Thursday, May 13, 2010

Reviews & why we read them

-- or why I do, anyway.

I wanted to post an entry on reviews, because I think every writer looks forward to reviews, but we don't often talk about where they fit in the process. When I say "reviews," by the way, I mean everything-- once upon a time, a writer would publish a book and would get reviews in print, and maybe online, from a few select outlets, if they were lucky. Really big books would get reviews by papers, but generally you got reviews from places that specialized in watching the industries-- in the case of YA novels, places like the School Library Journal or the ALA. That's still true-- a book like Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising gets reviews from the journals if it's lucky, and so far we have been. What's changed is that today, books get reviews from readers.

I love this. Online reviews run the gamut from commentary that once would have been shared in letters, personal commentary about the book, to blog reviews that make up the new reality for books-- many, many reviewers, each of whom is both a reader and a writer. Amazon and Goodreads have perfected this.

So you may be asking: what does a writer do with a review? Why do we read them, and what are we looking for? There are a bunch of answers. I can only speak for myself. I'm a debut author in the YA industry, so to that extent this is all new to me, so these comments are sort of frozen in the now. Take that as a disclaimer should I change my mind later.

I read reviews:

  • To find out what people like. Alex Van Helsing is the first of three books, plus that series is not my only book project in the works, so to me reviews are invaluable research. They tell me what people are responding to and not responding to. In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about getting comments from multiple readers before you send a book in. His rule is that if the majority of the readers like one character, you can generally assume you've got the character nailed. If the majority hate a particular plot device, the device may have a real problem. These are rough estimates. Not all reviewers agree, but you get a sense for what the going feeling is. You can follow it or not follow it, but you ignore people's opinions at your peril.
  • For validation. That's a sad thing, but true enough. A book takes a long time, so it's tremendously validating-- that is, it makes us feel like what we do is worth it-- if someone out there looks at months of labor and says it gave them a worthwhile time. Anyone who builds tables for a living will tell you they get great satisfaction knowing someone loves the art they do; writers are the same way. Any writer who says they don't care is either lying or some kind of Vulcan. Most of us say we don't care because we know we also wind up reading bad reviews, and we have to come to grips with all kinds of questions, like whether we should weight them all equally. But come on, we're human, of course we care.
  • To help sell the work to other readers. No, really! Because if a bad review exists to-- well, why do they exist? I guess they exist to ward other people away from the misfortune of reading a book-- surely good reviews exist to bring other readers along. Authors use pull quotes where appropriate and hope that in the aggregate, we have more pluses than minuses. We want more people to read our books. Reviews help with that. That's why they're worth reading and following.
  • To know what's out there. Good, bad and ugly. I like to know what's being said in case it comes up in conversation. It would be absurd not to. And since I'm a new author, there's only a patter of conversation, so I can keep track of it. I can even say thanks to someone who's being kind.

Reviews are personal things-- they're written by a human being about another human being's work. In the day of the blogosphere, this is all the more true. I'm thrilled to be writing today.

Ask me again tomorrow.

Speaking of tomorrow-- soon I'll blog about the strange process of editing with an editor, who is like a reviewer, but plays an active role in building the work.

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