How do you choose a book?
I was asked this question a few months ago by a visitor to this blog. You won’t see the question if you search the comments. The reason is not because I deleted it, but because the person asking the question asked me in private. I answered the question via email and have not used their name here in this post (although you know who you are, Bob).
As a reader, I don’t care about reviews. I never have.
(cue shocked gasps)
I have never read (or not read) a book based upon someone else’s review. Ever. As blunt as this sounds (and I can be very blunt at times – unless you’re buying the round, in which case you’re alright in my book), I really couldn’t care less.
I prefer to make my own decision when it comes to books, movies, art, music, etc. I might make mistakes, but they’re mine to make. It’s one of the fun aspects of finding new books or new music in my opinion (and that’s all this post is, since it is my blog after all).
The only time I’ll read a review is when it comes down to something like a car, a computer, software, a camera etc. Why? Because I want to know if I’m going to have to replace it in another 6-months or if I can get spares for it and how much they cost? etc.
When I buy a painting, I don’t intend to upgrade, repaint, or replace the thing. All that matters is whether I like it; not you, not Bob, not the bloke on the internet. I’m sure you’ve all known someone over the years who hears a song on the radio and asks “Who is this?” You tell them and they look surprised. “Oh,” they say, “I’d heard their music was all loud noise and crap. That song was great!” That sort of thing annoys me.
Before the internet came along, the only reviews you found were in journals, newspapers, or newsletters (paper ones). I never read the reviews, my only concern being the release dates for books or authors that interested me at the time. Besides, back then, unless you were involved in something like a newsletter or journal then you couldn’t just write a review for any book you had just read.
So, how do I choose a book?
Back in the days of yore, it was all about the cover for me (it still is). The cover would catch my attention. Sometimes, it was the title. If I’m searching the shelves (or online shelves) and I see a cover or title that does it for me then I’ll have to find out more about it. In my youth, I would compare US and British covers of the same book, just to see which I preferred (you might think I’m biased here, but the British versions were far superior – trust me!). I remember when I first saw the title “Stormbringer” on a shelf. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Moorcock or Elric… but that title! Who wouldn’t want to pick the book up and have look?
Once I had picked a book up, I would always read the blurb. I did that when I first saw a large tome called “Assassin’s Apprentice” by Robin Hobb sat in Waterstones. I had no idea who Robin Hobb was or any idea about the book. The cover appeared a little Tolkien-esque and the title, well, I was sold! The blurb confirmed that this was a book I would be interested in, so much so, that I didn’t even bother looking at the first pages. I wanted to save them for the moment I could sit down and savour them in the correct environment (which in this case happened to be over a stale piece of toast in my little flat – I was at university). So, I threw my money at the cashier and dashed out into the street (or did I forget to throw the money?).
Sometimes, if I wasn’t entirely sure if the book was for me, I’d take a look at the first few pages. Perhaps I would skip to the back and take a look at the author bio, just to see if they mentioned any influences or previous works that might entice me. On occasion, it might turn out to be a genre I wasn’t normally interested in. Still, the cover hooked me and got me to look at, and consider, something I would never type into a search field in my browser. I might not buy the book, but then again, if my curiosity was piqued… maybe I would.
After all this, I would look at the price and how much I could dig out from the back of the sofa. Of course, you do sometimes find that a great cover can wallpaper over a poorly-written story. You can usually catch them at the blurb or within the first few pages. It’s not always the case, but it has only happened to me on a few occasions.
Why the hate for reviews?
I don’t hate them at all. I just don’t need someone’s else views in order to decide what I want to read, look at, or listen to (Bob doesn’t either – he told me so).
A book is special. Sometimes it is too special to share. Generally, those friends I’ve known over the years would sometimes sit and have a chat, during the course of a pint, about whatever book we were reading at the time or had read recently. This wasn’t a review. This was a few people telling you what a book was about (without spoiling it). No different from reading the blurb really, only you had someone else doing the ‘leg work’ for you. Perfect.
In some rare instances, I would write a letter to the author to tell them what I thought of their book. They were moments where I was very impressed by something. In some cases, these letters actually made it past the clutches of the nefarious agents and into the author’s hand (perhaps). I remember writing to (and getting a reply from) Robin Hobb (Margaret Ogden) and Trudi Canavan. I also wrote to Neil Gaiman once or twice, but he must have eaten them (postage stamps and all) as nothing ever came back (don’t worry Neil, I don’t hold it against you – bastard!).
But… you’re an author… surely you want reviews?
Reviews are nice, of course, but I don’t crave comments on everything I write.
