I was inspired to think about reviews because of a particularly tepid one of my most recent short story. My first response was how can he call me a beginner!?! Doesn’t he know who I am?!? Probably not. The telling statement in the review comes early; the story “didn’t quite connect for me.” And that is the essence of all reviews – in my opinion this is a great/good/average/mediocre/horrible story. And generally any given story or novel may get reviews that cover the whole range. Certainly that has been my experience.
But other than the ego boost or deflation, do reviews matter? Getting a review certainly seem to make a difference. One study of reviews in the New York Times shows that, within the limits of a difficult methodology, good reviews seem to make a significant difference – causing a 63% spike in sales in the week after the review. Bad reviews make a difference too – they lead to a 34% increase in sales. Just getting a review in the NY Times is good for book sales. Positive is better but negative doesn’t hurt. The evidence from other analysis suggests that any review in a widely circulated and/or highly respected forum has the same impact. Think Kirkus or Publisher’s Weekly (though apparently not when it comes to being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize).
If you think about it, it makes sense. There are huge numbers of books published every week and only a few get reviewed. For book buyers, it may well be as this blogger puts it that we just don’t have memory space to remember bad reviews. But when we read a good review from a respected source, we flag it as worth having. My own reviewer of choice? The Economist. For the most part, the reviewers there clearly identify their own biases and the review clearly reflects them. I compare my thinking to theirs and make my decision accordingly. I’ve found a number of books that I really enjoyed as a result.
For me, books fall into three categories – books I’ll buy no matter what (a new Tim Winton or Robert J. Sawyer), books I will never buy (Stephanie Myers is but one of a very long list) and books of which I have little or no opinion or information. A review will at least tell me whether the book falls into my general likes (well-crafted plots with strong positive characters, historical mysteries, medium-hard SF) or dislikes (allegorical wanders in the literary woods, most horror, epic fantasy) and give me some indication of whether the book is any good.
Since my default position is almost always not to buy a book, a really good review might occasionally make me take a chance while a bad review is not going to change the default. Unless, of course, I really hate the views of that particular book reviewer.
But what about the other potential value of book or story reviews? Are they any good as criticism? Obviously, they aren’t going to change the book or story that got reviewed – someone already paid me and put it in print. Nor in fact are they likely to change the way I write. After more than 20 years of putting words together, I pretty much know what I want to say and how I want to say it.
I will take advice from editors who want to buy my work (though I don’t do everything they ask) and I listen closely to writers and first readers whom I know and whose opinions I trust. In that context, do the 50 to 500 words of comments from an anonymous reviewer impact my decisions about what and how I write? Not bloody likely.