What is a Reviewer? – Part 2

Big Al

Last month in What is a Reviewer?, I took a stab at answering some specific questions about the complete spectrum of book reviewers. This month I’m looking at two specific questions. First, what qualifications does a typical book blogger possess? Second, what are the thoughts of readers about book reviewers: How do they use them? What qualifications do they think they should have? What influence do they have on their purchasing decisions?

Last year in an internet forum frequented by many indie authors, a New York Times bestselling author who has gone from traditionally published to indie made the comment that “anyone can start a blog and be a ‘reviewer’ now.” He was right. A free Blogger or WordPress account and the desire to review books is all that’s required. The barriers to entry are low, just like they are to become an indie author. What the author I quoted above may not have been aware of is that while the removal of the barriers is a relatively new development for authors, it isn’t for reviewers. I was reviewing music for a multi-reviewer website more than ten years ago.

However, just because anyone can become a reviewer, in practice, those who do so and build an audience beyond family and close friends, have some common qualities. Jeff Clough, who includes book reviews on his website Maynedon, says he reads “more books than anyone I know.” Someone who isn’t an avid reader isn’t likely to have the desire to review books regularly. This is the qualification that virtually every book blogger has in common. They’ve read a lot and have more points of comparison than the average reader has. You’ll notice that Jeff doesn’t mention his writing skills although he is a writer. Anne Chaconas who reviews for multiple sites, primarily Indie Author Book Reviews, has extensive writing experience. She’s written a non-fiction book. She maintains multiple corporate and personal blogs and has a novel in process. Writing tasks appear to fill her waking hours. Yet when asked what she thought the most important qualities to be a good book reviewer were she didn’t mention her writing skills, but “a willingness to be truthful — and a thick skin.” No reviewer likes to give a bad review. I know I don’t. Jeff Clough says that writing negative reviews starts him “shaking and feeling miserable,” but that you can’t be a reviewer “without being willing to tell the truth.”

While many readers don’t read reviews and I’ve run into more than a few who discount reviews that aren’t in the mainstream press, the readers who are the most open to considering indie books are also more likely to use reader reviews and reviews on blogs. This is true for one simple reason; those are the places where the majority of reviews for these books can be found. The readers I interviewed were, by design, those who read book blogs and Amazon reader reviews, but the amount of influence these reviews had on purchase decisions and how they used the information varied. Some take most reader reviews with “a grain of salt,” but in many cases still read them. While some readers mostly use reviews as part of purchasing decision after a book has come to their attention through word of mouth, an Amazon “also bought,” or other recommendation, others use book blogs as a means of discovering books that seem interesting.

Readers also have differing opinions on some aspects of reviews such as how much of the overall plot is okay to reveal. However, what the readers who frequent book blogs thought made a good book reviewer and a good book review was surprisingly consistent and agreed with the consensus opinion of the reviewers. Being well read and having the ability to articulate clearly what the reviewer liked and didn’t like about a book is all that matters.

Readers understand that a review is one person’s opinion, so a single review, good or bad, isn’t going to make or break you. As one reader said, “people seem to get hung up on how many stars the reviewer gave the book.” She went on to explain that she doesn’t care about the number, but the why behind the number. What the reviewer disliked may sound like a perfect fit for her tastes.

In the end, what do I think an indie author should take away from this? Reviews on Amazon and book blogs influence some readers. They shouldn’t be the focus of your marketing efforts because many readers won’t see reviews until they hear about your book. But they can’t be ignored, because plenty of readers use book blogs as a discovery tool and many more are looking for a sampling of other reader’s opinions before making the purchasing commitment.

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Big Al is a well-known reviewer of indie books (and head honcho) at 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.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) 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.

10 thoughts on “What is a Reviewer? – Part 2”

  1. So you don't have to have a college degree to be a reviewer, but in my opinion, as a reader first, a writer second, a reviewer should be able to articulate well what he/she liked/didn't like about the book. I received a 5* review of my book and the reviewer was supposedly a writer but I felt embarrassed for her to post the review because it was poorly written. I was shocked and I actually tried to dissuade her to not publish it for her sake.

    I do not like the ones where they give spoilers away or write a whole book report on a book. Just give a short, sweet and to the point view of the book and your opinion. And it is so true that one person's view of book will differ from someone else's.

    But your blog, BigAl, seems to be one most people look to for honest, good reviews. Your reviews state clear, concise information about the book you read, what you liked or didn't like about it, where it can found, info on the author and your rating.

    Thanks for your post.

    1. Thanks for the comment and the complement, Jacqueline.

      Your opinion agrees with virtually everyone in what they believe a reviewer should do. I'll concede that there are reviewers out there who aren't able to articulate their points well although in my experience if they are publishing their reviews outside of Goodreads, customer reviews on Amazon/B&N, or other venues specifically designed for anyone to post reviews, that they aren't that common. At least I don't stumble on them very often.

      I'll go back to one of my first observations in part 1 of this post, that I look to what the answer is for an indie author and typically find it is the answer for me too when looking at something to do with my book reviews. In this case, I think the reviewers who provide value by articulating their opinion well will tend to rise to the top. Those who don't, not only won't, but I daresay they'll tend to quit because readers won't visit a site where the reviews aren't valuable. The same goes for indie authors, the good will tend to rise and the bad will either up their game or give up. Neither reviewing or authoring (is that word?) are easy. At a minimum, you'd like the reward of being read. As with writing, there are rewards to be found just from the exercise. I find the intellectual exercise of identifying the specifics of what worked and what didn't worthwhile and I think it helps improve my writing skills in the process. I think this is also why many writers/authors also review.

  2. "Readers understand that a review is one person’s opinion…"

    Which for me as a reader is all about finding reviewers who have similar reading tastes. I have three bloggers I follow religiously and whose reviews I trust, one of course being BigAl's. Another is Book Boogie. There's one book you both reviewed but gave a very different rating. That's one book I'm keen to read if only to see whose opinion I agree with more. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Vicki. That's true about finding reviewers whose opinions tend to agree with your own. When I lived in Minneapolis there were two music critics for the local paper. One of them, whenever he would review a concert I'd attended, I'd read and wonder if he'd attended the same concert I had. Needless to say, if he reviewed a CD I was considering, I mostly ignored his thoughts. Another critic for the same paper had opinions that almost only aligned with my own. If he said a CD was good, it got me off the fence.

      Now I have to go find Book Boogie and figure out which book that was. Let me know your opinion, whichever way it goes. 😀

    2. And now that I've figured out which book you're talking about, I'm even more interested in what you think. 😀

  3. As I've worked on narrowing my blog's niche, I've started doing weekly book reviews (mostly of Indie authors). The English teacher in me had to come up with a rubric that justifies the grade I give to the books I read.

    It's interesting how you've phrased your inquiry as "What is a reviewer?" Inherent in that is also the question "What is a review?" Too many "reviewers" offer nothing more than plot summary and tack on "I liked it!" "Excellent!" or "It sucked!" I also like how you point out that some professional reviews border on literary criticism. As I'm delevoping my reviewer style, I find I'm somwhere between. I definitely seek to write critically.

    Reviews must have specifics and point out strengths as well as weaknesses. In any case, your posts have given me even more to think about as I hone my reviewing practices. Thanks so much 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jen.

      You're right that there is a wide range of content and approaches to reviews. I think different readers are looking for different things. Your example of a plot summary and one or two word grade doesn't seem very worthwhile to me. It may be to some people. I know of at least some readers who wish there was somewhere who reviewed indies more like literary criticism. (Mostly ex-creative writing and English majors.) I think there is an audience for a wide range of approaches.

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