(cue angry stares)
I understand how some readers just don’t want to go public with how the book made them feel. Some, like the unmentionable ‘Bob’, don’t want their thoughts aired in ‘public’ or ‘searchable’. Their thoughts are solely for the author and themselves. No one else.
On the other hand, there are readers that feel nervous about marking down a book in case an author descends from their ivory tower to rain fury and ruin upon them. I don’t think a reader should ever feel pressured, pestered, or nagged into making a review. Yet, with reviews often being seen as a potential for more sales by indie authors, pressure will always be exerted by some.
The only time I check my online reviews is whenever I happen to update my Amazon profile (once every six months – give or take – I have no idea about Kobo or B&N). You don’t have to believe me, but it’s true.
Some suggest that I don’t care about my readers because of this. When asked this question, I often think about the authors that I’ve followed in my life. Do they care about me as a reader? It is an odd question and the standard phrase is “Yes! I love my readers! Every ugly one of them!” (note to self: edit out ‘ugly’). Do they though? Perhaps in the collective sense. I’ve never really given it much thought.
Sometimes, I get personal emails from readers telling me what they liked or didn’t like. I like and appreciate this far more than I do reviews on Amazon or Goodreads and I always try to respond as my time allows me. They might not help me sell more books, but personal views mean a lot more to me than someone posting a few lines on Amazon. Besides, you could have 20 reviews on Amazon UK, but sod all on Amazon US, or Amazon ES, FR, DE, JP, CN… that’s not even considering B&N and all the others.
But… you do write reviews, don’t you?
(cue sharpening of pitchforks by other authors)
I think I’ve already explained, in length, how I feel about reviews. As I’ve also said, I do sometimes write/email an author about their work, if I thought it very good/bad (or if they directly asked me to). I certainly don’t write to every author that I read.
I don’t think a lot of authors (especially indie) realise what power they hold when it comes to reviews. Once you build up any sort of following, your comments will be viewed much more keenly. This is especially the case if you leave a review. Your readers will possibly decide upon a book just because of what you think. Imagine you wrote a horror story and, by pure chance, Stephen King stumbled across it. Just a few comments in your favour would probably give your work an undreamt of boost. Obviously, beginning authors hold far less sway than Mr. King does, but once you put a book out there yourself you are no longer ‘just a reader’.
I do ‘award’ stars to books. The stars are actually more for my own reference than for other readers. It allows me to search out those books that I thought were fantastic and those that I thought okay, etc. I’m conscious that this can influence some readers into buying a book. Some people just can’t decide for themselves and want to follow the general consensus.
I think that is what bothers me the most. You see people on forums asking which book they should read first (even though they are leaning towards one over the other) or should they watch such and such film. I just can’t understand that.
I know some authors that won’t touch a book unless it’s rated 4+ on average, just like some others won’t even glance at a blurb if the book has zero reviews. I find this strange, perhaps because I used to buy my books from wandering bookshelves without any ‘guide’ to consult. These days, people look at a book on a shelf then jump on their smartphones to see how many stars/reviews it has. Personally, I find this sad as I’ve found lots of good books over the years that have neither. Read the author not the reviewer. That’s what the blurb is for.
Anyway, for those that are still with me, I’ve posted my own understanding of ratings below. This is mainly for those ‘heartbroken-authors’ that come crying to my door, demanding to know why I gave them 3-stars or that assume a 4-star rating is no better than fecal matter. It goes like this:
1* = I didn’t finish it. I feel badly about the time I wasted. I feel even worse for the book itself.
2* = I liked it. Nothing more to add really (by ‘liked’ I can also mean ‘okay’… ok?)
3* = This was a good book. I enjoyed it. I took time in reading it and thinking about it afterwards.
4* = This was an excellent book. I’ll read it again. I’ll probably suggest someone else read it.
5* = This is was truly fantastic or something original (or it was somehow inspirational to me). I’ve probably been reading this instead of doing other things e.g. writing, eating, working…
6* = There is no six… but some books deserve a six. They are rare and written with the stuff of dreams…
Okay, I’m all done… burn away ;)
Below is a sample of a US vs UK cover (I knew some of you wouldn’t believe me…). Now, I haven’t actually read this book myself, which is why I used this as an example. On the left we have the US… and on the right, the UK.
For myself, if I saw the US cover on a shelf I would hesitate a little. The girl is quite pretty and I do like the glass castle, but I’m wondering if its heavy on the romance (she doesn’t come across as ‘battle-hardened’). The title is interesting, of course, since it’s similar to my own “Throne of Ice” (ahem), but the UK cover… now this cover makes me want to like this book before I even get to the blurb!
Which would you buy? ;)