I hate making decisions. Which movie to rent? Which restaurant to eat at? What sights to visit on vacation? The very real possibility of making the wrong decision dances in the back of my brain. What if the movie turns out to be insipid? What if the food is only so-so and the waitstaff rude? What if the tourist attraction is lame, closed or overcrowded? Of course, none of these outcomes are catastrophic, yet I hate to waste time or money or both if it can be avoided.
Enter: the Customer Review section. (*cue angel choir here)
When Customer Reviews began appearing on websites, I was thrilled. Reading what others had to say about a place or product helped decrease my chance of disappointment dramatically! I began adding my own .02 on everything from restaurants, to jeans, to the latest book I’d read. How liberating! How freeing! How great to be able to say exactly how I felt about a product without holding back!
When I became a published author, however, everything changed. Suddenly I was being the one reviewed. (One can argue it’s the book that’s being reviewed, but when you’re the author, trust me, it feels like you.) Perfect strangers were commenting freely on my characters, my plot, my writing. Official reviews by Kirkus and Book List and School and Library Journal appeared below my book title with no say from me. Every time my google alert popped up with yet another unsolicited opinion, my stomach clenched. I read each review through squinted eyes. The slightest hint of negativity caused my heart to drop. Smarminess or blunt cruelty boiled my blood. If you think it’s so easy, I wanted to write back, then you try it!
Then I recalled a negative review I had written years ago on a book by a VIP children’s author. It was on a mock newbery list and I did not feel it was worthy. Oh, how I railed about the plot being boring, the writing didactic, the characters shallow! Me! An unpublished nobody criticizing the work of an award-winning author! What was I thinking? Clearly, I was not. Hiding behind the cloak of anonymity, I felt free to spew forth my opinions, however uninformed they might be. Yes, I had the right to my opinion and yes, I had the right to have that opinion heard. But to what end? Was I giving my opinion to help potential readers make an informed decision, or was I just trying to placate myself for not yet being published?
With the growing popularity of e-readers, more people than ever are sharing their views on books, through sites like Amazon, Barnes and Noble and the very popular Goodreads. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t read these reviews – they still help me decide which books to buy, borrow or skip altogether. But now I look at the act of reviewing much differently. Not only do I keep the potential reader in mind, but the author as well. I now know how an author dissects each review, in hopes of making their next book better. I keep in mind that this book is someone’s baby, their work of art, a part of themselves they were generous and brave enough to share with the world. If I do not care for it, I now try very hard to be honest without being brutal or superior. I highlight things I thought the author did particularly well. I can also now concede that maybe “it’s not them, it’s me.”
They say you are a perfect parent… until you have children. I think the same applies to authors. You are a perfect author… until you get a book published. Then, as with parenting, you realize how much you don’t know, how inexperienced you really are and how much respect you have for those who have gone before you.
Therefore, whatever your profession, the next time you write a book review, keep in mind the hard-working author, cowering at his or her computer, reading your words. Be honest, definitely. But be helpful as well, because more than anything, we want our next book to be the one you rave about!
Beverly Patt is currently working on a top-secret historical novel which she hopes one day will be favorably reviewed by readers and professional reviewers alike.