Thursday, January 23, 2014

on the subject of reviews.

metal sculpture from Tucson backyard January 2014

I've mentioned I read in the MOA once in awhile-- actually one thread regularly and lately another that was begun by Anne Rice, yes, the Anne Rice. Despite her best efforts, it deteriorated into a lot of name calling, hurt feelings, and probably will soon reach the 10,000 mark where Amazon has them either start over with a new name or end. This one will likely end as she appears to have no longer felt it was worth coming due to the vitriol.

There were, in between the times it went astray, some very good ideas in that thread, helpful hints for writers. The following is one by Leonard Fleisig regarding reviews and how he does them from the perspective of one who takes doing these non-professional (as in not paid) reviews very seriously-- as Amazon wants them to be taken. I asked his permission to post it here as I thought it would be interesting to others who may not have done reviews but why they should think about doing them-- and even how seriously to take the ones they read. To me reviews are another case of buyer beware, but I think we can tell the difference between someone genuinely attempting to give their opinion or only out to damage.

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First things first, these are my general observations and my experiences so I'm not really speaking for any collective (or borg if you will).

Second, unless I mention a specific name (such as the infamous Harriet Klausner) I am not directing any comments, pro or con, at any reviewer - including those posting here and other reviewers generally. I have no ax to grind.

I started reviewing in dribs and drabs around 1997. For me it was just a way for me to set out in writing my thoughts on something I'd read, usually something I enjoyed. For me, setting out my thoughts in some coherent fashion (the jury may be out on that though) about a book added to my enjoyment or understanding of the book.

And then one day Amazon starts putting voting buttons on reviews and instituted a ranking system. I look up and see that, gee I'm getting votes and I have some rank of about 18,000 or some such. It was an absolutely brilliant move on Amazon's part. All of a sudden these hobbyists were getting instant affirmation in the form of votes and an increase in their rank. Net result? The number of reviewers and reviews grew exponentially and it really created a unique sort of branding for Amazon. People grew devoted to their hobby. I like it because I write for a living (not books but writing is critical to my profession) and I like keeping the creative juices flowing.

At around that time I discovered the original Amazon Reviewers Board. Interesting place, three couples met there, met in person and got married. Amazon flew a group of us (I was not) to Seattle to give them input on the reviewing system. Groups of us met in person and have offline friendships.

I say that because this old guard also had developed a certain code of ethics. Informal at best but it included; don't shamelessly shill your own reviews and ask your buddies to vote for it; don't create vote-circles (e-mail groups where you get notices of a new review and rush to vote for it); only review what you've actually read (amazing how many don't) and don't be a rank striver, in other words don't review things or do anything designed solely to move up in rank.

One more general comment: most reviewers who liked getting votes learned early on that you garnered more votes with glowing reviews than with critical 1-star reviews. (That's why I take issue with this definition of a 'careerist" reviewer who seeks to gain advantage by panning books. If you are going to be a so-called 'careerist' you will likely give unduly glowing rather than harsh reviews. There is a general concern of some, who like to think that they play by some undefined rules of the reviewing game that others are gaming the system. It is not a transparent system so there is a lot of speculation there.

Reviewers are like indie authors in many ways. We like getting positive votes the way indie authors like getting 5-star reviews. When we get negative votes many of us believe or suspect that there is some ulterior motive behind it. I got someone mad on a forum, such as this one for example, or someone wants to vote my review off the prized top vote-getting review on the first product page. We rarely think that perhaps our reviews may not be helpful or not well-written. I could have a review with 98 positive votes and 1 negative vote and I'll fixate on that 1 stinking negative and forget about the other 98. That seems like human nature to me.

As to how I approach reviewing, I am probably somewhat selfish about it. I write for my own benefit and write what please me. I don't set out to inform consumers or write in a format designed to maximize votes. Basically, I try to relay my visceral reaction to a book. What did it mean to me? It may sound counter intuitive but I've found that writing to please myself generates more 'helpfulness' than if I'd set out to please others. Don't know why but it seems to work that way for me.

The hardest part of any review for me is setting a theme. I like to use my review title and the opening sentence to set the stage for what follows. Once I've gotten that done, and sometimes I have to let it percolate, the rest of the review is easy.

One more thing. When I read a book I don't read it with the intention of writing a review and don't start thinking about a review while I'm writing.

Bottom line for me: I think most reviewers want to like the books they read and most spend more time writing positive reviews. I'll always get negative votes and authors will always get 1 star reviews and we'll spend too much time worrying about them.

Hope this is useful.

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I thought it was and something for other avid readers to consider doing. It's a whole culture there. Reviews do matter to writers as it's one of the few ways to directly connect to readers. Those that are done thoughtfully can be a help to reader and writer.

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