Recently I posted a video review on Amazon. If you can do it to help a book, I recommend it. Novelty gets attention (even with my ugly mug.) Since posting the video review, more authors have contacted me to read and review their books. My TBR pile is taller than I am and my kindle is just about full, so it’s not easy to get to it all (nor even physically possible.) That’s not a complaint. I’m excited at the possibility of discovering a book that pulls me in and makes me think or laugh. I prefer both. I love books. Of course I want to read everything. Since I can’t and now that I’m getting more of these requests, herein lie the secrets that make me want to review your book favorably:
1. I have writing deadlines for my own books and I have a lot to read, so please be patient. I don’t guarantee when I’ll get to it. As you’ll see, I might never get to it, but you’ll prefer my reasoning for not reviewing your book.
2. I don’t give one, two or even three-star reviews. Somebody reading this just threw up their hands or their lunch, but bear with me. This goes beyond the fact that I find most one-star reviews mean-spirited, often nonsensical, sometimes borderline illiterate and they usually treat writers of bad books like their crime is genocide. Even though they probably got it free or for less change than sits under their couch cushions, you won’t find much forgiveness, wit or transcendence in most one-stars.
But it’s not just that I couldn’t bring myself to do that to another writer unless the title actually is Mein Kampf. It’s simpler than all that. If a book is not to my taste, I don’t finish it and I don’t review what I haven’t read. Life is too short and reading something that’s not for me takes too much time. Pointing out good books is more of a service to readers, and a better use of our time, than warning people away from books we don’t care for.
Reviews that are dire warnings are kind of like taking the time to tell me what’s awful on the menu when I’m hungry and anxious to order. I want to hear about your few extra-delicious recommendations and get on with the dining experience, not a litany of what the cook screws up. Or have you ever tried to schedule an appointment with somebody who only tells you when they can’t make it? I want to kill those people. (Okay, I admit it. I have killed those people.)
On a related note: Books that aren’t to my liking will be the best book someone else has ever read. Really. Go check on reviews of books you love on any popular site. See those books that whisked you off to magic realms and changed your life? Now see all those reviews warning you off them? Corollary: Try clicking on a book you despise. See all that five-star, hyperbolic love? Nope, they can’t all be friends and family. Families aren’t that big and writers don’t have friends. We have ex-friends we betrayed and cannibalized to put into our books. All those reviews you disagree with are simply people who are different from you. Weird, isn’t it? I mean, you’re awesome. Why doesn’t everyone want to be exactly like you? Inexplicable! I’ll ponder the problem. In the interim, let’s not take reviews too seriously then, shall we?
3. If you gift me the copy on kindle to review, you get credit for the sale and it’s also easier for me to wirelessly download it. Easier is better. (Yes, I have Calibre but frankly, not a big fan.)
4. I’m primarily a suspense writer, so mostly I read non-fiction that feeds my other obsessions, mystery, thrillers and some horror. I’ve read a good sampling of many genres, but not everything is for everybody. I don’t and can’t read everything (at least until I get the time machine fixed or become immortal) so please don’t be upset that I must refuse to read your steampunk novel. Even though it’s great, but I haven’t read enough steampunk to create an informed review.
I enjoy William Goldman, Chuck Palahniuk, Thomas Harris, Mickey Spillane, Rex Stout, Lawrence Block, Cormac McCarthy and (swoon!) Elmore Leonard. I’m not into Wodehouse. I’ve probably read more romance than you (my first jobs in publishing were at Harlequin in the Canadian Gigolo Department) but that was for pay and I’ve had my fill of impossibly handsome, rich and capable heroes named Rollo seducing women who are, despite their age, curiously sexually innocent.
5. A four-star review is a compliment, too, and, with all the distrust of five-star reviews, a happy four-star review may be even more useful to you than a five-star. However, I also believe that all that distrust is now way overhyped. If I’m that high on your fiction, you’ll get a five-star review. Ratings should reflect the tone of the review. It’s weird and confusing when the review is full of superlatives but the rating doesn’t show that same enthusiasm, isn’t it? Also, to hold back on a five-star rating for credibility’s sake alone cheats the author and that would be gaming the system, too, wouldn’t it? No one’s talking about that. Some readers within the echo chamber are afraid they’ll get fooled by fraudulent reviews when they could be reading a sample to alleviate those unbearable terrors.
6. I’m nice. I’m acting as a reviewer, not an editor. The review is not about me and this is not a teaching opportunity. I do not scold or lecture authors.
Some bad review habits are egregious. I don’t do things like this: “I wish the story had gone in a different direction,”; “I would have done it differently,” (of course everyone would do it differently!); “Too much swearing!” (that’s usually the realism leaking out); “The level of sex bothered me” (unless it’s BDSM in a children’s book, someone else enjoyed it); tiny grammar niggles; minor factual quibbles; and, finally, rest assured that my world doesn’t collapse when I spot a few typos. I don’t count them in a review. I find that petty and off the mark.
Also fitting under this category, let’s walk through what I think is on the mark: Some readers worry that writers are too nice to other writers. Sometimes the opposite is true simply because writers read as writers. We’re not enjoying the flight and looking at the clouds. We’re thinking about the workings of the engines that bear us aloft and how that knocking we hear is going to make the plane crash into the ocean. That attitude can suck a lot of joy from the reading experience, as any enlightened first-year English Lit students will tell you. Most readers don’t read like that! They aren’t as stringent nor are they strident. Most people really just want a good story and that’s what I’m looking for when I read a book to review it.
7. What does bother me: Fiction that requires the characters act like idiots for the story to work (e.g. incompetent henchmen and goals too easily achieved); stories that don’t work within their worlds unless I’m an idiot; deus ex machina; not enough conflict and tension; fiction without non-fiction ideas (your grade eight teacher called them themes); and clichés that aren’t twisted. (A twisted cliché makes something new and unexpected out of something worn out and expected.)
8. What I like: I enjoy snappy dialogue and a sense of humor if it suits what you’re trying to achieve. Often at least some levity is exactly what even the most sinister stuff needs to switch up the mood and avoid the drone of a monotone. Try to induce a range of emotion. Ups and downs make roller coasters.
For example, one of my WIPs is a dystopian novel about an autistic child in the middle of a plague that kills most people on earth. That doesn’t mean I don’t make some jokes. For a slightly better known example (ha!), The Dark Knight Rises, as good as it was at times, needed a little more of Joss Whedon’s lighter touch from The Avengers. DKR had elements of opera at its high points and long funeral lows. I prefer stories with more range.
I enjoy fiction that achieves what it set out to achieve. For instance, you won’t hear something silly from me, like a complaint that Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter is “not historically accurate.” Yes, even a professional reviewer did that and, oh my Thor, if I have to explain why that’s upside down, please stop reading now and go watch Honey Boo Boo. Please!
9. I do not include spoilers. A good review doesn’t recount the plot and suck the joy of surprise and discovery out of the work for potential readers. I say what I liked and how I reacted to the characters and setting. I say how the story affected me emotionally or intellectually. I react to the experience of reading the book and what makes it interesting to me and unique. (Unique often doesn’t work, but when it works, swoon!)
10. Most reviews will be pretty short. A video review longer than a minute is not watched. If I review a book, I’m sharing my enthusiasm and yes, I’m unabashedly trying to sell your book to potential readers. I made it through the reading and reviewed it, so naturally I’m sharing and spreading the joy of your work with readers who enjoy your genre.
For me, reviews are about finding the like-minded. There are plenty of good and even great books out there. Let’s go find the good ones and focus our energies on spreading that good news.