What Reviewers Want (Part 1)

[This is a golden oldie—it ran on Indies Unlimited back on October 8, 2011.]

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.

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Stephen Hise is an author and the Founder and Evil Mastermind of Indies Unlimited. For more information, please see the IU Bio page and his website:http://stephenhise.com/


Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

10 thoughts on “What Reviewers Want (Part 1)”

  1. "….an author can write a book that is grammatically correct, well edited, and error-free that still turns out to be a clunker."

    Yes – I agree heartily. It takes so much more than correctness for a book to be a worthwhile read.

    In these days of fast publication, one pardons the odd error every two dozen odd pages, and most good books have them. Errors and typos are so much more visible in a story that has not fully engaged the reader.

    1. Thanks Rosanne, and I like that you say, "I agree heartily." After all, if one cannot agree heartily, why bother to agree at all? 😉

  2. "The author’s use of semicolons was nothing short of brilliant!” This made me laugh.

    Although errors, typos and such, seem to be present in every published novel it is upsetting to discover them after paying dearly for an editor. I have heard two different opinions – "The spelling of her name changed, and I was distracted", by an ex-copy editor, countered by, "I couldn't care less if the character said "can I" instead of "may I". I was too engrossed in the story." What to do? I handed a paperback copy to a friend with a red pen.

    This was a very helpful and informative piece. Thanks!

  3. Good points! I find that reading one's own work out loud quickly locates most problem spots.

    BTW Is there a list of book reviewers somewhere online?

      1. And funny thing is, that Jim Devitt article has been sitting in my email inbox this whole time while other items piled on top of it. Thank you, Stephen and K.S., I will be checking out all your suggestions properly!

  4. I've recently discovered that, in addition to a "read aloud", reading it on my Kindle brings even more testy little flaws to light. So, now, I load onto Smash first and immediately transfer to my Kindle and read it, fix it, and reload. You can temporarily archive the book while you do this "device read". It also shows me formatting problems.

    Once I'm done, I go to my print version and make the same fixes, where applicable.

    This isn't as wonderful an experience as it was when my two lady friends used to do my editing for me, but with then both moving away to Florida–I suspect to get rid of the burden of proofing my books–I'm left to my own devices.

    Darned Florida and its sandy beaches!

  5. I agree that description without a purpose is a turn-off for me, no matter how well phrased. Yet some readers love it, my other half does as long as it is well done.

    But even if you 'get it right' it's still hard to get effective reviews, because first they have to read the darn books. 🙂

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