This post is inspired by an article in the Romance Writers’ Report, which suggests (among other things):
Got friends? Got an e-mail list from your last high school reunion? Then ask them to go onto such sites as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, and Shelfari and post reviews of your book.
I’ve been thinking about reviews for a while–ever since I was on a panel discussing reviews at RomCon, where someone suggested that the problem with negative reviews is that reading is subjective, and a book that one person hates another might love. The implication, of course, was that you wouldn’t want to dissuade that second person from reading the book. I don’t disagree, of course–I firmly believe that people should judge for themselves, sometimes with or without the aid of proxies.
But there are three assumptions that I can filter from these various points, and they are closely related. The first assumption is that people seem to think it is better to have lots and lots of positive reviews of a book–the more positive reviews, the better. That somehow, a reader is more likely to buy a book if it has nineteen five-star reviews and zero one-star than she would be to buy a book that had eighteen five-star reviews and one one-star review–or ten five-star reviews and nine one-star reviews.
At some level, this is correct: a book that is universally panned by everyone is probably going to lose sales. (This is, by the way, a Good Thing for everyone but the author and publisher of that book. Bad books waste readers time. Bad books make reading feel like a less valuable activity to readers, and makes them more likely to substitute other activities, like watching TV or knitting sweaters. As an author, I want historical romance to be filled with awesome, incredible books, because that is how we create a genre that readers hunger for. I want all the crap to die on the vine–bad books turn readers away from the genre as a whole. Luckily, historical romance is by and large filled with awesome, incredible books.)
But back to the subject at hand: with the exception of those very few books that everyone hates, it seems to me that even the dimmest readers can’t help but notice that enjoyment of a book is subjective. Likely they know this from personal experience. We’ve all read books that were praised to the heavens, that we didn’t personally love; and we’ve also read books that a friend hated, only to discover that we loved it. But even if the reader somehow didn’t notice that reading was subjective up until she was faced with an Amazon page, don’t you think she’d figure it out based on the fact that there were different reviews, saying utterly different things?
This leads me to the second assumption. A person who claims that ten five-star reviews from high school friends (who have not read the book) is valuable as promotion must believe that all five-star reviews are equal. They are not. We have all seen utterly useless reviews from friends and family. They look like this:
“Author B. Obvious writes a masterpiece of literary genius! It is the best book I have ever read in my entire life. The plot is amazing. Buy three copies.”
–from reader I. R. Obvious, II
When I read reviews like that, I automatically discount them. Worse: I discount every positive review that I see for that book, because I know the author has trolled friends and family to write for her. I assume that others do the same. In fact, I know that others do the same. Reviewers and authors get called out on this kind of bad behavior all the time.
This leads me to the third assumption. If you believe readers will be swayed by your dentist’s stupid review of a book he hasn’t read, you believe that readers lack the ability to critically analyze sources. If you believe that readers do not understand that reading is subjective, and so will knee-jerk reject a book on the basis of a few negative reviews, you believe that readers lack a fundamental understanding of human nature. In short, if you think that readers are swayed by sheer magnitude and star-number of reviews and nothing else, your fundamental assumption must be that readers are stupid.
Now, I realize that intelligence is a difficult thing to judge, and that reams and reams of paper have been employed in attempts to determine smarts. But–you may not know this–there is at least one definitive test of stupidity that has been universally employed. I have it on very good authority (well, mine–on this blog, that is the ultimate authority) that every single person who decides to read a book by Courtney Milan is not stupid. In fact, studies have proven that my readers are basically all at genius-level intelligence, and usually higher. Even the ones who don’t like my book.
And so it really, really bothers me that people think that they need to promote using the underlying assumption that their readers are stupid.
My readers aren’t stupid. Deep down, the greedy portion of me wishes you all were–it would make it so much easier to promote my books if you just blindly followed others like sheep! If I could lead you to the bookstore with reviews from my dentist, don’t you think I’d have done so? (Also, I would have visited the dentist sometime in the year before my release.) But alas. My readers are too smart to be fooled by such tactics.
And so, instead, I have to engage them. I have to provide content. I have to–gasp!–write books that hopefully, they will want to read. And–I confess it–even though my cold, avaricious heart wishes I could fool you into buying my books with reviews written by my mom, it’s a little more satisfying to have you do it because you, you genius you, think that it’s a good idea.
P.S. I realize I can’t convince anyone to buy a book with a review by my mom, but Mr. Milan is another story. His reviews are made of gold.