Thursday, November 5, 2009

Reviews—are they worth the trouble?

As authors and/or publishers, we often struggle to get reviews for books—especially positive, glowing reviews. Each author that gets a positive review basks in its warmth for a while, and we usually share them with others like pictures of a new baby… or perhaps a new boat or motorcycle.

As readers, we seek out reviewers whose judgement we trust, whose taste runs at least roughly parallel to our own, so we can be guided by their opinions.

A few months ago, I started a review site strictly dedicated to genre fiction, The GenReView. Thus far, I have published quite a few reviews of books in a variety of genres: fantasy, sci-fi, romantic suspense, mystery, suspense, GLBT. It’s been fun, although finding reviewers I can rely upon to turn out at least one review each month has been a bit of a trial.

But, as I read some of the online discussion group postings and listservs to which I belong, I’m wondering about the importance of reviews. (Yeah, yeah, I know—why am I stabbing myself in the back?) Seriously, folks. An uncommonly large number of people say that reviews mean little to nothing to them. I was really surprised at this, especially given the amount of time and money publishers and authors devote to gaining reviews.

Personally, I like to read reviews of books before I commit to buying and/or checking them out at the library. My time is valuable, and I don’t like to waste any of it. I figure, once I find a couple of reviewers whose views and taste are close enough to my own, I can use them as bellwethers for at least some of my reading forays.

Reviews in print are highly prized, yet are the hardest to obtain for most authors and publishers. Many newspapers have cut back on “frills” and reviews are often viewed as that sort of luxury. Plus, the sheer number of books being published each year makes getting the few review slots a very competitive process. Online review venues are becoming more and more important to those who want reviews, as fewer and fewer print reviews are available.

Here are some things other than reviews that people said influenced what they pick up to read, in no particular order:

  • Friends’ recommendations. If a friend whose reading tastes are similar to your own says, “Hey, you gotta read this book! It’s awesome!” then chances are you will be influenced to at least give the book a shot.
  • Recommendations from other readers on [insert name of appropriate listerv] list. Whether you regard someone as a particular friend or not, if they read the same sort of fiction you read, and you’ve heard them say other positive things about books where you shared the same opinion, you are often likely to trust their opinion.
  • Advertisements in “target” magazines. If you read Ladies Home Journal, and trust it, and see an ad for a new romance novel there, you may be influenced to see what it’s all about.
  • Past satisfaction. The fact that you have read past titles by the author and enjoyed those books, is usually an indicator that you will like the newest title. But as authors get long in the tooth, or perhaps long in the pen, there is a general consensus that often authors begin to run out of new ideas, or become too predictable. (Just how many times can notorious ex-IRA-enforcer Sean Dillon tell someone that he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and performed Ibsen there?)
  • The amount of advertising about the new book that they saw on television or heard on the radio… or now, on the Internet. Radio, TV and Internet ads for books are popping up more and more often. As with most ads, some people view these as intrusive and annoying, but they still get the name of the new book in front of potential readers… and that often works.

Surprisingly, back-cover blurbs seem to have the least influence of all. Well… maybe not so surprisingly. I know that I have been too often disappointed by what the blurb on the back said, compared to the reality of the book inside the covers, and I think many people have had that same experience.

What do you think, as reader, publisher or author? Are “formal” reviews of books losing their importance to you? If you are an author or publisher, is it worth the trouble it now seems to be, to get those elusive reviews? Do you trust online review sites, or do you only rely upon NYT Bestseller lists? What’s important to you when considering whether or not to read a new title?

I’d like to know what you think!


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I usually put more stock in blogger reviews than the biggies. There are particular bloggers that I know share my taste in books and I trust their opinion like a friend's opinion.

Interesting topic...I'm tweeting it?

Mystery Writing is Murder

Anonymous said...

I am big into reading reviews in order to judge whether I want to read a book or not, but at the same time I am just as likely to only go by the back of the book and the cover design.

When I do look at reviews, though, I tend to go by the informal ones - comments on blogs, or more often than not, by skimming through Goodreads, as it is a good way to get the thoughts of a wide cross-section of people.

Mostly I tend to go by friend recommendations, though.

BJ said...

One thing reviews do help is library book selection. Librarians don't have the time or inclination to read every book out there in their search for books to put on the shelves.

And librarians have to consider other people's tastes besides their own. This is where reviews come in handy. I used to work in a library, and we read Kirkus Reviews, Publisher's Weekly, Quill & Quire (Canadian) and others to see what people would want to read.

Personally, now that I've left the library world, I rarely read reviews. But libraries are often important in a book's success.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Formal reviews are incredibly hard to land - the big reviewers tend to focus on the six NY big publisher's books. It's a shame librarians only go by these bigger reviewers, as they are missing out on so many great books that way.
Book bloggers are a great resource for smaller publishers and authors.
And I guess I'm weird - I DO read the back cover blurbs & reviews!

Kathrin said...

I trust bloggers more than reviewers in big newspapers or magazines.
Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, 95% of all books I'm thinking about buying come from fellow book bloggers. I know what they like, I know my taste, and so I the "danger" of buying a book I don't like is minimal.
The other 5% come from book recommendations of one lecturer at university, because so far he's only recommended some really, really good ones!

