Getting and Giving a Great Review

Of course, we all want knockout love letters every time that we publish.  It’s more than just the praise that we crave, a great review can go a long way toward generating sales.  A rave in a major venue like Publisher’s Weekly or The New York Times not only sells books to the readers of the magazine, but also inspires booksellers to order more heavily and will encourage individuals to buy and read your book.

But some authors want too much out of a review, and thus don’t recognize a perfect review when they see it.  Beyond that, as an author, you will be called upon by other authors to give cover quotes from time to time, and so it’s helpful to recognize what makes a valuable review.

So here are a few tips:

1. A great review is one that is publicized in the right venue, by a person of authority.  There are “services” that an author can subscribe to where you get your book recommended.  For a little money, a reviewer will read the book and search for appropriate praise.  This might cost the author a couple of hundred dollars.  But educated readers—the book buyers for major chains, won’t be impressed.  They’re looking for reviews from reputable entities, from critics who are widely read and whose reputations are stellar.

2. A good review will not just recommend a book but will also recommend the author.  If someone says, “In the Company of Angels is a deeply moving novel,” that’s great.  But as a cover quote it is usable primarily for that novel only.  I’d much rather have a blurb that reads, “David Farland writes deeply moving fiction.”  A good review often praises both the book and the author repeatedly, so that when an editor is selecting cover quotes, he has several options at hand.

3. A good review is pithy.  By that I mean, the author writes the review in short sentences that will easily fit on the cover of a book and capture’s the audience’s attention.  Sometimes a review is so long, the praise so narrow or so bland that the quote is unusable.  If a reviewer were to say “Dave’s prose flows effortlessly across the page in a style adopted by only the finest of seasoned professionals,” I’d have to cringe.  Seriously, is that the highest praise that you can muster?  If so, I’ve really blown it.   I have had good reviews that went on for pages, creating a strong sense that the reviewer loved the book—yet never had a usable quote.  Every quote either required four or five lines to read or just felt rather flat on the page.

4. A rave review praises multiple facets of the book or the author.  For example, a reviewer might say that a book is “powerful.”  That’s great, but what does it mean?  Does it mean that the characters are thrown into gripping situations?  Will the violence and swearing make me cringe?  I’ve read hauntingly powerful novels that also had weaknesses—such as unrealistic dialog.  So one has to wonder if the book has only one virtue.  Just because the story is powerful, does that mean that the prose is entertaining, the characterization believable, the world creation exceptional, and so on?  By praising only one facet of a novel, the audience may be left to imagine that the author is something of a one-trick pony.

5. A great review doesn’t just give praise but also offers a caveat or two.  Now, no one likes to hear that their book is imperfect, but the truth is that getting praise that is too high will raise the audiences’ expectations to the point that they can’t be met.  I recall years ago that I received a very lengthy glowing review in a magazine.  A few weeks later I met a science fiction fan who clapped me on the shoulder and said, “My condolences on that review.  You realize of course that the praise was so high, you’ll disappoint most of your readers.  This could set your career back for years.”  I’m not sure if that really happened.  The book sold exceptionally well, but I do have to wonder.  Several other critics seemed to be exceptionally stingy with praise.  So a glowing review became something of a mixed blessing.

I’d prefer that a review for a magazine or newspaper have some caveats. I don’t believe that books are “one size fits all.” At the very least, the reviewer needs to recognize that not all people will love a book that he sees as perfect. For example, my novel Freaky Fly Day has gotten some great reviews. One reader called it a work of “maniacal comic genius.” But I have a caveat for you. If a person doesn’t have a sense of humor, he won’t like this book. I’ve seen dour folks with perpetual scowls who peer down through their thick glasses and sneer at the cover. These aren’t potential fans, folks. So some books are only enjoyable if you’re of the right sex, age, political alignment, religion, educational background, and so on. A good review will warn readers, “This book might not be for you.” If there are other problems with the book—and if you look hard enough, you can find weaknesses in even the best of books—the reviewer will also warn about those.

So what you’re really looking for is a review with a bit of balance yet leaves the reader eager to read. In a review I got for In the Company of Angels, the writer spends 16 paragraphs talking about the book, but the only caveats (some typos) is dealt with in about half a paragraph, while another paragraph warns the reader that this isn’t for children, that the story is too gripping and powerful for young readers. In a glowing review, the title of the review is important, as are the opening paragraphs, and the close. If the caveats are buried near the end, after the audience is sold on the book, then that’s just fine.

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