible, it's probably something they'll like because they have a different take on X, Y or Z.

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