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.