In the movie, “What Women Want,” Mel Gibson’s character is able to read women’s minds after he suffers an electrocution event. Is there anything electrocution can’t do? It got me wondering, wouldn’t it be nice if authors knew what reviewers want?
Sadly, the cord from the hair dryer was too short to reach the tub, so I thought: why don’t I just ask them what they want? I e-mailed several book reviewers, asking if they would be willing to answer a few questions about what reviewers want to see from authors. Several of them just graded my e-mail and returned it with no stars. Nonetheless, a few very good reviewers were willing to take a chance, lift their restraining orders, and come out to play.
The reviewers I spoke with were: Sue Palmer, of Sue Palmer’s Book Reviews; Kim Tomsett-Fowler, of Wistfulskimmie’s Book Reviews; Cathy Speight, of Cath ‘n’ Kindle Book Reviews; and Big Al himself, of Big Al’s Books and Pals.
Reviewers are not just readers, they are voracious readers who have well-developed critical thinking skills. This provides the basis for a great depth of knowledge in literary styles, plot competence, story continuity, character development, and story-craft. A reviewer does not merely read a book, but analyzes it. Any pleasure reader can pronounce a book good or bad. A reviewer must support the opinion with evidence.
No author wants a bad review and I doubt any reviewers want to write one. So, why don’t they just find the kernel of good in any story and focus on that? The reviewer puts his or her credibility on the line with every review. If every book is rated five stars and the reviews consist only of flowery superlatives, then the whole purpose of reviewing is moot.
What must an author do to ensure a good review? In short, reviewers want a well-written, well-edited story with a good premise and well-developed characters, written in a way that invites the reader to suspend disbelief and enter the world the author has created.
The venerable Cathy Speight says, “I am impressed if I am captivated within the first few pages … by an easy-to-read style, but that doesn’t mean it has to be simplistic … by good scene-setting—if I imagine myself in the setting, the author is doing well.”
Big Al is impressed by stories that pull him in. “If the story makes me laugh out loud, brings tears to my eyes, makes me angry, or evokes any real emotional reaction, I’m even more impressed.”
Kim Fowler agrees, “I like a book that takes me out of myself. A book that, if I am disturbed, I am discombobulated for a moment.” It’s a pretty great story if it takes the reader a moment to pull out of it and into the real world again.
Sue Palmer likes to be entertained by the characters, but says, “Good grammar, editing and spelling are essential.” This is key, and something every reviewer with whom I spoke emphasized.
I liken the experience of reading to that of a pleasure drive down a winding country road. It is difficult to enjoy the scenery (story) if there are so many pot-holes (mistakes, typos, etc…) that one begins to wish the ride were simply over.
Yet, an author can write a book that is grammatically correct, well edited, and error-free that still turns out to be a clunker. Though its misuse may draw fire, I have never read a review that included the phrase, “The author’s use of semicolons was nothing short of brilliant!”
What are some of the other things authors do that really turn off a reviewer? Sue Palmer and I share a pet peeve. We both feel too much description is a turn-off. I’ve read books that used several pages to describe details like the wallpaper and end-tables. I find this unnecessary. It feels to me as if the writer is plumping up the page count at the expense of moving the story along.
Kim Fowler points to shoddy formatting as a turn-off. This is unfortunate and entirely avoidable if one uses a reliable e-book formatter. We are not all tech-savvy enough to format our own e-books, but it’s a real turn-off to readers if there are gaps in the text, repeated pages, changing fonts or font sizes, or if text is run too tightly together for easy reading.
I will close by pointing out that a critical review of a book is a valuable tool for its author as well as for its prospective readers. In-depth professional-level reviewing takes a lot of work. Reviewers deserve respect for doing that work but don’t always get it. In part 2, we will discuss how to deal with a less-than-favorable review.