We need more book reviewers.

Completely out of the blue a stranger emailed about my book and how much she loved it. Do you remember my book? The one I released almost three years ago? Honestly, I’d nearly forgotten about it.

booksIn fact, this spring I came under friendly fire in my small group because, allegedly, I had never told anyone about it. These friends, with whom I had been meeting weekly for the past year, also claim I never told them about my contributions to a Zondervan devotional Bible. All this to say, I don’t introduce myself as “a published author” or even mention my writing often. Clearly I’m terrible at self-promotion and marketing.

Nevertheless, this sweet stranger somehow heard about my book, read it, loved it, looked up my website, and then emailed me. It was pretty awesome. We had a whole string of delightful conversation. She’s even offered to be a guest blogger here on the website. (Look for that next week.)

Her message got me wondering how many people I don’t know may have also read my book. So I ran a little report through my publisher and discovered that well over 1100 people have purchased or read online versions of that little book I’d nearly forgotten. Um…wow. Didn’t expect that.

Then I did a search on Amazon to see how hard it is to find the book. It’s actually pretty hard if you don’t know both the title and the author’s full name. This is because Amazon favors books with at least 25 reviews and active sales. My book has only 13 reviews, yet still has (somewhat) active sales. Weird.

One could conclude that those 1100 people either (1) didn’t read the book they purchased; (2) didn’t like the book when they read it; or (3) don’t understand the value and importance of posting a book review.

I can’t do anything about those first two situations, but I can address the third.

The Importance of Book Reviews

Why do book reviews matter? What value do they offer?

Book reviews encourage authors.

Writing can be a very lonely and isolated endeavor. A book review (or email or any type of response) lets the writer know that he (or she) has been heard and is not alone.

Publishing subjects writers (who may feel isolated and lonely) to public vulnerability. These words they have spent years crafting are now open to debate, ridicule, judgment, and assessment by people all over the world. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the world is full of nasty, critical people. The internet offers these people instant access to their targets, warranted or not. Social media is not a safe playground for most, least of all the publicly vulnerable. In this environment, a word of encouragement can go a long way toward keeping your favorite writers in the game. 

Most writers don’t need hoards of admirers. Most feel that, if just one person finds value in their work, it’s been worth it. Encouragement from that one person can bolster a writer’s spirits and motivation.

Book reviews encourage sales.

While the encouragement of just one reader can bolster a writer, no one can make a living by selling just one copy of a book. If those readers who enjoy the book post their encouragement publicly — in the form of a book review or online post — they encourage sales.

If more people know about a book, more people can buy a book. (The more books purchased, the more the writer can afford to eat and care for his or her family … and write more books for you to enjoy.)

Word-of-mouth works. It remains the most effective marketing tool ever. People trust the people they know. A personal recommendation carries more weight than a cold-call telemarketer or random ad. If you like something, chances are your friends will like it, too.

There is a social element beside trust, though. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is real. People want to be doing what their friends are doing, including reading books their friends enjoyed. And FOMO isn’t just about friends. If strangers see a group of people enjoying something, they’ll investigate to see what the big deal is. That’s why bestseller lists are so popular. Every local bookshop or library has shelves of recommendations. And people pay attention to this, even if they don’t know the person making the recommendation.

Aside from this general, word-of-mouth buzz and exposure, book reviews also feed the algorithms of retail. Those bestseller shelves and lists? They’re fed by sales and book reviews. I already mentioned Amazon’s 25-review rule. If a title doesn’t have at least 25 book reviews, it will automatically be listed BELOW other listings that DO have the specified number of reviews. This is true even when those other products are less relevant to the customer’s search.

For example, when I searched “In the Dailies” on Amazon — the exact title of my book — the first item listed was “The CAFE Book” a title about literacy assessment and instruction. Why did this pop up in my search? Because the subtitle uses the word “daily” and the book has over 300 posted reviews. What else popped up? A CD of spiritual mediation and an NFL Madden video game. Riddle me that.

Other factors play parts in determining these algorithms, but book reviews are the largest feeder to a title’s visibility and success.

Book reviews encourage readers.

It’s great to encourage writers and it’s nice to increase book sales, but the heart of publishing is and always will be (and should be!) readers. Book reviews encourage and direct readers.

No one likes spending money on something that doesn’t meet expectations. Book reviews help readers avoid that kind of disappointment. By reading well-written reviews, readers can know more about what they’re getting before they purchase it. They can get an idea of whether or not the title will meet their needs and offer them what they seek in a book at that time.

Sometimes you can tell whether or not a book is faith-based simply by knowing which company published it. But it’s not always clear and, as a result, some readers rightfully get really annoyed when they unwittingly buy a book with obvious religious undertones or a work that boldly contradicts their politics, doctrine, or worldviews. Others get really upset when they purchase a rather racy book thinking it will be tame or conservative. Oh, for the want of good book reviews.

How to Write a Good Book Review

Enough of all the WHYs. Let’s get to some HOWs.

People have often told me they would love to post reviews, but they don’t think they can. They don’t know what to say or how to write a good one. I think too many people overthink this. It’s far easier than most believe and it shouldn’t take much time.

To write a book review:

  1. Find the listing for the book you want to review on GoodReads, B&N.com, Amazon or wherever.
  2. Locate the customer review section (usually toward the bottom of the listing).
  3. Click on “Write a review.”
  4. Follow the prompts. Some sites will require you to offer a star rating before posting comments. Others will let you do both at the same time.

That’s it! You can be done in fewer than 5 minutes.

Most sites have standards for their reviews. They’ll be sure you’ve not included profanity, exterior links, or whatnot. Because of this review process, your review may not be “live” for 24 hours. The site will often email you when others can see your review.

What to write in a book review:

Many reviewers offer a full synopsis of the book they are reviewing. This is unnecessary. The book listing will already give readers all that material as provided by the author and/or publisher. A good review offers more than what readers can find on the front and back covers of the book.

Here are a few tips and suggestions:

  • Read the book first. You might be surprised how many reviews start with “I didn’t read this, but…”
  • Avoid spoilers. If you give everything away, no one needs to read the book. Also, people really hate spoilers.
  • Be honest. Don’t lie or embellish. Don’t try to make the book something it’s not.
  • Talk about why you liked the book. Was it the writing style? Was it informative? Could you relate to the characters? Did it challenge you? This is essentially stating why you recommend the book.
  • Offer any necessary caveats. Was there anything in the book that might offend or surprise readers? I often offer notes of explicit or potentially offensive material: cursing, sexuality, violence, etc. If it’s a Christian title, I may also include some notes related to biblical inaccuracies or doctrinal or denominational specifics.
  • Try to be objective. If you know the author personally or are somehow associated with the publisher or the work itself, don’t mention it. This can actually work against you and the author. You’re reviewing the BOOK, not the PERSON who wrote it. Keep your comments to the content and quality of the words, not the character of the person as you perceive or know it.
  • If you didn’t like the book … All of these rules still apply. Be honest; avoid spoilers; seek objectivity. Also, think about your purpose in posting a negative review. Does what you think need to be said? Can you say it without being cruel? Better yet: Can you say it while exhibiting the Fruits of the Spirit (love, kindness, gentleness, etc.)? Try to balance the negativity with at least one positive comment.

Last tip: It can be short (unlike this blog post). :) A few sentences can do the job well.

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