On reviews: Inflation

Everyone seems to be talking about reviews lately. And they are saying good things:

I love reviewers/readers. Without them, I’d be out of a job. I respect that it takes a reviewer time to read and review my work, just as it does with a reader (though readers are out of time and money). I am not so arrogant or deluded to believe that a reviewer owes me a review, let alone a positive one, or that I have to right to pitch a fit if it’s negative.

[ . . . ]

In the end, reviews are for products people buy, not critical assessments of writing skill or talent. Reviews cover plot, theme, characterization, editing, formatting, cover art, and price of book. They’re about products, nothing more, and that bit of emotional distance can do an author a world of good when someone says that their book sucks.

S.L. Armstrong

And:

When you put your book out, either through self-publishing venues or through a publisher, there has to be a certain sense of letting go. You might have been trying to send out a particular message or woven a subtle theme into the fabric of your story, but once it’s out there and available to the masses, you have to leave your expectations at the door. Some people will love your book, some will hate it, some will shrug their shoulders and say they think your idea could have been executed better, and some will read into aspects of the story in ways that you had never even imagined while writing it. There are ups and downs, and it’s really just part of the beast.

K. Piet

I think both of these posts are valid and should be read and internalized. But they fail to hit on the thing that I want to talk about today, which is sending your book to your friends in order to get favorable reviews.

There was a recent kerfluffle about an author who made a lot of sockpuppet accounts on Goodreads and gave all their books many five-star reviews; the whole community recoiled at this idea, this inflation of the score and this idea that the author would dare to do such a thing.

I think that the community’s reaction to this was right on the money. The author’s behavior is the type of thing that ought not be accepted since it is sneaky and dishonest to other authors who are not doing that sort of thing and also readers who are looking for an accurate opinion of a book before they read it.

You can probably see where I am going with this.

Sending a book to a bunch of friends* is only marginally better than sockpuppets; it’s still underhanded in this writer’s opinion. The action has the same outcome, and the exact same intent: inflation of the opinion of your book. It’s dishonest and I think that it’s actually pretty bad for business.

Why?

Think on it this way: what happens when the new reader–who bought your book on a whim, perhaps, after seeing that it had good reviews–reads the book and finds it to be not at all what the reviews portrayed it as? Not only have you earned another bad review (or bad reviews, if more than one person bought the book and was disappointed) but you’ve also repelled a reader; the chances of them buying any more books written by you are low.

It also makes for dismal chances that they will believe that future reviews written by certain people are accurate opinions of your book. You will gain a reputation for dishonesty, too. I know that doesn’t bother a lot of people, because integrity seems like a lost cause these days, but it bothers me, which is why I am writing about it.

Even with all of these things, I think the thing that an author loses the most from ignoring bad reviews and inflating their book with friends’ reviews is the chance to improve their craft. These reviewers are trying to tell you something; listen.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

* Sending it to one or two friends is kind of industry standard so I can’t frown on it too much. Besides, one or two reviews aren’t going to inflate anything; I mean when you send to five, ten, or more people.

On authors beta reading/giving critique

Beta reading in an insightful way can be very hard for authors. It was very hard for me, for a long time (though I didn’t realize it then) because I just twitched to go through and make tons of corrections that were all to stylistic things and ended up strangling the voice of the author I was reading for.

I think it was a pretty sucky time to be my beta partner, and I look back and am not surprised that the people I was reading for then don’t have me read for them anymore. But I got older and wiser, and learned how to beta in the way most useful to my partner.

It can be hard for an author to look at something and divorce themselves from the way they would have written it. But it’s totally necessary, if you are going to be an effective beta reader/crit partner: you cannot focus on things that are stylistic issues. I am not saying that you should never mention these things–if there is something that really bothers you and you believe would trip up readers, go right ahead–but don’t put tons of focus on it.

Because the things that are really important to focus on, the things it will help your beta partner the most if you focus on, are the parts that don’t work for you because you are having trouble following the plot logic/characterization/whatnot.

So look at the comments you are making. Do these comments boil down to “I would have written it X way”? If so, nix them and make comments that are universal, comments that point to problems or good parts that most everyone can agree exist to one extent or another.

Some good questions to consider when beta reading:

  • Does the plot follow logically from one event to the next?
  • Is there enough conflict to carry the plot/keep the story interesting?
  • Is the characterization consistent?
  • Do the characters have clear goals/motivations?
  • Is the language/syntax appropriate to the point-of-view character? This means: is the sailor swearing? is the bride blushing? and if not, is it clear why they aren’t?
  • Does the point of view character have a strong voice?
  • Is the sex too technical? Too… anything? Not enough anything? In other words, is the sex appropriate to the characters having it?
  • Is there a fair amount of narrative traction?
  • Do the subplots make sense? Do they have a purpose/feed into the main plot?
  • Does it feel like there are any missing scenes? This would fall under the ‘plot logic’ heading–are all the paths that the plot takes clear? Do you feel at any point like you missed something plot-wise?
  • Are there any plot points which were unresolved?
  • Do any scenes feel like they drag along at a snail’s pace?
  • Does the tone that the scenes are written in fit well with the story?
  • Is the pacing even throughout the book?
  • What is the characteristic of the writing: dry? purple? somewhere in the middle? How does this line up with your preferences as a reader? (Keep in mind that the way something is written can have a big effect on your enjoyment of it.)

Of course there are instances where any of these things might not happen and the story not suffer for it–there are exceptions to every rule–but generally when you are beta reading, you want to focus on the elements of the story/storytelling than on line-editing. (Unless that is what your beta partner asked for, in which case, have at it.)

And always, always, if the answers to these questions are yes, then tell your beta partner that they did a good job on these things! It can be a huge blow sometimes to hear that you did this, this, and that wrong and nothing right. So if they are doing any of the above things (or some things I didn’t manage to think of) correctly, tell them, and they will love you for it.

For the record… these are also things I consider when reading submissions and editing. So beta reading effectively can extend to more parts of your life than reading your friends’ work.

Thus, it is important to learn to beta in a relevant way.

Some useful links:
Examples of beta reading – Very helpful if you are unsure exactly what format you are supposed to use when beta reading for someone.
How to Beta Read – Exactly what it says on the tin: an in-depth look at the way you should beta read.
Results of a Beta Reading survey – This is a very, very comprehensive survey of 54 beta readers from 2008, and the results of it. Helpful for the Do’s and Don’ts and also for going into depth about the ways that beta readers mark things, the resources they use. Like I said, very comprehensive.
Absolute Write’s Beta Readers Forum –  One of the many spots to find readers, and they have some useful information in their sticky topics, too.
An Experimental Psychologist’s Take on Beta Reading – Very interesting and an excellent resource for those of us who are science-minded. It is broken into four sections: Part 1 – Subject Pool; Part 2 – Recruiting/getting them to read; Part 3 – Data collection; Part 4 – Results and conclusions.

Any links I missed that aren’t just reiterations of the above? Toss ’em up in the comments and I’ll edit the entry :)