Reading Reviews Like A Publisher

One of the joys of being indie is that you get to be your own publisher, with all the control on how to bring your stories out to the world and represent them. One of the real drags is that you are your own publisher, with all the responsibilities and priorities therein that do not line up with your artistic priorities.

And one of those priorities, as a publisher, is gathering market feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the currently published catalogue, and what’s doing well and trending in the market right now, in order to make business decisions about future releases. (Unlike trad publishers, though, you’re rather committed to accepting any books that come out of your dedicated on-staff writer – you can’t simply turn down a book and go to the slush pile. Makes it a little trickier, it does.)

Feedback comes in several forms – first, the volume and velocity of sales. For your first couple books, this is going to be a real struggle and a giant mystery to you, because you have no internal sales baseline. You have external ones – kindle rank and the hot new releases / bestseller charts can tell you how you’re doing compared to every other book, and you can track the trajectory of sales on other books by watching their ranks rise and fall, and how long they stick around for visibility (but you can’t see what they’re doing for fanbase or publicity). You also have reviews on similar books in genre / subgenre, and you should be reading those, and developing your ability to look for trends.

The internal sales baseline will come with time and more books. But that’s for another article! Right now, let’s look at those reviews.

When the average reader looks at reviews, they’re looking for two very specific things:
1. Are these reviews trustworthy or fake?
2. Is this a book I’ll enjoy?

The first is why you look for one and two star reviews: they provide that curve that looks “real”, because humans know instinctively that if it’s too good to be true, it ain’t true. The second comes in when you skim through the reviews, discard the ones that don’t have much content or are obviously off the wall, and check to see if the things you like are in there, as well as the things you hate. (Even when a reviewer likes what you hate or hates what you like, the review’s still useful at saying if those things are there.)

But now, as a publisher, you’re asking new questions, with different answers:

1. Who is the intended audience for this book?
2. Did the cover / blurb attract the right audience?
3. Did the book fulfill expectations?
4. What did they like in general and in specific about it?
5. What did they want changed / not like?

Phase 1: Pick at least one subgenre you write in, and start reading through the top 50 bestseller’s reviews like a publisher. You’ll start to notice trends, and audience expectations – and develop the filter for weeding out “this person obviously brought their mental issues to this book, and review reflects same.” Get plenty of practice on the skills and plenty of data on broader trends and audience expectations before you try to apply this to a book where you’ve got skin in the game.

Also, on Amazon, people have the option of marking a review as helpful instead of leaving their own review. Weight reviews accordingly.

You’ll also start seeing trends of authors who have fans that read everything they put out, trends of early reviews (fanbase) versus later ones (word of mouth / browsers, and other non-prior-fans), and so on.

As you read through, you may find yourself strongly drawn to download a sample or buy a book you’re looking at. When that happens, make notes on what attracted you to that book – was it the cover? The blurb? A particular review? If a particular blurb or review made you go “I want this!”, write it down and come back later to study what made it so compelling that you can use in your own ad copy/blurb.

Phase 2: Pick at least 5 books that you really love, and a couple you really hate. Go read all their reviews. Now that you have a broad sense for reading like a publisher, you’re going to sharpen it on books that you know the characters, plot, and worldbuilding – so you can see again how the books draw an audience, what that audience is, how they fulfill reader expectations, and so on. Be aware that books that have been out for several reprintings are not nearly as useful for cover/blurb draw, because they will have gone through several iterations.

Are there any reviews or blurbs that make you go “Yes! This!”? Copy them down, so you can study later what they used to hook you in, and how you can apply that. (In fact, while the main function of a review is for one reader to comment to another reader, if you think of them as amateur ad-copy, there’s a lot you can learn.)

Phase 3: Now, only after several hours spent on learning to practice and hone these skills on other books, turn to your books and read the reviews. Did the cover/blurb attract the right audience for the book? What is the right audience for this book? What did they like / dislike?

Once you have this information, it gives you a way to gauge what covers and blurbs will work, and what won’t. What phrases and keywords, characters and plots, are going to hook the attention of the audience, and you should try to work into your ad copy/blurbs. What audiences are attracted by the book, and if you have it correctly categorized / keyworded to find them. And, also, what they really like, and what they want differently.

As an example, I fell into the classic trap in Scaling the Rim of going “My science fiction hits all the romance beats with a major subplot, so it’s romance-scifi.” But as I read the first wave of reviews, I realized that the audience that really enjoyed it weren’t the romance crowd (it had too much scifi for romance-scifi, and no sex scenes), but the scifi-thriller/action-adventure crowd I hadsn’t even considered due to lack of combat. So, I pulled it from romance and reset with action/adventure keywords to hit that subgenre’s lists instead. Sales them picked up – and the reviews were happier!

***Important Note***
Note that everything above has to do with marketing your book, and possibly with editing your publishing house’s books. It has almost nothing to do with writing your book! Write your books from your heart, from your muse, from your curiousity and wonder and dreams. Don’t try to paint-by-numbers due to what the market wants right now!

Kris Rusch speaks of writing and publishing as wearing two hats – and when she writes, she takes off the publisher hat, with its responsibilities and prioroties, and puts on her writer hat, with its completely seperate, and sometimes completely conflicting, responsibilities and prioroties. She even has seperate computers to help remind her that her creativity is not driven by her publishing – her publishing is a way to monetize her creativity.

