David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

What Do Authors Want from Reviewers?

There’s an amusing comment string that’s cropped up on the Amazon page for MultiReal around Harriet Klausner’s review of the book. It began when Klausner, the (in)famous #1 reviewer on Amazon, gave MultiReal a five-star review, and folks started piling on to diss it. Then I broke the cardinal author/reviewer rule — Thou Shalt Not Criticize Thine Book’s Reviews — by saying this:

Normally I wouldn’t comment on a review of my books, but in this case I’ll make an exception. Looks like *someone* read the book, or at least skimmed it, since that bit about “Natch plead[ing] with the Melbourne legislature to no avail” isn’t in the back cover copy. (But to reinforce your point, Ghost of M, she does get that plot point wrong. It’s not Natch, but his mentor Serr Vigal, who pleads before the Melbourne legislature.)

Hard for an author to complain about a 5-star review, though, especially when it’s the only reader review currently up on Amazon…

Woman reading a bookThe discussion continues on from there, and it’s still ongoing.

So now I’ve been inspired to write a little piece here answering the question: what do authors want from reviews of their work anyway? I can’t speak for anybody other than myself on this one, but what I want is very simple:

  1. Opinion. Have one. Better yet: have several.
  2. Honesty. Love it? Hate it? Moved? Unimpressed? Offended? Enraptured? All I want is your honest opinion, whether it’s favorable to me or not. Don’t worry about the politics, don’t worry about the personalities, don’t worry about what’s popular or unpopular in the stores or what other critics are saying. What do you think?
  3. Insight. I want to know that you engaged with my work. Whether you loved it or hated it is not always the point; I want to know that you thought about it. And if my book left you with a soul-crushing emptiness that sucks light out of the universe? That’s fine too, as long as you gave the book a fair shot. Skimmers and summarizers don’t impress me.
  4. Elaboration. I can handle the fact that you found the book far-fetched. But I want to know how and where. Specific examples help. Better yet, specific quotations that you took the time to type verbatim from the text.
  5. Disclosure. Are you and I up for the same award? Are you the brother of the guy I dissed in an article on my blog? Are you a specialist in the field that I’m writing about? Are you my uncle? None of these things disqualifies you from writing a useful review of my books. I just want to know.
  6. No anonymity. There’s a reason Slashdot’s default label for commenters who don’t leave their names is “Anonymous Coward.” Give your review a byline. It doesn’t necessarily have to be your full name or your real name; just don’t say something provocative and then duck behind the shield of anonymity. I want to know something about you; I want to be able to put your opinions about my work in some kind of context.
  7. Originality. Anyone can find a detailed summary of MultiReal on the website, or on Amazon, or in other reviews for that matter. Anybody can toss around the phrases “high octane,” “edge of your seat,” and “page turner.” Feel free to confirm impressions that other readers have had, but I’m much more impressed when I see some positive or negative tidbit that I haven’t seen before.
  8. Accuracy. Probably not the most important point, but important nonetheless. I can forgive misspellings of minor characters’ names; I can forgive that you said the assassination by beer bottle bludgeoning took place in Barcelona instead of Madrid. But when you completely mangle entire plot threads because you weren’t paying attention, you’re just wasting my time.
  9. No pandering. It’s nice to be quotable, and yes, quotable blurbs can often find their way into the front matter of the next book. But please, don’t say pithy things just for the sake of trying to get on the book jacket or the website.
  10. No spoilers. It’s not for my sake that you should avoid spoilers; it’s for the sake of my (potential) readers. When a review blithely spoils a suspenseful plot element a third of the way into the novel — like this review of MultiReal from SFRevu does — well, it’s irritating.

By the standards listed above, I’d have to say that the most interesting and plain useful reviews I’ve read of my books are probably Paul Kincaid’s take on Infoquake for the New York Review of Science Fiction, Norman Spinrad’s discussion about Infoquake in Asimov’s, and Jason Pettus’ detailed review of Infoquake on the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.

