Thursday, December 22, 2011

Democracy and book reviews - yours matter

Are you more likely to buy a book if it is recommended by

a) a household name superstar?
b) a well-known author/journalist?
c) your friend?
d) an unknown online reviewer/Blogger?
e) a lot of people online?

I have only just realised how my own habits as a reader are changing, so of course I am thinking about what this means for me as a writer.

In life before computers, I used to read book reviews in newspapers, and I also used to notice the quotations on a book's cover. If I liked Writer X and Writer X said 'The best historical novel this year' I'd give the book a try. I would also share book recommendations with friends who had similar reading tastes. So that puts the former me firmly in b) and c)

I'm still a c) person but I've ditched b) not just because I no longer read newspapers, not just because I'm cynical about the small mutual appreciation societies of the successful, but because I read reviews online, wherever they catch my eye. The big sites for me are amazon and goodreads but I also read reviews on smashwords and on online journals. Surely online journals are just a modern version of those newspapers of the past? Not so. There were perhaps a dozen newspapers for sale and not all of those had book reviews. Even if you add magazines, the number of publications was tiny compared with the explosion of online material. More publications and more reviewers, destroying that little clique of the past - or creating a million new little cliques, depending how you see things.

If I read a well-written review that tells me something about the book and gives a judgement on it that makes sense, I am definitely influenced. If I see ten such reviews, the book stays in my mind as one to read. d) and e) are becoming far more important and the only criterion for me is that the review itself tells me what I need to know. I don't care who the reviewer is, where he lives, how successful she is at her job - all I care about is the information on a book I might want to read. All that matters in a reviewer is the reading, and the reviewing. Democracy at work!

I know that authors are supposed to 'persuade' friends and family to write reviews, or sign up under pseudonyms and write their own. Apart from the difficulties thrown in their way by the book sites, this strategy has another disadvantage - you can tell if a review is phony. I can certainly tell. So as far as I'm concerned, if the review does its job I don't care whether it's written by the author or his granny, it's telling me what I want to know about the book. Comparing two reviews will usually show up a phony one.

Although I'm very grateful when friends or family like one of my books and post a review, I don't ask. I prefer to keep my friends and family rather than have them avoid me because a) I'll expect them to buy my latest book - 14 books cost a lot of money b) I'll want them to do homework on it after reading it.

I find myself writing more and more reviews because I know how much it matters, to the writer and to other readers. If I buy something on ebay, I leave feedback. It keeps ebay safe. If I read a book and take 2 minutes to star-rate it on goodreads, it keeps the book industry democratic. I have the right to vote; I should use it. Gone are the days when some white man in a public-school tie praised the work of some other white man in a public-school tie (or of course, trashed it, because that too can be part of the review game)

If you've read something you loved, say so and why. If you've read something you hated, say so and why. Your vote counts.

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