Big Al: What is a Reviewer?

Big Al, the big Kahuna

Last fall Stephen Hise interviewed me, along with several other book reviewers, for his What Reviewers Want series. In the comment section of part 2, Jacqueline Hopkins posed some questions about reviewers:

“ . . . what is a reviewer, do they have to have certain credentials; i.e., a degree in English, or writing/reviewing, what makes a good reviewer, and can just anyone be a reviewer, are there professional reviewers and what makes them professional? Do reviews written by a reader carry more weight than a professional reviewer?

I volunteered to attempt answering Jacqueline’s questions in two posts. This post will be my thoughts on some of the questions. In a few weeks, a follow-up post will explore the answers further with input from other reviewers and readers.

Since starting my review blog, I’ve been amazed to realize that when interesting questions like those posed by Jacqueline come up, the answers for me are usually the same as the answers a self-published author would (or at least should in my opinion) give if presented with the same basic question. Just like authors, reviewers cover the entire spectrum of possibility and attract different kinds of readers. On one end of the spectrum, you have James Patterson, Stephanie Meyer, and The New York Review of Books. On the other, you have my nine-year-old granddaughter’s authorial debut (published in a very limited pencil and printer paper edition) and the one line, one-star Amazon reader review that says, “This book sucks.” Anyone who is inspired to write a review can do it. All it takes is an account on Amazon – the same minimal requirement to publish an eBook with almost worldwide distribution. However, just as not every reader is going to like every book, not every reader is going to agree or value the opinion of every reviewer.

On one end of the reviewer spectrum, you have the “professional reviewers.” These are for profit operations that pay their reviewers. One of the main reasons they exist, if not the primary one, is monetary and, by most definitions, the word professional implies a profit motive. This is especially true when applied to an activity that may not always pay, like participating in sports or book reviewing. Here you’ll find reviewers who will often have that degree or are successful authors. What they do sometimes crosses the line into “literary criticism,” which while some might call it a review and may use it in making buying decisions, is something beyond a review. On the other end of the spectrum, you could get someone who is functionally literate, but barely.

However, every point on the spectrum provides value to someone. No one is going to convince me that my granddaughter’s opus isn’t fantastic. That one star review gave a disappointed reader a chance to vent and, while lacking detail, reminds potential readers that every book has someone who didn’t like it.

As for what kind of reviews are more influential or “carry more weight,” it depends on two factors, the individual book buyer and the readership of the review venue. I’m acquainted with some people who could read a thousand reader reviews which are unanimous in their praise and remain unconvinced, but a decent review from The New York Review of Books will send them scampering to the bookstore. Others would rather see what other readers think, because what they are looking for in a book aligns better with fellow readers than with professional reviewers. Regarding readership, the best written, most well thought out, and comprehensive review, carries no weight if no one sees it. It logically follows that the more potential readers in the target audience of the book who will see a review, the more influence the review will have.

For the typical indie author, most of the venues on the “professional” end of the spectrum are largely out of reach, at least for now, so the question is moot. A book blogger has a built-in readership of some size, and typically will post their reviews to Amazon and other venues, where they’re read along with other reader reviews. It is these reviewers in the middle, where some of Jacqueline’s questions become most interesting. In the follow up post we’ll look at the “qualifications” of some of these “reviewers in the middle” and the attitudes of specific readers towards reviewers in general.

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BigAl (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Madonna, and Hitler) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either. (Authors interested in an interview are encouraged to email admin@theindieview.com.)

20 thoughts on “Big Al: What is a Reviewer?

  1. Offering readers a platform to say "This book sucks!" is a necessary evil so that others have a chance to say "This book is great!" Wonderful post, BigAl! I look forward to seeing Part II!

  2. Some interesting insights.

    I look for reviews that are at least modertately literate and say enough about the book that those who read the review will have some idea of whether it is one they will want to read. These may be either professional, from other authors, or from readers. All have a place and are of value. Wish I had more of them. Sigh.

  3. A good article, Al. Good points all around.

    I just want to say, thought, that single sentence reviews such as "this book sucks." May carry less weight that others, since there are no details provided that indicate the reviewer has really read the book. As for qualifications, I find extensive readers to be fully qualified to write reviews.

  4. Thanks for the comments Donna and Kat.

    Thanks Yvonne, from what I've seen, most authors feel the same.

    Thanks Dave. For part 2, ′I'll be talking to a few readers for their thoughts, but my thoughts agree with yours.

  5. I wish IU had an edit button on comments. My first drafts almost always have errors. :(

    (Can everyone pretend that 'at' isn't in the last sentence and add something about 'for part 2'.)

  6. Hey BigAl,

    Informative post. I am looking forward to your expose on the credentials of book reviewers who charge for their services.

    Have a great day!

  7. Hi Al,

    Thank you so much for answering my questions. I had thought about researching all about reviewers and to try to answer my own questions, but as usual life is getting in my way of wanting to do certain things with my writing. So I knew I wouldn't be able to do the subject justice, I asked questions of those in the know and I am so happy to see you here and a part of the IU group to help those of us in need of answers. I look forward to reading Part II.

    Now to respond to Part I: Would you consider that if an author pays for an entry into a book contest, and part of the entry fee is for a review, it was a paid professional review? I had thought that a review I received in a national online paper such as USA Today would have had some influence, but I did not see any sales during the time it was there and didn't see any way to really track the sales, if there were any. The review was really a very nice one and I loved the fact my book was on there, which was a total surprise; but in this case, I am not sure a 'professional' review helped much. :-)

  8. I would like to share this article in toto…

    May I reblog on my own blog and at my group/page and personal page on Facebook?

    I, too, am looking forward to part 2 and request that I be able to use it as well. Could you send authorization to my email so I have a record as backup.

    In my opinion, the book reviewer is the only position in the literary world that has not been reviewed to bring it up to date for the era of POD, ebooks, etc., that we are in…The more we talk about it and share thoughts the better. There is a discussion on Amazon going on right now that has over 300 comments. Strong feelings…we need to ensure we discuss and plan for reviews to have credibility in the future…

    Best,

    Glenda

  9. Thanks Jen, Kristie, and Melinda.

    Lois, I'm not sure I'd want to touch that one with a thousand foot pole. :) (Except for the little I'm going to say on the subject to Jacqueline.)

    Jacqueline, Measuring the effect of a review is, IMO, problematic. I would make the comparison to advertising. It is hard to predict and measure the effect. Often advertising requires a potential client to see the product mentioned multiple times before they decide to pull the trigger, if interested. (I've heard 3 or 4 as a magical number that is what is required for many people.)

    A review is, for many people, going to be the same. I know I have some people that read my reviews who, if I liked the book (or what I didn't like isn't an issue for them) and it appeals to them, they'll buy immediately. Others, based on comments, are registering the book, may sample it, but might not buy it until they are prodded a few more times.

    I hope to have some clues to how different readers use reviews in the follow up post.

  10. I'm also looking forward to part 2. I hope you have some advice for how to deal with backlash. I read the occasional comment on review sites (or, as you know in the comment stream from reviews)that 'so and so's behavior is why I no longer do self pub reviews.

    I can understand the sentiment, but it sure feels crappy to be painted with the same brush as people with no manners or sense.

    • Thanks, PA. I'm not sure that fits with what I had in mind for part 2 of this, but it gave me ideas for at least one and probably two more posts. :)

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