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!
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!