Reader Ratings and Reviews on Book Sites

I was checking through the Goodreads Authors Group the other day and came upon a discussion thread started by a fellow Goodreads author who ranted about the readers who rated his book without adding a written review to the rating. To him, the review justified the rating and provided valuable feedback to authors, so he felt that Goodreads should require its members to add a written review whenever they rated a book, in much the same way that Amazon requires its customers to do when they willingly rate a product. As a fellow self-published author, I could sympathize with his frustration as ratings and reviews are an important guide in convincing readers to buy and read a book, especially with so many works being published in the digital age. However, I recognize that social sites like Goodreads were created for its members to connect with friends, to make new friends and to exchange discoveries and disappointments within a group that share common pleasures. On a site like Goodreads, authors are a small part of the whole. The focus is on the society of readers and the vast library of books available from the history of mankind. Although Goodreads gives current authors ways to promote their books (some for a price), its main mission is to cater to the social community of readers, which means it cannot nor should it attempt to force its broad reader membership to follow tight rules like adding reviews to all books on each member’s shelves in order to cater to the small community of Goodreads authors. It would actually drive readers away from signing up and using a site like Goodreads, which would undercut the very value that current authors get from the Goodreads readers.

For most readers and consumers in general, seeing or hearing what a friend or trusted source feels is a better buy becomes very helpful in making decisions on where and how to spend one’s money. We depend upon others’ tales of happy adventures or woeful experiences to map out our next experiences. However, most of us are not all that eager to broadly record our own experiences with the products and entertainment we purchase. It is as if most of us are too insecure to believe that others truly would respect our opinions about the quality of the entertainment we experience. We would rather follow than lead. But stating your preferences or impressions is not leading the way. It is merely contributing to the group discussion. Any one opinion will not be the one thought to make or break the success of a book, movie or television program. Rather it is the general consensus that will determine the ultimate value of a piece. Opinions that go against the grain tend to fade in the background and are not usually held against the reviewer by the general public. However, until a general public develops around a work of creativity, a current writer must depend upon the first group of readers willing to contribute to the initial discussion in order to determine if the work will be accepted by the larger public.

As can be seen, there is no perfect answer to convince readers to rate and review, nor is there a perfect way to truly evaluate the ratings and reviews that are presented. After reading the discussion thread, I did a quick search in Goodreads for a more renowned literary work and came up with the following member information on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” 1,108,499 members took the time to rate the classic work for an average of 3.72 stars, but only 9,514 members decided to add a review to explain their rating. Looking through the reviews, I found the following one star-rated review: “I’m not sure what annoys me more – the play that elevated a story about two teenagers meeting at a ball and instantly ‘falling in love’ then deciding to get married after knowing each other for one night into the most well-known love story of all time, or the middle schools that feed this to kids of the same age group as the main characters to support their angst-filled heads with the idea that yes, they really are in love with that guy/girl they met five minutes ago, and no one can stop them.” If I have to hazard a guess, I would say this review came from a parent of a teen girl, and it only goes to show that there will always be someone that will have an issue with any literary work one chooses. As a self-published author, it shows me that I should be open to the comments I receive in the reviews I get, but not to be too overly discouraged with the occasional bad rating. Even the best get panned.

The Power of Editing

When I wrote my first draft of Legacy Discovered, I decided that if it was going to be taken seriously, then it would need to be read with as few unnecessary grammatical errors as possible, so as not to distract the reader from the story and its characters. As I wrote my first chapters, I reached out to my Facebook friends and asked for volunteers to read, edit and comment on the book as I wrote it. Using the collaborative cloud service, Box.com, I was able to upload the chapters where my volunteers were able to read and comment from whatever location they may be. Once I had a first draft and signed up with Createspace to publish the novel, I chose a package that included a round of professional editing. Even after this round of publishing and another review by my volunteer friends, I re-read the book twice at a steady pace. My goal was to have my book look professional to any reader. Since it has been published, I have discovered a handful of small overlooked errors which will be corrected in an upcoming re-release; however, I feel it compares very favorably to books released through many of the professional publishing houses. Yet, as I have read some works from fellow indie authors in the past year, it has surprised me just how much the art of editing has suffered during the self-publishing revolution, an issue that may be dragging on the creative power of books to today’s audiences.

