Friday, 3 February 2012

Reviews and reviewing

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Tom Kasey and Jack Steel)

Yesterday I did something that I very rarely do: I went to Amazon and I checked the numbers of my last three books and glanced at the reviews as well. I suppose other authors find the Amazon numbering system for books and other products just as incomprehensible as I do, though I suppose it does provide some kind of guide as to how well or badly a particular book is doing.
            The reviews are slightly easier to understand, though again there is a kind of subtext which runs through the system. For example, my ‘James Barrington’ and ‘Max Adams’ books seem to get consistently good reviews, probably because they are mainstream thrillers in well-identified genres, and most people who comment on them probably read that kind book as the norm.
In contrast, because my ‘James Becker’ novels deal – sometimes obliquely, but sometimes very directly – with religion, and especially with Christianity, I seem to get almost as many one star reviews as five-star, depending, presumably, upon the sensitivity of the toes upon which the story treads. This is probably inevitable, because Christianity, like every other religion, is based upon faith and not upon fact, and many believers react quite violently when issues of historical reality, issues which clash with their cosy belief system, are presented, even in the context of a novel.
There are other reviews which appear to be motivated primarily by spite. Usually short and abusive, these often seem to be written by people who are keen to promote other books on the same or a related subject, and apparently don’t like the idea of competition. They often include a sentence along the lines of: ‘This book is complete rubbish, but if you’re interested in finding out more about this subject, I recommend XXX by ZZZ – he really knows what he’s talking about.’ Again, they’re not that difficult to spot.
At the other extreme are the gushing – but almost always very short – reviews, usually written by somebody called ‘A Customer’ or similar, who have often never submitted a previous contribution on Amazon. It’s fairly clear that these have been written by a friend of the author in an attempt to increase the book’s ranking on the system. If this is done by one author to try to boost the sales of a friend’s book, it’s known as ‘log-rolling’ in the trade.
            In fact, there are probably as many reasons for writing a review as there are types of review. In my experience, the best reviewers are those who write the most, both in terms of the length of each review and in the numbers they submit, who approach every book with an open mind and who deliver an unbiased and honest critique of the work without any kind of hidden agenda.
            Which brings to mind a good friend, who does something quite unlike anybody else I’ve ever met. He’s a prolific reader, whose tastes run to serious literary works – he rereads Proust every couple of years, for example, and you don’t get much more serious or more literary than that – and the biographies of senior politicians and businessmen, most of whom he knows or knew on a personal basis. Every time he reads a book, he hand-writes a review of it in a notebook which he keeps for that specific purpose. Nobody else sees the review, and he wouldn’t dream of publishing it on Amazon or anywhere else. And when he reads a book again, he writes another review of the same work, and then looks at the earlier version to see if his opinion or his comments have changed significantly. For him, it’s obviously a labour of love, but I think for many people it would appear to be a completely pointless activity.
            I suppose the basic question is whether or not the reviews on Amazon actually achieve anything at all. For me, they do, because I almost invariably look at what other people have said about a particular book before I decide whether or not to buy it. I try to disregard both the gushing and the spiteful reviews, read a few of those which appear to have been written by people with brains and an unbiased attitude, and then make a decision. Usually, that seems to work, and I rarely disagree with the majority of the opinions which have been expressed.
            But in the end, of course, any review is entirely subjective, just the opinion of one man or woman, and no author, no matter how talented or capable, is ever going to satisfy every reader out there.
            In fact, I’m reminded of an excellent piece of advice given to a public performer – I can’t remember if it was an actor, actress or singer – on the subject of reviews. The advice was: ‘Don’t ever read any of the reviews written about you. Just weigh them.’

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