Mostly positive reviews, true, but not wholly positive reviews. Paul Kincaid calls Infoquake “a brisk, well-told science fiction adventure set in the normally unadventurous world of business”; but he also takes me to task for the silly character names, the preponderance of appendices, and the backwards-looking historical quotations. He complains about the science. But Kincaid’s review did something that other wholly uncritical five-star reviews did not: it had an impact on the writing of books 2 and 3. Specifically, his point about the improbability of a multi-generational dynasty like the Surinas caused me to rethink certain background elements of the plot that will come to the forefront in Geosynchron. It cast a light on some ideas about the Surinas that I had been toying with beforehand but never quite parsed out.

I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of impact I want to have on the authors I review.

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  1. Paul Kincaid on August 14, 2008 at 4:30 am  Chain link

    I’m pleased the review had an effect. Your rules for reviewers are pretty much the ones I’ve always tried to work towards, but most of the time you have no idea whether anyone is paying attention (unless they hate the review in which case, boy, you know it). I did like Infoquake, but I did feel it had flaws. I am now looking forward to reading the subsequent books to find how you’ve worked around that generational issue.

  2. David Louis Edelman on August 14, 2008 at 8:45 am  Chain link

    I did like Infoquake, but I did feel it had flaws.

    And I can forgive you for that. ;-)

    I am now looking forward to reading the subsequent books to find how you’ve worked around that generational issue.

    Honestly, that’s something that’s not really going to come out until (the still-unfinished) book 3.

  3. N. Trachta on August 14, 2008 at 9:23 am  Chain link

    An excellent piece to answer the discussion/comments under HK’s review. As a person who reviews the books I read (mainly for firends) I appreciate your piece here! An excellent piece that I hope all authors would subscribe to!

    Have a good one and thank you.

    Nate

  4. Nick Brett on August 14, 2008 at 11:54 am  Chain link

    David,
    Very interesting perspective thank you! You talk about your hopes and expectations from a review, but it would be interesting to understand how you then react. Do you tweak your style? Do you assume a minority reflect the views of the majority? Would you lose confidence in yourself or would you build on sensible feedback?
    Having seen your input onto the HK site I will dig out one of your books and give it a try. Always like authors who keep it real.
    Cheers
    Nick

  5. David Louis Edelman on August 14, 2008 at 1:25 pm  Chain link

    Nick: Keep in mind that this isn’t a democracy. If I like or don’t like something, I get to make the decision about whether it stays or goes. (And then, of course, my editor gets to overrule me if he chooses.) So it’s not a matter of adjusting my work to please the audience. It’s more like tossing the ideas that a reviewer mentions into the stew along with the rest of them.

  6. Margaret Donsbach on August 14, 2008 at 2:50 pm  Chain link

    This is a really valuable guide for reviewers. I don’t always give my opinion about a book in my reviews at http://www.HistoricalNovels.info, but I do try to follow most of the other suggestions. I think online reviews should be short, and since my website is intended to guide readers who enjoy historical fiction in all its variety to the novels they will enjoy the most, I try to provide a description of the novel that gives a good impression of its general content and style (without spoilers!), rather than substituting my taste for that of my readers. The exception is that when I really fall in love with a novel, I can’t help but let the flags wave.

    One of your pet peeves is also mine: a “review” which simply says “Wow, I love this book!” or “Yuck, I hated it!” without saying a word about why. These are useless – my taste may be quite different from the taste of the “reviewer.”

  7. Bruce Cordell on August 14, 2008 at 6:36 pm  Chain link

    I just finished Infoquake on a plane trip out to a convention. I look forward to picking up Multireal, perhaps in time for the flight back? Anyhow, commenting on someone else’s review of your own work was gutsy. I might do the same, feeling I had some leeway under a 5-star rating, if controversy reared. But one time I refrained from commenting on someone’s review of my work who clearly failed to grasp plot niceties, and handed me a 1 star review. I guess I felt pointing out how the reviewer may have missed a few things might seem merely sour grapes on my part (and heck, maybe it would be?).

    Would you comment on a wholly negative review? Maybe letting such a review stand for itself is answer enough :-)

  8. David Louis Edelman on August 14, 2008 at 9:28 pm  Chain link

    Bruce: Well, I did highlight the bad reviews Infoquake had received in a blog post a year and a half ago.