In many of the indie books that I read, I was quite impressed with the story-telling prowess of my fellow authors. I may have had an occasional plot or character quibble, but for the most part, my interest was held. Still, to come across the somewhat frequent extraneous ‘to‘ or ‘the‘ within a sentence would be like hitting a pothole on a comfortable ride. A missing key word in a sentence would feel like a red light on a freeway as I had to stop to try and understand the sentence before moving on. Misplaced quotation marks during character interactions would confuse me as I tried to determine whether a statement was stated aloud or was just a thought expressed as an aside in the dialogue. In one novel, I truly had to shake my head at the statement “She s.” for which I will never know what the author was hoping to express. Formatting errors were also prevalent, like an end of line or extra indent within a paragraph. What got me was just how prevalent these simple errors were and how easily most of them could have been corrected with a steady review of the work before publishing.

Actually, these errors in no way reflect upon the literacy or grammatical competency of the author. Our brains are notoriously capable of mentally correcting and becoming blind to these types of errors during reading, especially when the underlying meaning is truly clear to the reader. Since an author is the one who transcribed his or her thoughts to the paper (virtual or real), his or her brain very easily corrects these errors mentally as the work is reviewed. The rush to get the story out under deadline is the main reason why these errors have become almost the norm in online news postings or within current newspaper articles. However, the novel is not a place where the avid reader expects to find these errors, as the reader expects that time is available to edit the story being presented to him or her. Since readers do not create the works in front of them, they are more likely to stumble upon these errors when the meaning has been slightly compromised by these errors. Subconsciously, the errors begin to reflect upon the stature of the work, regardless of the entertainment or informational value of the work.

I have come to respect the power of having a trusted second or third pair of eyes review my work. I would hope that other indie authors would open themselves to having someone else review their work before publishing in today’s digital world, even if it is among trusted friends. A good editor does not take away from a writer’s voice; he or she only enhances it for a receptive reader.

Thoughts on The Social Novel

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was held this weekend on the USC campus. I spent Saturday walking through the booths, checking out local bookstore offerings and featured authors. I also found a couple of indie author promotion and marketing booths and made contacts with them in regards to my current novel. It was a fun and interesting day for me. In addition, I attended a couple of “conversations,” moderated author panels focusing on fiction. One panel was appropriately labeled “Looking for Trouble,” considering the wild and erratic conversation that came from the four authors. However, the other panel turned out to be more intelligent and thought-provoking in its discussion of the “Social Novel.”

At first, the authors on the panel wondered at why they had been selected for a panel entitled the social novel. Rachel Kushner had a recently released novel, “The Flame Throwers,” which followed characters in rebellious New York City neighborhoods in the late 60s and equally rebellious neighborhoods in Rome during the early 70s. Marisa Silver’s recently released novel, “Mary Coin,” examined a fictional history of a photographer and her subject based on a famous photo of a migrant mother and her children from the 1930s. Jonathan Lethen was about to release a novel in the summer that appeared to be hard to explain in the session. There appeared to be no common theme in the narratives of these authors, except for the general concept that actions of their characters had to interact within the social network and individuals within a common social group. The conversation became a discussion about the concept of the individual within society and the contrast between the two. The panel defined two perceptions that was recognizable in literature – the American perception that favored individualism within societal relations and the European perception of a social commonality and responsibility among the individuals within the group. The general impression I received from the panel was that writers usually expressed themselves on one side or the other. What I wished there was time to consider was whether any of the authors felt a sense or possibility that modern literature might move toward a balance of the two perceptions, a sort of global perception that the individual has an innate responsibility toward the social community, while the social community depended upon its recognition of the individual contributions supporting it.

I can see the difficulty in trying to examine this delicate balance within a literary structure. Like all balances, it is dependent upon competing forces. While trying to understand this balanced competition, each of us tends to sympathize and side with one perception over the other. We feel that society must recognize each of us and it is up to us to present our own individuality to society as a whole – or we feel that society needs each of us to come together so we must submit our feelings and talents to the good of the whole. It becomes hard for us to see how both perceptions are just as valid and just as necessary in finding that balance. Also, even if we accept and explore the necessity of balancing both perceptions, we find it hard to not try and calculate an absolute formula in which to find and impose this balance. In nature and the universe, this balance is always fluid and constantly under recalibration. No wonder it is hard for any writer – past, present and future – to explore any story or set of characters working within a balance of the individual and society. Maybe something to discuss at next year’s Festival of Books.