What makes a great review?

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I need to say first that I really value reviews, and appreciate the effort and commitment of those who write them. I’ve been thinking a lot about them lately, prompted by my first experience of a ‘blog tour’, and also by a passing comment from a friend who wanted to mention my books on his new website. ‘Have you got any reviews we could take extracts from?’ he asked. ‘Only Amazon or bloggers’ reviews,’ I said, explaining that despite all my efforts over the years, I haven’t managed to get reviews of any of my six books in the local or national press. His reply was that Amazon or blogging reviews ‘didn’t count’ in his traditional view of publishing. Was he right, I wondered? I sent some of my reviews anyway, and choosing which ones to send got me thinking about what makes a good review.

Let’s be very clear, by ‘good’ I don’t necessarily mean ‘favourable’. Some of my books are ‘better’ than others, in my own opinion. Obviously, I try to do the best I can with each book I write, but sometimes – usually through the need to meet artificial targets or deadlines – there are compromises, or one edit too few, or a scene that is left in even though it doesn’t really add to the story, or a missed chance to illuminate a character through some telling. If a reviewer spots a specific shortfall, that’s a good review, so long as the specific positives are mentioned as well.

So, there’s the first criterion for quality in a review – specificity. The vaguer the wording, the less satisfactory for me as the writer, and for those who might use the review to decide what they want to read. This presupposes that a good reviewer has read the book with care, not just skimmed it. If a review uses the back cover blurb word for word, and without quotation marks, I’m left wondering whether they read much further.

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The second criterion for a review’s quality, in my view, is that it describes and analyses the work rather than just ‘evaluates’ it. Saying the book is ‘good’ or ‘weak’ doesn’t tell us anything: the question is why is it so. Sometimes reviewers tell us that they ‘like’ or ‘don’t like’ a character, but don’t explain why. It’s the explanation not the judgement that helps the readers understand what’s going on, and whether they want to read the book for themselves. And some characters can be wonderful to read about, even though we might not like them much as people: sinners are often more interesting than saints.

The third criterion would probably be that the reader gets enough detail about the content to whet their appetite, but not so much that they don’t have to read the book at all! I’m not a member of a book group, but friends who are have confessed from time to time that reading a very detailed review will help them pretend that they’ve read the book. The review becomes the ‘potted version’ of the real thing, and I’m not sure that’s really helpful.

From all this, you won’t be surprised to discover that I don’t have much time for the ‘star rating’ system which seems to be ubiquitous. Yes, it’s quick, and you can use a crude number rating to filter books in or out of consideration. But what does it really mean, when you get down to it? I spent my whole working life in education on issues of ‘assessment and evaluation’ and the main thing I learned was that one single ‘number’ cannot represent a task or achievement of any complexity, such as a book. There are frequently questions of ‘subjectivity’: one reviewer’s four stars could be about the same as another’s five stars, or another’s three. Even if the reviewer uses a process of breaking down the criteria into separate ratings, one point either way can tip the total one way or the other, making the final summary number inaccurate as well as meaningless.

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Numbers are often assumed to be accurate than words, but that’s a false assumption. The star system is crude, simplistic, and riddled with potential error.The only thing going for it is speed, and the potential for comparability, but what’s the point of comparing information which is itself flawed?

Writing a high quality review is a time-consuming and demanding task. If reviewers are to be successful, they need to be paid, and not just fobbed off with a free book. And the quicker we see the back of the overall star rating system, the better.

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How do I sell successfully, as a self-published author?

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All self-published writers know that the hardest part of the whole process is not the writing, which is creative and challenging and satisfying. The bit we struggle with is getting our books into the hands of readers, and having those readers pay a price commensurate with the effort and energy that’s gone in to the book.

Obviously, much will depend on the mode of publication you choose. With an ebook there’s no physical product, but readers still have to know where to find your book, and choose it over the masses of others that are available, especially in the crowded market of genre-fiction. Some ebook authors use price as the come-on, but that quickly turns into a race to the bottom and the pressure to charge a derisory amount or nothing at all.

If you choose, as I did, to create a physical book as well as an ebook, there are more routes to sales, but most of them still fundamentally depend on ‘visibility’. I advertise my books on my website and on all the flyers and bookmarks I have printed. I also get orders through Amazon, and through the major book distributors such as Gardners Books in Eastbourne. In Cumbria, where I live and the books are set, distribution is handled by Hills Books of Workington, which supplies almost all Cumbrian bookshops and other outlets, but beyond this region getting my books onto bookshop shelves is almost impossible. Readers can order them of course, and do so, but the supply chain is long with discounts at every stage.

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The bookshop contacts their wholesaler, who contacts me, who posts off the requested amount, which then goes back to the wholesaler, then to the bookshop, and finally into the hands of the reader. With postal charges rising all the time, any supply chain that relies on the self-published author fulfilling such orders by post means precious little profit.

An efficient and profitable selling route for me is via my website direct to the reader, using Paypal for payment. I could invest in a card reader, but that in turn relies on a good mobile signal which can never be assumed either in my home or when I’m out on the road meeting potential readers. Maybe it’s something I need to investigate again.

The main problem is the very slow traffic to my website and how to increase the website’s ‘attractiveness’, a task so far from my original passion for writing that I constantly put it off. Everything I know about the internet and how to use it I’ve had to learn in the last twenty years, and much of it still frustrates me. I have a Twitter account with over a thousand followers, but won’t play some of the games that seem to required to grow that number. I use FB too, but am wary of it and share only with a limited number of people already known to me. The key issue may be that the generation that reads and loves my books is, like me, a pre-internet generation. Why else would people sometimes tell me that my books are ‘hard to find’ when a ten second online search using just my name would give them all the information they need?

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Why do they go to a bookshop and order, when they could go straight to my website and its online ‘bookshop’ in half the time? Of course I’m keen to preserve local bookshops, but I wish more of them would stock good self-published books like mine.

Fortunately, I really enjoy doing presentations about my books to groups large and small, meeting readers and potential readers. Almost all of these are in Cumbria, but that’s where my books are already known. Without a publisher or an agent, it’s well-nigh unheard-of to be asked to present self-published work at any of the major events and book festivals, unless you’re very well-connected, which I am not. For me, an added frustration is that after thirty years as a professional presenter I know I could do as good a job as most of the authors I hear talking about their work, and better than some. Even with a restricted field for selling, however, direct sales account for a major part of my sales every year, and the most profitable.

Of course I’m contacted regularly by people offering to improve my website’s effectiveness, at a price. Is it worth it, in terms of time as well as cost? Life’s too short to spend too much time on things I really don’t enjoy. My problem is patience: I couldn’t be bothered trying to find an agent after the first few generic rejections. Nor, I fear, can I be bothered to spend precious hours growing my website traffic when I could be crafting another story. So, I’m a bit stuck. My books sell, but not as well as they should!