Insofar as I can tell, there are three types of book reviews. The first type is the reader review, wherein someone who has actually purchased and read an author’s book will post a comment about it in an online forum of some type. Since the reader represents an author’s customer base, these have the potential to be very valuable. Some are very thoughtful, analytical pieces, while others are more of the loved it or hated it variety with little specificity or guidance for an author open to feedback.
Aside from the disparity in the quality of reader reviews, there is also an element of self-selection bias. The vast preponderance of people who read your book will probably never post a review, whether they loved it or hated it. I suspect this is because for many people, writing a review smacks of homework. A lot of people do not like homework, which is why it is so very rarely listed as a hobby. Authors are often surprised and disappointed to find their favorite relatives and best friends just simply won’t post a review even though they liked the book. We rarely stop to consider it from the reader’s point of view. I think what many readers hear is: I’d like you to read this book and write me a report on it. I have no data to back this up, but I am well known to be 90% right nearly 50% of the time.
The second type of review is the author review. I suppose one could liken this to peer review. The indie author community is one of the warmest and most supportive I have ever encountered. We indies rejoice with each other over a new release, a bump in sales, or a good review. There is a sense of fellowship and a level of confidence that is shared by the members of the community. Perhaps because of that, we are innately averse to hurting each other. Therein lies a potential problem. The specter of injury at a less-than-enthusiastic response may taint what one author says publicly about the book of another.
There is also the quid pro quo dilemma. If another author gave my book a good review do I have an unspoken but understood obligation to respond in kind? If the other author gave my book a bad review am I then justified to apply a more rigorous standard as I review theirs? What if I go first, writing a review of another author’s book and I look past the flaws, focusing only on the positives? Should I then expect that the other author would do the same for me in reviewing my book? This is not to say that author-to-author reviews are without any value. Often, though the posted review may be floral, the bad news is delivered privately, and that can still be helpful.
The final review type is the literary or critical review. These are largely written by people who have deep experience in reading, analyzing and evaluating writing. This is the type of review in which no punches are pulled. The result will still only be the opinion of one person, but is has an undeniable heft of importance about it. Spelling, grammar and punctuation will be counted toward your final grade. No, it does not soften their hearts that this is your first book. Your work will be evaluated on its own merits. These guys grade tough. But—if your book passes muster with a tough critical reviewer, you feel a kind of confidence that no other type of review can bring.
What a review means to an author depends on the kind of validation an author is seeking. In the beginning, it’s great just to have anybody at all say anything positive about your book. Later, an author will want some acknowledgement from his or her peers. If all that boosts confidence sufficiently, the author may hunger for a chance at the toughest literary reviewers.
In the hierarchy of reviews, a reader review is quite like one person recommending his or her doctor to another person. An author review is something more akin to two physicians consulting on a case. They may have a frank discussion and some serious questions may be asked, but the chart will not likely reflect any discord between the two. A critical review is more like a postmortem examination: thorough, dispassionate, and well-documented.
Of course I still get a warm glow when I get a good review—who wouldn’t? But climbing too high upon that pile of accolades can make for a hard fall when a bad review does come along. Understanding the different natures of the three types of reviews might help cushion that fall. What are your thoughts?
[This post is an encore of an article first published on Indies Unlimited on October 11, 2011]