Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Book Reviews - How not to be a Jerk

This is a guest blog post by Clive Scarff a freelance writer, and author of several books on golf including “Hit Down Dammit!”, “Swing Issues”, and “Why You Suck at Golf”. He has also written eight screenplays. You can see more about Clive at Amazon and at www.hitdowndammit.com. Twitter: @clivescarff

It is a coincidence I have been asked to write about reviews as today I received my first bad one for my golf instruction book, Hit Down Dammit! The effect? An immediate deceleration in what was an accelerating sales pace. Why? Because, being recent, the negative review sits squarely at the top of the reviews portion of my book’s Amazon sales page. It is the first review a potential buyer sees. And where am I going with this, other than whining? Do not under-estimate the power of a bad review.

Book reviews are not dissimilar to employment references, restaurant word-of-mouth, or even gossip. Ten great things said can be taken with a grain of salt, one bad thing said and everyone sits up and pays attention.
When going to write a review, whether for a fellow author or simply on a book you have read, keep in mind the power you have and consider the objective of your review. Is it to laud, inform, explore, criticize, or damage? There are many ways to constructively criticize - or even fail to ‘celebrate’ - a book without doing undue harm to the author. This can be done while still providing a service to buyers genuinely interested in feedback on a book they are considering spending their hard-earned money on.

The analogy to employment is probably most apt. a former employer can be as helpful to a prospective employer by what they do not say, versus what they do say. Failure to rave about a former employee can get the point across without saying, “Oh my, he was an awful employee - he was in charge of complaints and for the first time we got complaints about the complaints department!”

Now that I have that out of my system, let’s move on to good reviews. First off, as I alluded to earlier, a reader is going to be more sceptical of a good review than a bad review, so good reviews require more information. While “this book sucks” may achieve the objectives of a cruel-minded reviewer, “this is the best book I ever read” is going to be met with more scepticism. It probably was not the best book you ever read, so you are not doing the author any favours by saying it was.

But it was a good book, right? Then say why it was. Was it the characters? The main character? The style of writing? Was it a new and interesting take on its genre? Did it make you laugh? Did it make you cry and short-circuit your kindle? Telling us any of these things helps us make a decision and… shows us you actually read the book! A ravishingly, glowing review that reveals no details of the story whatsoever may lead readers to assume you are just doing the author a favour, in which case, you are not.

I should add two things: do not make your review as long as the book itself, and consider very heavily what you write in the first paragraph. Most prospective buyers will be skimming across several reviews, often only reading the first paragraph to get a general impression. A failure to say anything constructive in the first paragraph will not help the reader, will not help the author, and in the end may be a waste of the kind effort you made in writing the review.

Finally, stars. Stars are the first thing a buyer sees, and are far more arbitrary. Be constructive with your words and generous with your stars. I am not suggesting that if you think a book is a three-star that you give it a five-star rating, but I am suggesting you give it a four. The goal here is to inform people, not to hurt the author or for you to seek revenge if the book fails to meet expectations.


Jim said...

I give that guest blog half a star.

Just kidding. Thanks very much, Clive for that info. And how right you are when you mention how powerful a negative can be, regardless the number of positives that outweigh it.
I think that reviewing should be like critiquing - go for the gold - at least tell us what works and then offer a suggestion of how to remedy something - if, and only if, it really needs it.

Mimi Barbour said...

I tend to be really easy when it comes to writing a review. If I really liked the book - in my review it becomes -I loved it!! Never thought that it might hurt the author. From now on, I will back it up, as you suggested, with the reasons why I thought it was so good. And, I won't be so wary about giving a book a four star review and give a good honest reason in the beginning what I liked about it and nothing about why it only got a four star. Thanks for making these points, Clive.
And...I'm sorry about that rotten review - guess I was having a bad day!!!

Kidding - I'm kidding!

Lynn Hallbrooks said...

Many great points in this one. Thanks for sharing. We've been hit by the negative comment, fortunately it isn't the first one up. I think of it as a 'rite of passage', look at us we are really authors, we have both negative and positive comments. As I review books, I will try to be a little more descriptive of why I like something. My big fear is giving too much of the book away.

Lorhainne Eckhart said...

Clive, great blog. I've skimmed over many reviews on Amazon, the really bad ones, where there was nothing constructive about them, and I have to ask myself, so what's the motivation behind this bad review? I agree with you about Gossip, and saying bad things about people/authors, people glom on to the bad. They sit up and take notice. So don't do it.

One of my favorite authors had a new book out a few years ago. The reviews were scathing. But I read it anyway. The editing was horrible, I think the process was skipped. But I still loved the story, and it didn't stop me from reading her next novels. And I certainly didn't trash her in a review. And I'm still glad I read her book.

And as far as the good reviews, I look at the first few lines only. I don't read the really long wordy reviews. So make the first few paragraphs count, I tend to skip reviews that start out, this was a great book. I've seen it too often. Say why it was a great book.

Jonathan D Allen said...

Coming in fifth commenting on this post, I'm at a huge disadvantage as so many other people made great points with which I agree. So I'll just say that this post was very timely and relevant for me. Kudos.