Reviewing Reviews

After hanging around writers in various states of publish for the last twenty-plus years, you’d think I’d have internalized the “Don’t read your reviews!” advice.

After hanging around me for not too long, you’d see I can be quietly and subversively hardheaded about certain pieces of advice.

I do indeed read my reviews (a simple process these days, since I don’t get that many).  And I consider what they mean, individually and collectively, about how I’ve connected with readers.

That phrase—connected with readers—is the foundation of my review-reading mindset.  It isn’t about judging “quality;” it is about understanding if what I produced matched the readers’ expectations.

The majority of reviewers aren’t concerned with evaluating whether a novel will be enjoyed by others.  They’re not predicting what will appeal to a readership broad and deep enough to justify a huge investment of time, money, and reputation.  That was once the job of editors and agents, who must wade through oceans of submitted material in search of the oyster that’s hiding the lustrous white satin pearl.

Reviewers are instead sharing their own experience, and that’s based upon how closely expectations of the story matched the delivery.  They chose to purchase a certain book, believing it would be something they’d enjoy.  They invested their time to test that expectation.  They’ll tell you the results of their experiment.  Certainly that nebulous notion of “quality” is a factor, but once a baseline of writing ability has been established, it’s all about expectations.

The distinction is critical because I am both a writer and a publisher.  I am responsible for the quality of my writing, certainly.  But I am also responsible for putting my writing in front of people who will be interested in it.  It is not my job to get as many sales as possible.  It is my job to sell it to as many people as possible who will be happy they purchased and read it.

So.  My (few) reviews for Sword and Chant, and what they tell me.

I have not received what Sue Lange calls The Elusive One-Star Review, (which I find both a relief and a disappointment), nor been given a low rating due to errors in basic editing and formatting.  That last part is more important than it might sound, considering the amount of difficulty some publishers have with things concerning clarity, commas, and conversions.  I’m glad I got the basics of the ebook experience right.

I’m thrilled to have received a handful of five-star ratings from strangers.  Even better, a couple of those ratings are accompanied by reviews.  And one of those reviews is something I admit I go back and re-read now and then because the reader articulated exactly what I wanted a reader see.  It’s my favorite review as a writer because the reader’s experience matched my intentions—and that is a rare thing indeed, I think.

It’s probably totally uncool and self-serving for me to link to it.  I’m going to do it anyway.  Hee.

Nearly half my ratings are four-star.  I’m happy with that.  I’m relieved by it, frankly.  In the couple of written reviews accompanying the four- and five-star ratings, I find clues to what receptive readers liked: the crafting of the world and the characters, the anxiety and the ambiguity.  It doesn’t mean I did those things “well,” by whatever general standard might exist.  It means the readers who liked what I wrote had that experience.

I know y’all might think that’s an odd distinction.  Bear with me.

Now for the lower ratings and reviews, the ones that provide the meat of my self-examination meal.  Around a fourth are three-star, and one is a two-star.  The reasons stated include too many politics, too many characters, and not feeling connected to a protagonist.  This doesn’t mean I made a mistake by including politics and many people, nor does it mean I wrote them poorly.  It means the readers who didn’t like the book had that experience.  Those readers expected a different sort of clarity than Chant delivers.

But here’s the point that might make it clear: One reader called it “an odd read.”  Another reader called it “difficult to characterize.”  One of those statements came from one of the highest ratings, and the other from the lowest.  Without additional context, can you be certain which is which?

Now, had most of the reviews been negative, I’d be having a different conversation–one focused on writing mistakes I’d made and improvements in craft I’d need to pursue.  But I’m happy enough with the ratio of good reviews to go out on an ego-upheld limb and say Chant is a decent novel.

That doesn’t mean I dismiss those other reviews.  Rather, it all brings me back to reader expectations and what I, as a publisher rather than a writer, can do to improve my expectation-meeting skills.

In retrospect, one of my biggest mistakes was putting Sword and Chant up first as epic fantasy.  The breadth and depth of epic fantasy expectations are ginormous and, from a marketing perspective, so is that browsing category.  The same goes for sword-and-sorcery.  Under both those listings, Chant would bump against the reader expectation of a single and clear protagonist coupled with moral clarity.  It doesn’t really deliver that.  Readers expecting it will be disappointed.

I want to disappoint as few readers as possible.

So I think the novel should have been placed first under dark fantasy—a genre with reader expectations closer to what Chant delivers.  Certainly it is dark enough to meet those expectations, but it also has the push-pull of good-bad within characters, unanswered moral questions, and a foundation that’s more on the grim side of things.

Discoverability as well as expectations enter in to those judgments.  On Amazon, “epic fantasy” lists about thirteen thousand titles.  Sword and sorcery lists over eighteen thousand.  But dark fantasy?  Less than fifteen hundred.

It’s categorized there now, just sitting around waiting for me to publish enough stuff to justify a little bit of marketing.  It’ll be more at home in dark fantasy, methinks, and more of its readers are likely to have their expectations met.  Had it been in that category when it had an initial surge of sales, it might have ridden a little swell of discoverability.  Alas, now I’ll just have to wait to test my theory.

In addition to better categorizing the novel, reviewing reviews is also giving me ideas on how best to move forward with other titles.  If what I’m writing does indeed meet expectations of more dark fantasy readers, I need to make different decisions on cover art and story blurbs.  Both should reflect a different mood–consistent with genre expectations–than either epic or sword and sorcery.

Sure, I have few reviews.  But they’ve given me a wealth of useful information bits.

It’s understandable to be caught up in seeing reviews solely as statements about the writing.  But in these days of self-publishing, when the writer can control just about everything about her product, it’s important to ask more than, “Did they like my book?”  The better question should be, “Did I put my book in front of people who would like it?”  Negative reviews often give us clues to not only the answer, the possible solution.

 

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