As any reviewer will be happy to tell you, likely at length,book reviews matter to a variety of audiences. They alert potential readers totitles to pounce on or avoid. They aid in guiding purchasing decisions at institutions and at retail stores. And they of course bring attention to titles, trends, and authors, creating opportunities for agreement, argument, and awareness any place books get discussed.
What, though, do reviews mean for independent authors and publishers? What value is there in a stranger reading, evaluating, and judging– perhaps not always positively – an author’s work?
The answer, I think, has two major components, the first related to an author’s achievement and the second to the marketing of that achievement.
The first component is personal. A qualified professional reviewer with expertise in their genre offers authors and publishers something that’s hard to get from friends, family, colleagues, workshops, and other sources. The job of qualified professional reviewer (QPR) is to report accurately about the book they’ve actually read, which can be different from the book an author or publisher feels has written. A good QPR highlights what an author has achieved, what’s most engaging or urgent in a work, what’s most likely to resonate with readers, and what elements might limit reader engagement. A review from a QPR can clarify crucial issues of genre and audience, a potential boon to anyone who has wondered, while writing a chapter,“Is this YA, New Adult, or just ‘fiction?”
Years ago, when I worked as a theater critic in a mid-sized city, I discovered something surprising. My reviews were often the first time that the cast and crew of a play had received feedback about their work from anyone outside their personal circles. As you can imagine, the feedback from outside and inside a personal circle can vary. That taught me that a reviewer bears a responsibility, not just to potential audiences but also to the artists themselves. The best reviewers, the QPRs, take seriously the responsibility to engage fully yet honestly with what an artist has achieved, and how well it suits the expectations of its potential audience.
That outside perspective is what makes a positive review feel good. It’s validation from outside, from a trusted third party with expertise, and a quoted compliment looks great on a book jacket, author page,or social-media post. I would argue, though, that even a mixed or negative review can be helpful to authors and publishers as they send a book out into the world.
(I know, I know-- nobody likes to get one of those! Please bear with me!)
My reasoning for that brings us to the second reason that reviews are valuable for independent authors and publishers. Any review from a QPR should by definition aid in the marketing of a book. First, a review will, as I’ve said, help make clear a book’s strengths and weaknesses and what in it will appeal to what audiences. That’s essential information for targeting readers, identifying comp titles, and establishing a book and an author in this crowded marketplace.
Second, even a mixed or negative review from a QPR will likely include language that can be used to promote and position a book.Generally speaking, readers are more influenced by third-party reviews than the user-generated ones on, say, Amazon or GoodReads, so it’s important to have aQPR’s testimonial that gets onto these sites, as well as into the “metadata” that various database services log for the tens of thousands of books published each year. A review assures potential readers that this book has caught the attention of book lovers outside of (often anonymous) users.
A book review also catches the attention of other book reviewers as well as the other editors and reporters on the book beat. Media coverage begets media coverage, so a strong line from a review, quoted at the top of an author page or a press release, increases the odds of getting more reviews, plus features, Q&As, and that most enticing of possibilities,“heat.”
And, of course, a review from a QPR—or a couple reviews—that clearly position a book’s genre and audience while noting its strengths can bean essential help when it comes to catching the attention of libraries and booksellers, the review readers whose buying decisions can bring a book to an audience.
A good QPR understands that a reviewer has responsibilities to multiple audiences: to readers and consumers, naturally. To authors, as we’ve seen. But also to publishing itself, as a QPR’s assessment of an author’s achievement isn’t simply about evaluating subjective notions of quality. No, it’s about letting all of these audiences know “This is what this book actually is, and here’s who might be most interested in it.”