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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

How to Identify and Write Honest Reviews

Often when viewing a product I'm thinking about buying, I will read the product reviews by users that often accompany online retail sales pages. When I find a product that doesn't have many or any reviews, I'm hesitant to buy it, feeling like I'm going to be the guinea pig for the product. On most products, it seems such reviews are generally helpful in making a decision to buy something or keep looking.

But when it comes to books, the situation changes dramatically. The reason is somewhat obvious. Items like underwear, clocks, record albums (in most cases), and the like are produced by a company. Said company usually produces a lot of products and doesn't have the manpower or extra cash to get their best friends and family to go post positive reviews on the 1000 different items they sell. The few who actually pay someone to do so risk making that obvious and losing credibility. So most companies are content to let the users of the products make their honest comments. Maybe doing clean up on any particularly damaging complaints, especially if they are a small company with limited product lines.

But authors who do most of their own promotion, whether they are self-published or traditionally published, usually have a handful of product to sell, and usually have family and friends who want to see them succeed with their books. So they are willing and ready to go to bat for the author by posting positive reviews, no matter the actual quality of the book. You don't tend to find that dynamic as often in other product lines like you do with books. This tends to stuff a book's review list with overly positive reviews by people who are as wishful thinking as the author is on the sellability of the book.

Also some authors—because it is their one and only book or series to date and they fear its failure will doom their long-term success—are willing to take the more shady routes to get their book to sell. Some create multiple email accounts and Amazon accounts to pretend to be other people and give rave reviews to the their own books. Others will pay a review company to do essentially the same thing, often without reading anything more than the blurb. Using key words like "page turner" and "couldn't put it down" give the reader the impression they've read it and it was good, when it may not be the case.

Because of these differences, the value of books reviews on these sites tend to be diluted, and honest reviews get buried in the list of 1 or 5 star reviews. So I have two questions for my readers.

When buying a book, do you use the reviews as one element in your buying decision?

If not, would you if you trusted that the reviews were mostly honest?

My guess is, out of those who answered no to the first question, a majority would answer yes to the second. In other words, the main reason you don't read reviews to help make your decision is that you generally don't trust them to give honest opinions. And the ones that are honest are hard to find. That said, there are elements of an honest review that enable you to spot them in a list of fluff or attacks. Likewise, if you are writing a review, there are some items you want to include if you want your review to be accepted as honest.

One, an honest review answers the question, "Is this book worth my money and time to buy and read?" While an entertaining review is a plus, the reason people read reviews is to help them decide if the book they are examining is one they'll enjoy reading. People generally don't like plunking down hard earned money to read books they don't like. If the reviewer answers that question, then the review will be perceived as helpful. If the reviewer has other motives, that will tend to emerge from the writing, and the reader will more likely ignore the review.

Two, an honest review contains both positives and negatives. It is rare that a book will not have any positives or negatives. Few books deserve to get totally glowing reviews with no negatives, or all negatives with no positives. Readers innately know this. So if a review has no negative, or likewise, no positives, those types tend to get discounted and ignored. For a review to be read and used, it should contain both positive and negative points.

Three, an honest reviewer rarely gives out 5 or 1 star reviews. Like extreme positive gushing reviews and angry sounding rants, books given 5 or 1 stars tend to be discounted. The exceptions to that rule are when a reviewer usually doesn't give out 5 or 1 stars, then it means something when they do; or if a book is really so good that the reviewer is ready to rank it with the classics; or there are thirty or more reviews and the bulk of them are 1s or 5s. Sure, getting that 5-star review makes the author feel good. But whether the reviewer is being honest or not, the reader, if they see 5 stars and a glowing review, will likely figure the author's mom or another friend/family member wrote it and dismiss it as too biased.

My rating system on 5 stars is: 1 equals, "I couldn't make it through the first chapter or two, it was so bad"; 2 equals, "Not that great, it has some redeeming values and I appreciate what the author was doing, but overall, too many negative issues to make it work for me"; 3 equals, "Though it had some problems, overall the story was worth reading, recommend"; 4 equals, "I really liked this book. Some issues here and there, but really worth my time to read it and I would highly recommend it"; and 5 equals, "Wow, just wow! This book knocked my socks off and I would rank it with the all time greats in publishing history!" If a reviewer marks every book a 5 that they review, then the ranking doesn't mean anything. Especially if "every" equals one or two reviews.

Four, an honest review avoids using marketing catch phrases like, "page-turner," "couldn't put it down," "stayed up late to finish the book," "threw the book across the room," "reading it was like watching paint dry," etc. Even if true, using those types of trite phrases will tend to make the review read more like marketing text. The moment it sounds like a sales pitch to the reader, that's the moment they discredit it.

Five, an honest review gives a brief, spoiler-free summary of the book. This not only indicates that the reviewer read it and know the basic character names and plot, but allows the reader to see the gist of the story from another person's eyes than the publisher's. Reviewers who haven't read the book will generally not give much, if any, of a summary beyond what can be found in the blurb. But don't make this too long. One or two paragraphs should be all you need. A review is much more than regurgitating the plot and saying whether you did or didn't like it.

Six, an honest review gives an opinion on the main elements of the story: plot, pacing, characterization, settings, writing style, grammar and typo issues (readability), what stood out to the reviewer as good or bad about it. The more a review casts a critical eye to the various elements of the story, the more honest and authentic the review will ring to the reader. If all a reader gets is, "it was a great story," the more likely the reader will assume that the review isn't worth factoring into their decision.

Seven, an honest review gives an opinion on what kinds of readers will and won't enjoy the book in question. Even if the reviewer indicates he or she didn't care for the book, saying who will or won't like a book lets readers know the reviewer is trying to be objective. Even the negative can help. Warning men who like action novels that a specific book isn't action/plot driven can be a service to the reader, whether or not the reviewer is glad or not that it is or isn't present.

Eight, an honest reviewer personalizes his or her review. Such a review relates not only the technical aspects and how well the author did or didn't pull them off, but any aspects that spoke to the reviewer personally, made a difference in how the reviewer views an issue, people, problem, or other life experience. When the reviewer answer the question, "What did I take away from this story?" it shows the reader that he or she interacted with the story, digested it, and gave it thought. An insincere review isn't likely to provide such feedback.

The next time you read reviews to decide whether to buy a book, consider the above guidelines as a means to spot the more helpful and honest reviews. Likewise, if you wish to write a review on a book, give consideration to those elements, and you're more likely to get readers to give due consideration to your review in their buying decision.

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