L.D. Harkrader said...

I'm a children's writer, and print reviews--or lack of--can make or break a book. Librarians rely on reviews in School Library Journal, Kirkus, Horn Book, Publisher's Weekly, and other major review sources to decide which books to add to their collections. Libraries are a huge slice of the children's market, and without those reviews, librarians may not know a book exists.

Sun Singer said...

I put more stock in the the reviews done by professional reviewers and critics than those done by readers. Reviewing is an art and a craft that works best when done by those with years of experience, a great knowledge of the industry, and the depth of knowledge that allows them to put each book in perspective with other books of the same genre. These are the reviews that show up in advertising and just below the book's description on Amazon. I do notice reader reviews: some are very good, while others appear to be written by the author's relatives and friends around the neighborhood.


Auntie Knickers said...

I choose a lot of books based on "past satisfaction," and generally pretty much ignore reviews on those. Where reviews help me is in finding out about books/authors I'm not familiar with. Book advertising that I look at tends to be in Mystery Scene and the NYT Book Review. The NYT reviews, by the way, seem quite often to have the opposite effect on me -- by the time I've finished reading the review I'm no longer interested in the book! Not always, but far too often. My local Sunday paper still has a book review page which often highlights Maine authors, so that's another source. DorothyL and bloggers are a fairly trusted source of reviews for me. I'll have to check out GenReview.

Morgan Mandel said...

I buy books from people I know or people recommended by friends. I rarely buy books in stores any more. I take out books from the library if they're by popular authors, also buy books at library sales.

I don't have as much time to read any more since I started writing. Before, I used to buy more books in the stores. If it's an author I don't know, it's usually the cover and the back blurbs that get my attention. If the first page looks interesting, I might break down and buy a book, even though I have a large TBR pile at home.

No, I don't pay attention to reviews as a reader, only as an author. I figure someone must like them. It's good to pursue every avenue.

Morgan Mandel

Rob Walker said...

As an author I must say that reviews get to me on one level, the emotional level as I like most authors put in years on a book, not just months -- in fact the two sentece review on Amazon right now for my ebook Children of Salem gets me entirely on an emotional level as I have written and rewritten this novel off and on for over thirty years, so to get a five star review feels like vindication to me, especially since no traditonal publisher would give the book a dance or a chance. Reviews mean a great deal to encouragement and motivation and the psychological well-being of this author, and I suspect many more of us, event those who lie and say they pay NO attention to reviews. Conversely, a negative review like one I rec'd on PW not long ago for Dead ON, a review that is pointless and does nothing but misjudge the intent of the book also hits the author on an emotional level and for about 24 hours one plots the murder of the reviewer but a pro goes and sits behind the laptop on the lazyboy nowadays and goes onward and upward. I do purchase on the basis of a great review no matter where I find it.

Tony Burton said...

Looks like we have a variety of views on the relative value of reviews, as well as about what influences our choices of reading material. It's interesting, and it also says to me that it doesn't make sense to concentrate on only ONE review venue for books I'm trying to promote in some way. (Truth is, I very, very seldom--almost never--read a Kirkus review.)

Thanks for the input.

I'm curious, though--what makes for a "good review" in your opinion? I don't mean from the perspective of a writer. We all know that writers like glowing reviews, and plenty of them! But as someone who is searching for a book, what sort of review makes you want to read a book? What information and/or opinion do you want?


Hagelrat said...

I run a genre (mostly) review blog. As a reader I have learned that if certain reviewers dislike a book for certain reasons I will love it, so a bad review sells the book to me, other reviewers can say buy it and i will, no question. Mostly it's just nice to know what is out there other than my endless TBR pile. Thing it, where newspaper reviewers tend to be distant creatures book bloggers interact with their readers, there is opportunity for conversation and that allows us to begin to be that person with overlapping taste who you take recommendations from. I know of two people in my real life I take book recommendations from but could name you ten bloggers without stopping to think. More than anything, faed with a shop full of books, names I have seen kicking around the blogoshpere are the ones that will jump out and come home.
Great topic.

Michele Emrath said...

Blogger reviews and a good book cover. That's how a new author or book first catches my eye. The rest is up to the writing.


Kevin R. Tipple said...

Since blurbs are nothing more than ads (often paid ads) I always ignore them.

Despite the high number of authors on the Dorothyl list who swear they don't ever read reviews, they do matter. If they didn't, those authors who swear in public that they don't matter, wouldn't be asking me in private to review their books. I barely see this discussed on other lists I am on, so it seems to me to be nothing more than another weird Dorothyl list phenomenon.

Kevin R. Tipple

Dana Fredsti said...

Honestly, it depends on so many things, including my mood at the time I'm looking at a particular book. I do love to go to the library and take home a bunch of authors (their books, not the authors themselves) home to test drive 'em. And if I like them? I'll start buying the books. Friend's recommendations also counts... and good cover art will at least get me to pick the book up and check it out.