    But I too have refrained from commenting on bad reviews on Amazon. There are a handful of one-star reviews on the trade paper version of Infoquake. Usually it’s just a matter of taste, and there’s nothing much you can say about it anyway. “No, the book doesn’t suck, it’s really great”? “You hated it so much because you’re an idiot”? Doesn’t work. :-)

  9. Joe Sherry on August 15, 2008 at 7:41 am  Chain link

    David: The only point I might quibble with is that of spoilers. Not that I would want to spoil something that happens in the last third of the book, but something that happens in the first couple chapters or even the first third of a book isn’t exactly a spoiler. Yeah, it may come as a surprise and is intended as such, but it may be difficult to talk about the novel without talking about the point.

    I was going to use A Game of Thrones as an example, but when I checked my copy it looks like the event I’m thinking of happens later in the book than I thought.

    I agree that reviewers shouldn’t spoil the reader’s experience by letting too many spoilerish plot details out, but an event that is central to the understanding of the novel should be discussed, especially if it happens in the first third of the novel. I’ll grant a disclaimer at the start of the review if a major plot point is going to be revealed.

    On the other hand, you and I may also disagree on what plot point we considered to be “major” or a “spoiler”.

  10. Jeff C on August 15, 2008 at 8:41 am  Chain link

    Thanks for the review tips, David. I am always trying to find the best way to write a review, and you list provides an excellent outline. Even though I dont normally read sci-fi, I might have to check out your book.

  11. Misfit on August 15, 2008 at 8:56 am  Chain link

    I’ve seen authors step in on review comments on Amazon and with the exception of this author (thanks for this blog post BTW) just dig themselves deeper into a hole. Case in point,

    http://dearauthor.com/wordpress/2008/07/08/top-ten-things-authors-should-not-do-at-amazon/

    I’ve seen a couple of romance authors and their co-writer buddies do it frequently as well — very very snarky comments I might add. The potential for losing readers just isn’t worth it. Someone’s going to take it the wrong way.

  12. David Louis Edelman on August 15, 2008 at 9:53 am  Chain link

    Joe: I’m generally not the guy who complains about spoilers so much — but I know it bothers a lot of readers. I suppose sometimes they’re unavoidable. The spoiler in the MultiReal review is probably a borderline case. I wouldn’t have minded so much if the reviewer had had anything to say about it besides simply throwing it in there.

    Jeff C: Keep in mind that my publishers Pyr and Solaris are both very generous with sending out review copies of their books…

    Misfit: I’m afraid your comment is historically inaccurate. Please don’t comment here again until you’ve written a book yourself. Meanwhile let’s drop this and just have a nice weekend. ;-)

  13. An Aside | Edelman on Reviews - A Dribble of Ink on August 15, 2008 at 2:11 pm  Chain link

    […] Can’t say I disagree with him on any points. He also gives a few links to what he thinks are examples of well written reviews of his first novel, Infoquake. You can find the whole article HERE. […]

  14. Aidan on August 15, 2008 at 2:15 pm  Chain link

    Terrific article, David.

    I’m going to start up Infoquake next, and I’ll certainly keep a lot of these thoughts in mind when it comes time to review it, whether I enjoy the novel or not.

    One thing I’m curious about is your opinion on a reviewer writing a review of a novel they couldn’t finish. I caused a bit of a stir with my review of Paul Kearney’s The Ten Thousand and then wrote about my experience HERE and would be curious to hear your thoughts.

    ~Aidan
    A Dribble of Ink

  15. David Louis Edelman on August 15, 2008 at 2:41 pm  Chain link

    Aidan: On reviewing novels you couldn’t finish… I wouldn’t say it’s completely verboten. Of course, you need full disclosure of that fact, preferably upfront. Which you did in the review you mention.

    Having skimmed through the review and the controversy, I was all set to think Paul Kearney a thin-skinned twit for his remark… and then I read his follow-up comment saying “I regret my earlier comment, and please don’t think I’m a thin-skinned twit.” He makes some good points. If you’re just some guy writing off-the-cuff opinions, you can read and review any portion of the book you want. But if you bill yourself as a “book review site” or a “book review blog,” well, there is some obligation there to follow through. Except, of course, when you make a rare exception.

