Monday, July 23, 2012

The Self-Styled Reviewer

By Stella Atrium

In this age of self-published writers, we also have the self-styled reviewer.

Review opportunities are circulated for many products – Consumer Reports on cars, Angie’s List for home repairs, comparisons of cellphones or ereaders when deciding which to buy.

We also review work in many stages of development – plans for remodeling the house, a change of direction in the middle of travel, the first draft of a short story on Reddit, peer editing before marketing, focus groups to test how key phrases play in the public discourse.

For this blog, though, I want to look at the reviews from readers for self-published books. I have a friend who manages a blog and is seeking to become a reviewer of romance stories or chick lit or adventures for kids. She asked me what writers are looking for so she can build a fan base for her reviews.

I believe her instincts are good. Write a review that each audience can use – the writer, the reader, the publisher, the fellow reviewer, the client who may re-publish your review on a digest blog.

Here are some basics:

1)  Work in a genre you prefer – I met a fan of romance who read my fantasy novel and complained there weren’t enough fairies or kissing.

2)  Get the facts straight – What genre, length, style, and appeal?  By appeal I mean is the book targeted to the GLBT audience, or does the story include erotica? Mention who may want to avoid the book as well as who may find the read rewarding.

3)  Include a two-sentence overview of the story – pithy and descriptive. NO SPOILERS.

4)  Mention where this book resides in a series or in the arch of the writer’s career, if applicable. Relate the story to previous work, such as  “more geared to a younger audience”, or “scarier even than his last novel”.

5)  Act as a confidant to the reader. What will she like if you pass along the book to her? “Don’t read this story on Sunday because you’ll be up all night and miss work the next day.”

6)  Think about the ways the review is used later. Include a few shorter sentences that can be quoted by the writer, or by Amazon, or by a blog that re-publishes reviews.

What to avoid:

1)  Some reviewers embrace the need to be critical. Suggestions for improvement are fine, but avoid the “this is how I would do it” tone. Include sugar with the vinegar.

2)  Mention your qualifications, but don’t make the review about you. Your emotive responses are a good way to connect with the reader who looks to you for advice. Your ideas for where you met the writer once at a sci-fi convention belong in a profile article, not a review.

3)  It’s okay to show your smarts by comparing the story to Homer or JK Rowlings. However, don’t speak in that complaining voice. “It wasn’t what I expected,” or “it took too long to get started.” Nobody knows your expectations, or cares.

4)  Avoid a blow-by-blow analysis. Readers want to know if they should invest time and money, not how Part II opens in a different voice. A book review for your 8th grade teacher had to show that you read the whole book.  We aren’t in school anymore.

5)  It’s great to list what was irritating or inconvenient such as too many character names or sudden time changes. Personal attacks, however, don’t serve anybody. “I was looking forward to this book, but was so disappointed” can be damning to the writer, but also damages your ability to find the next writer willing to solicit a review.

6)  Remember that readers spend about 60 seconds on your review, so provide a strong opening and write sparingly. Edit the sentences for any ideas that don’t serve the theme or the constructive criticism.

You will know you have succeeded when readers become fans and when writers solicit you for a review of a new work.

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