Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Wrap-up on Reviews

We had an interesting discussion yesterday in the comments section to the post. Always good to hear varying opinions.

Bottom line, I think reviews can be very helpful critters. They can be effective in marketing, and they can be effective in communicating quality/aura/etc. of a book to a consumer. I certainly use reviews in my own marketing. I also run a large influencer list (thanks to the generosity of my publisher) for each novel, with every name on the list receiving a free book. These influencer lists are win-wins, as far as I’m concerned. The people receive a free read. If they like the book, I ask them to post a review on, on their blog, etc. If they don’t like the book (can you imagine such a thing?), they don’t have to do anything. Of course, these reviews are meant to be short endorsements, not any deep look into the novel. For marketing, that works.

For consumer edification, I do appreciate the longer, more thoughtful reviews.

Something Mark Bertrand said in a comment yesterday struck me: I'd argue that a lot of what passes for reviewing doesn't rise to that level. There's not enough contextualization, not enough interaction with the text, not enough of anything. Instead it's just a rush to the thumb's up (or down) at the end. Too many soundbites, not enough analysis. One of the reasons I don't review books is that doing it right is hard. A lot of "reviews," especially the self-published ones online, seem to be the result of a quick skim and a collection of random observations. They may provide fodder for the marketing department, but they aren't much help to a reader who wants to be truly informed.

I totally agree. Good, thoughtful reviews are hard. And reviewers don’t always have a lot of word count to go into much detail. So I’m doubly impressed when I read one or two sentences that gives me an insight into a novel—something not in the surface story, but an underlying theme or meaning.

I had this happen recently with my own Violet Dawn, although it wasn’t a review. A bright young employee of Zondervan was asked to write book discussion questions for Violet Dawn. I was amazed at her insights. One question reads something like this: Wilbur Hucks plays a small supporting role, yet has the distinction of speaking the final lines in the book. What is the significance of his words to the main character?

I read that question and nearly jumped out of my chair. This gal is the first person to note this about Violet Dawn to me. She got it! Yes, Violet Dawn is a suspense, and there’s a body in the hot tub on page two. But underneath the suspense level is subtexted meaning--a story about people and their scars, and how they handle their scars. From Paige, who hides every emotional scar from everybody, to Vince and Bailey, who are trying their best to deal with theirs, to crusty old curmudgeon Wilbur, who runs around proudly showing everyone his scar—from heart surgery. On the surface, story level, his final words to Paige provide a bit of lightheartedness at the end of a book that entails some difficult issues. But underneath that is this scar level—and what he’s really saying to Paige about what she must be willing to do in order to make the friends she so wants.

In just a couple sentences, this Zondervan employee nailed that whole subtext. In her case, it was in the form of a question to be answered, because she’s writing for discussion groups. But a reviewer who has such an insight could do the same thing—without explaining the whole subtext, he could take one or two lines to point the reader toward an underlying message of the story. That is the kind of review—whether for one of my books or for someone else’s—that makes me smile. Whether I agree with everything the reviewer says or not isn’t the point. The point is that reviewer spent time to read between the lines, really understand the story, and pen a thoughtful opinion piece about it.

Folks, that a wrap on this subject. I’m now off to Dallas today for the ACFW Conference. The boards have meetings this evening before the conference begins. I look forward to seeing many of you tomorrow, and meeting some of you for the first time.

Please do leave any final comments about this subject. Discussion goes on.

By the way, posts from Thursday through Monday will be as I am able. And no telling what I'll write. Maybe I’ll find some crazy guest bloggers. Maybe I’ll tell some wild stories of what’s going on behind the scenes at the conference. Maybe I’ll pull some lines outta context. Ya just never know . . .


Tina Ann Forkner said...

Great conversation about reviews. Thanks for the topic.

See you at conference! :)

Kristy Dykes said...

Thanks for this interesting discussion. See you at the conference.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great discussion about reviewing. It was very intersesting and informative. I was wondering how does one get on the influencer lists for the authors? Do the authors advertise this someway or do you have to ask each author personally? I love reading and would love to review books.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Deborah, if you're on an email loop like ACFW, authors often announce their infuencer lists on such loops. If not, you can email the author--usually you can do this through the author's web site. You may or may not get on someone's list--it all depends what kind of influencer they're looking for to promote that particular book. But it's worth a try.

Jason said...

I had a question that might be a touchy one to answer. If you didn't want to, I would understand. I look at the limited opportunities to have books published, and then I see a fiction title by Chuck Norris, WITH the help of 3 other writers. One of the guys behind the "Everyman" Christian living series has a novel out with a co-writer. What do you think about celebrities "writing" novels and them getting published just due to the name? (I know this happens in the ABA as well) Maybe we can look forward to a "Purpose-Driven Suspense" down the road? ;)
Asking the tough questions - Jason

PatriciaW said...

Your blog seems to have dropped off my blogmail. Knew I was missing something fabulous!

I do book reviews for several online sites. I enjoy doing book reviews because I read voraciously. I get books for free and I get to share how wonderful they are with others. If it helps the author, great.

I try very hard not to include spoilers. I hate when reviewers do this. I also try to be fair but not nasty. I won't review books in genres that I don't read for personal pleasure. If I have trouble getting through a book and the only possible outcome is to write a scathing review, I send the book back with my apologies and no review, suggesting that perhaps someone else should read it.

I don't understand why some authors, especially those who write inspirational/Christian fiction, feel any less than glowing comment is somehow "unChristian". I don't attack authors personally but I will comment on something that detracts from the overall story and just doesn't work. They can take it or leave it. It's just my opinion.

I must say I never really thought about the reviews as publicity but of course, that's what they are. I don't read them when I select books so that didn't really occur to me. I focus more on the cover blurbs and maybe a brief synopsis from the author's website.

I should say that I'm an aspiring writer too so I keep that in mind. Not all reviewers are created equal but I hope that when my time comes, I get someone like me. I look forward to hearing what works as well as what doesn't work for readers.