    Honestly, I thought you were more than fair to the book, and had plenty of blurbworthy things to say about it. Your negative review actually made the book sound quite interesting to me, and I’m now inclined to go track down a copy.

    And finally, like one of your commenters, I couldn’t finish Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell either. I put it down somewhere around page 32,523, when I realized that the author had yet to include a single description of spellcasting, despite the fact that her characters were doing it on almost every page.

  16. gav (nextread) on August 15, 2008 at 4:39 pm  Chain link

    It’s nice to see things from the other side of the fence.

    I’m having a bit of a debate about myself at the moment. The way I read reviews is skip the boring analyse and get to the end to find out if they liked it or not. And they I might go back and find out a bit more but not too much more as I want reviews to be teasers, tasters, to entice me to read them but not actually tell me too much.

    But then a review has to be more than a promo and dip into the strengths and weaknesses of the book but then how far to you take praise and criticism. Will it actually help someone pick up the book if they don’t really know what you are talking about? Then again do you loose credibility as a reviewer if you don’t try and get fast the surface and show off the blood and guts in the middle?

    Then there is the whole scoring thing that goes back to making it easy for someone to judge if you liked it and by how much. It’s all relative though as I tend to always try and judge a book against itself rather than compare it to any others unless it’s a pale imitation of something and doesn’t stand on it’s own.

    I’ve been hearing a lot about Infoquake and I’m glad to see Solaris pick it up in the UK. I’m going to see if I get a copy :D

    Thanks for the food for thought.

    Gav.

  17. NextRead » Link: What Do Authors Want from Reviewers? on August 15, 2008 at 4:45 pm  Chain link

    […] What Do Authors Want from Reviewers? (David Louis Edelman). […]

  18. Daryl Gregory on August 15, 2008 at 10:01 pm  Chain link

    David, this puts me in mind of an article in the Jan 2008 issue of NYRSF. James Morrow quoted novelist Walker Percy on the four kinds of book reviews (all quotes are from Percy):
    The good good review (“laudatory, but is also canny and on the mark”), the bad good review (“the routine ‘favorable’ review that doesn’t understand the book”), the bad bad review (“a hateful review in which the reviewer hates the book for reasons he is unwilling to disclose”), and the good bad review (a “rare bird” that is “the critical review that accurately assesses both what the novelist had in mind, what he was trying to do, and how and where he failed.”) It’s the good bad review, Percy says, that is most useful to the author, “if one were in any shape to learn, which one is not.” Too true.

    (Morrow goes on to take this 4-part taxonomy and apply it to the kinds of trouble a writer can get into while trying to write a book. I won’t get into that here, but it’s brilliant. )

    Your 10 points are like a recipe for making a good good review or a good bad review.

    –d

  19. David Louis Edelman on August 16, 2008 at 12:34 am  Chain link

    Thanks, Daryl. That James Morrow is a smart guy. (And Walker Percy too, of course.)

  20. N Trachta on August 17, 2008 at 8:18 pm  Chain link

    Hi David,

    Looks like Infoquake is going thru a nice resurgence for you. I too picked it up and plan to read it on on my vacation next week with a review to follow. Hopefully my review will meet your definitions.

    Have a good one!

    Nate

  21. David Louis Edelman on August 17, 2008 at 11:22 pm  Chain link

    Nate: Since you’re reviewing Infoquake, keep in mind that #9 is really just a guideline. ;-)

  22. […] regardless of the general character of the blog? Author David Louis Edelman recently posted a list of things he wants from reviews, namely that they be honest, insightful, opinionated, detailed, original accurate, independent, not […]

  23. D. Pickles on August 27, 2008 at 4:20 pm  Chain link

    I’m afraid I would have to disagree with you about reviews having an impact on book-content being a positive thing – at least, in regard to plot. If your form is sh*t and you correct it based on reviews, then that’s just dandy; but to actually alter the plot because of a review seems a bit cheesy. This might not be applicable to your example above; I only skimmed it. Heh, just kidding.