There will be things that help with the general writing: in Peter’s earliest books, a number of reviewers complained that Peter’s protagonist was a golden boy, and his writing was too stilted. If you get common points in reviews in your own books, remember that reviewers are readers writing for other readers, they’re not professional authors and gifted teachers writing a personal feedback to the author. They’re not even beta readers. So they will identify that something is a problem to them – but they may not have the right cause, and generally don’t have the right fix.

In Peter’s case, he identified that he was writing a very old-school British hero for a very modern American audience. He was using British English with its more formal structure and style instead of the more informal American English his audience is used to, and they weren’t seeing the modern American ratio of challenge to success they were accustomed to. By changing the language in successive books and adding more metaphors and colloquialisms, focusing more page time on the difficulty of overcoming each challenge, and narrowing the scope of each book to a few challenges or limited time span, he brought the stories more in line with reader expectation and the reviews & reader satisfaction went up.

But he did not sit down and say “I am writing military science fiction. Therefore, I must have a galactic war humans are losing, a near-derelict ship, a rebellious antihero captain on the outs with his/her superiors, and a plucky crew of rejects and oddballs the captain must motivate for the do-or-die long shot that will turn the tide of the war / stop the invasion, because those are the most common current hot tropes.”

That is the difference between using market feedback to improve your writing, and “writing to market.”

As for Scaling the Rim? I noted that a lot of people shared my dislike for infodump and enjoyed building the world from clues and references – but a number of other people missed a few subtle bits of worldbuilding laid in, and were confused because there was no infodump to clearly explain what’s going on up front, who the good guys and who the bad guys were, and the history of the world and the peoples to date.

Because I choke on infodump both as a reader and a writer, I’m not going to start putting in lots of narrative summary. I will, however, clearly have to up my game on building more background in early along with the foreshadowing, so I don’t confuse readers – or they don’t stay confused!

11 thoughts on “Reading Reviews Like A Publisher

  1. Interesting talking about styles of writing and reader expectations. I remember catching some of the things in Peter’s earlier Maxwell writings, and recognized several themes there. I enjoyed seeing them because they reminded me of a lot of books I had read in a similar style when I was younger and enjoyed them. I did notice a bit in the change of style as the series progressed and didn’t really note why. Thanks for that.
    As to info dumps, sometimes some needs doing. I have to drop some small ones into my current WIP because it’s definitely going to be needed. Otherwise I feel there’s going to be wall dents when it’s published as it currently stands.
    I appreciate the breakdown of how to read reviews and how to use them effectively. Something else I look forward to doing.

    1. I like to define an “infodump” as being when the author stops the action of the story in order to tell the reader something the reader neither needs to know at the moment nor wants to hear about. You can often turn an infodump into “info” just by moving to a later point in the story.

      I like this definition because it eliminates the possibility of a “good infodump” and focuses attention on what the reader needs/wants. It has the drawback that not everyone uses it. πŸ™‚

      1. Right. Got it. Think I have ways of getting the needed information across as info vs. dump. Will work on it once things are finished being put in place. Coming up on the last rush to complete this WIP that got a little out of hand. :p

      2. For those who want to write without infodumps, I would direct them to the movie Midnight Special. It drops the viewer into the story completely cold with very little to guide them.

  2. As a reviewer, I’ll second the observation that reviews are written for readers, not writers. In my own style guidelines for Rocket Stack Rank one of my rules is “do not try to tell the writer how to write.” So I’ll never say “this would have been better if . . .” I don’t think it’s quite true that reviewers aren’t writers, though. I think all the good ones have at least tried their hands at it a time or two.

    Reviews are also a way to find works similar to your own that you might not have known about. Reviewers read very broadly, and they’ll often compare your work (usually unfavorably, but forget that) with something someone else has written. (I personally have a policy against this; I try to review each work in isolation, since I can’t predict what the reader will have read, but I’m very much the minority on that.)

    I’d like to mention another point, even if it’s obvious: writers should never take a review personally. Not unless it accuses you of more than bad writing, anyway. Even harsh criticism like “this is a juvenile wish-fulfillment fantasy” or “the author had no interest in the main character, who eventually died from neglect” shouldn’t be taken personally (although the reviewer probably ought to be a bit more professional). Take it personally if the reviewer suggests that you should quit writing and see if McDonald’s is still hiring or expreses relief that you don’t live in his/her neighborhood.

    And definitely don’t obsess over one or two critical lines in an otherwise-positive review. (I once gave a five-star review to a well-known author who talked about it on his/her blog solely to take issue with a single negative sentence in an otherwise-glowing 1,000-word review.)

  3. Excellent advice; some day when my eyeballs aren’t already fried from staring at a screen, I’ll take a good long look at reviews in my genres – well, anyway the genres I think I’m writing in.

    Dorothy, I feel slightly less of an idiot now that I know you made the same kind of mistake with Scaling the Rim that I did with the Harmony series! In the first book of that series a couple of characters let their hormones run away with them and forced what had been a background romantic subplot very much into the foreground… so I thought, okay, it’s sf AND romance. I should have done more research into what romance readers expected! (And yeah, new covers for those books might be a good idea when I can afford them.)

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