Tuesday 24 March 2015

You Really Matter! Why your views should be in REviews

This article was — I have to admit — prompted by a couple of reviews on one of my own books, my d├ębut novel Steal from the Devil. While I will refer to SFTD as an example to illustrate some of my points, what I'm going to talk about here applies to all books, whether they be fiction or non-fiction, traditionally published or self-published, paper or eBook, as well as other products.

The basic foundation of this article is this: any given reader is not just a lone "end customer". They are part of a community of readers, and also part of the ongoing life-cycle of books.

I'm going to talk about the problems with reviews, the value of good and bad reviews to writers, their value to readers, and what each group will find useful. So if that is the sort of thing that will interest you, read on!

The Problem with Reviews

I'm going to start by relating some of my own experiences as a kind of jumping-off point.

I use Amazon a lot. And I mean a lot. Even if I am not intending to buy from there, I will find what I am interested in and look at the reviews.

Usually, I start with the one-star reviews and work upwards. Why? Because it's the most instructive way to do it. If there are fourteen one-star reviews, and they all complain about the product breaking after two weeks, or text that is littered with unforgivable spelling, punctuation and grammar errors, then you know there's some useful purchasing advice there.

However... the other likely scenario is that you will get a bunch of one-star reviews like this:

  • "Loved it! Would recommend to anyone!" (Nobody knows why the reviewer gave one star, and none of the comments querying this ever get a reply.)
  • "Expected it on Thursday and it came a week later. Not happy!" (Says nothing about the product at all and nobody looking at product reviews is interested in shipping errors.)
  • "Bought this from seller 'crazeeguyz' and it was not as described!" (This is a customer service issue for Amazon Marketplace Sellers, not a review of the product.)
  • "Not what I expected at all, for these reasons..." (Review goes on to list random expectations which the buyer would not have had if they read the product description.)

And so on. The type of one-star reviews, indirectly speaking, can give you an idea how reliable the four- and five-star reviews are.

If you read reviews prior to purchasing, I'm sure you will have seen for yourself dozens of examples like these. Frustrating, aren't they?

For my part, the majority of reviews that are negative (not that there have been many so far) fall into that last category. For some reason, although it clearly states in the product description, and in the front of every book, that SFTD is the first part of a five-book story, some people take great issue with the idea that every answer, every explanation, every facet of every character, is not delivered in that first book.

Can you imagine if all the revelations and confrontations which made The Deathly Hallows the climactic finale of the Harry Potter series had appeared in the first book? No, of course not — that would be ridiculous. So why is it that J. K. Rowling's multi-part story is given a free pass? Or has she received similar feedback? I have a horrible feeling it's the latter.

Another strange complaint is that there is no glossary. Well the terms used in Steal from the Devil — and I of course mean the terms that are unique to the world in which Armada Wars is set — are explained quite well in the text itself. Not necessarily the first time they come up, depending on how that would affect the flow of the scene, but the explanations are woven in (one reviewer even commented on how well this was done). There is also an official Wikia site for the series, which goes far beyond a glossary and provides a wealth of information about locations, social concepts, technology, characters, and events. And there's a link to that site in every single book!

What I have learned here can be summed up with an old saying:
You can take a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. 

Reviews for Writers

For a writer, a good review is invaluable. It lets them know if they are on the right course, highlights weaknesses in their writing, and gives them insight into whether or not their work appeals to their intended audience.

For my part, I have to say that I have found Steal from the Devil and List of the Dead resonate very strongly with my intended audience. The sort of readers who I aimed the books at have responded well and — I am gratified and privileged to say — really like the world I have built and the people and events within it. They also seem to be fairly spot-on with their expectations for the upcoming volumes.

Now this is not to say that I only want to read reviews that wax lyrical. Not by a long shot! One of my most helpful reviews to date was a three-star review which criticised the under-use of some characters (they were destined to be moved to the forefront of the story anyway, but the reviewer could not have known that at the time and I considered their comments valid.)
That reviewer is now one of my pre-readers.

Another reviewer questioned the way in which scenes changed, saying that it could be confusing. A quick edit later, and this problem was fixed. Nobody else stated they had that issue, but it was simple enough for me to change so now, nobody else will. Particularly in this age of the eBook, such feedback is ideal. Minor edits are easy to deliver, and everyone benefits!

The second major advantage of reviews for a writer is of course that reviews can lead to greater exposure. On the Amazon platform, this is most crucial in the first ninety days from release, when the title still has a spot somewhere on the "new releases" list. But even after this period, reviews have the potential to tell prospective customers what they can expect from the product. If done well, they can help to marry the right product to the right customer. Again, everyone benefits.

Reviews for Readers

Written well, reviews tell a prospective customer what they should and should not expect. They describe the strengths of the product in terms of its intended purposes, and highlight any drawbacks or failings in the design or content.

As a customer, when I read reviews I basically want to know if I will get what I am looking for, and whether or not I am investing the appropriate funds in my purchase. It's that simple! If the reviewer has an axe to grind, I don't need to hear about ongoing personal issues with the manufacturer or author. I'll go to their blog if I ever want to read that. Likewise I don't need to read about how the reviewer didn't like the product because it's not what they intended to buy; someone else's mistaken purchase does not actually help me to make a well-informed choice, unless I am about to fall into the same self-sprung trap. And quite frankly, that rarely happens!

When I am buying a "thing", I want to know that its functionality meets my needs. When I am buying a book, I want assurance that I will enjoy it. It's that simple.

It is my strong suspicion that other customers and readers share these needs.

Where YOU Come In

My view is this: even if you didn't have a particularly strong reaction to a product (whether good or bad), still review it. You are part of a community of customers, and whatever you can say about a purchase — even if it is not particularly earth-shattering — is going to help someone else make a decision. As long as you can articulate your points, and they are relevant, someone will benefit from reading them.

Even years down the line, a review can still have impact. It can still assist people.

But the most useful thing you are doing when you submit a considered, quality review, is diluting the effect of the nonsense we saw above. The more genuine reviews there are, from people who are able to express their reasoning clearly, the smaller the impact of rash, unfortunate comments such as those that complain about delivery services.

Again, everyone benefits! I'd urge all of you to become part of that ecosystem, and help both readers and writers to maximise the potential of the review feedback system while elbowing out the drivel that helps nobody.

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