  24. David Louis Edelman on August 27, 2008 at 5:09 pm  Chain link

    D. Pickles: Of course, context is everything. If a bunch of critics yammer and complain about something and the author changes his story because he’s a chickenshit, you’re right. But I’d like to think that sometimes critics’ words can lead to honest reflection that opens new avenues in the story. (Or maybe I’m just chickenshit and don’t know it.) :-)

  25. Dpickles on August 27, 2008 at 10:48 pm  Chain link

    That’s exactly what I was trying to say – in my own special way. Well put, sir. (I’m referring to your point about honest reflection, not you being a chickenshit!)

  26. Dpickles on August 27, 2008 at 10:59 pm  Chain link

    My apologies for being a comment-hog here, but I keep finding things that beg me to comment. Regarding your comment to Aidan about reviewing books that you haven’t completely finished: I completely agree. I once read a quote from Gene Wolfe (My personal favorite.) where he said –and this isn’t an exact quote, I apologize– something to the effect that there’s no sense in reading a book to the end when you know you don’t like it. He summed it up rather nicely by saying something like “When I get shit in my eyes, I get it out as quickly as possible.”

    Wise words. A review is an opinion; if your opinion is that you didn’t like the book enough to finish it, and you’re honest with your readers, your opinion is completely valid – in my opinion. =0)

  27. N Trachta on September 14, 2008 at 5:21 pm  Chain link

    Hi David,

    I finished reading Infoquake and posted a review on Amazon. My biggest reason for letting you know is that I’m interested in feedback and if it meets what you want from reviewers.

    Have a good one and look forward to the next one.

    Nate

  28. David Louis Edelman on September 15, 2008 at 10:10 am  Chain link

    N Trachta: Yes, indeed, that review does indeed meet most of the criteria I set out above. Thanks for the good review!

  29. Fábio Fernandes on October 27, 2008 at 7:53 am  Chain link

    Dave, you´ve got a point there. Reviews must be inspiring. I´m already writing a review of Infoquake and Multireal for PWT, and this post will help me greatly to focus.

    all the best,
    Fábio

  30. […] posts that have appeared over the past year, but David Louis Edelman has managed to come up with a set that makes a lot of sense without being unduly prescriptive. The only one I think doesn’t belong on that list is the […]

  31. Links for 27th October 2008 | Velcro City Tourist Board on October 27, 2008 at 7:01 pm  Chain link

    […] What Do Authors Want from Reviewers? (David Louis Edelman) […]

  32. Reviewing 101 on October 29, 2008 at 10:54 pm  Chain link

    […] post over at Fantasy Cafe points to an August article by David Louis Edelman, author of Infoquake and Multireal , on what he as a writer expects from a […]

  33. Best of 2008 « Laconic Writer on January 27, 2009 at 1:44 pm  Chain link

    […] problems with reviewers. I clicked on a link to David Louis Edelman’s blog post on standards that a review should follow. The post ended with mentions of some reviews of his novel that reflected these standards, one of […]

  34. What Do Authors Want from Reviewers? « The Boogle on May 26, 2009 at 12:52 pm  Chain link

    […] what authors want from reviews from David Louis Edelman’s website. As a reviewer, these are great tips. I especially love #2 – Honesty. When I review your book I’ll give you the straight […]

  35. Tuesday on January 30, 2012 at 1:55 pm  Chain link

    This comment comes to a post that is a bit in the way back machine for you, but I am launching/reworking my current blog into more of a reviewing site for books (among other things – I’m not in any way famous or a writer or anyone special). I Google searched what author’s want when their book is reviewed and found this article you wrote a few years ago.

    Thank you, it has given me a wealth of information, and I would like to ask permission to link to this particular article in my blog. I’m working on a post sort of like the Creedo of My Book Reviews or What I Promise When Reviewing a Book or something hopefully more witty like that.

    I will be honest with your upfront that I have never ready any of your books or any reviews of your books – just kind of bumped into this perfect blog post for information.

    Thanks! Tuesday

  36. David Louis Edelman on January 30, 2012 at 2:42 pm  Chain link

    Tuesday: Link at will!

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