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Why Do Professional Reviewers Dislike Bestsellers?

One of the most interesting issues I’ve confronted in my years involved with traditional publishing is why some books sell well despite less-than-stellar reviews and why some with five star ratings barely move the sales needle.

It would be similar to films which win Oscars or top honors at film festivals but are barely noticed in the marketplace.

I recall attending a showing of a movie with my wife a couple years ago and after it was over, she commented that it was the worst movie she had ever seen. I didn’t particularly like it either, but I commented that it would probably win many awards and possibly a best-picture Oscar.

It did.  And that’s why I should be a voting member of the Academy.

The same issue applies in the Christian media marketplace. The most popular books often will not be reviewed well by professional reviewers and books receiving high marks from professional reviewers frequently (not always) do not sell particularly well. (I am not talking about online reviews, which are mostly reader-generated. I am referring to people who review books for a living.)

There is a parallel issue of professional reviewers commenting on a book, which is already selling well and dismissing it as less than worthy of being considered a good book. In general, high-volume books are not reviewed well by critics.

Why the disconnect? Here are some conclusions, which I have arrived at simply by observing:  (Translation: I could be wrong)

Professional reviewers are like anyone else

They have preferences for what they like and don’t like. It takes a unique person to look beyond their personal opinion and evaluate if a book is effectively doing what the author intended and if readers will enjoy it, or whether it will contribute to the society or not.

Professional reviewers are intelligent

Reviewers may view bestsellers as overly simplistic and not much of an intellectual challenge. Most bestselling books are written at a 6-8th grade reading level.  While certainly not a Christian author, Earnest Hemmingway routinely wrote at a 4th to 5th grade level, so it is no mystery why the literature pundits did not appreciate many of his works. (If you want to have some fun, click here  for a reading level analysis of some prominent authors and works.)

Professional reviewers are often trained in great literature

Bestsellers are a result of reaching a large audience, and most in society are not inclined to appreciate great literature. (Sorry if this offends…the whole “unwashed masses” issue again) Professional evaluations can be made based on a great classical literature standard and not on what a large number of readers will read. The two are often quite different.

All this explains some of the difficulty publishers have in deciding which books will sell well and which will not.  Editors at any publisher are intelligent, educated or readers of great literature and have personal opinions of what makes for a good book. Those who have succeeded in their work of acquiring for their publishers over a long period have learned to consider what the publisher sells well and what readers will enjoy and find most helpful.

In some cases they set aside their personal preferences.

This is about as subjective a process as I can imagine and explains why just about every bestselling book has been rejected by numerous publishers before it finds a publisher home.

There are many examples of bestselling authors who win sales awards and not literary quality awards and many who win literary awards but do not sell well. A few accomplish both, but not as many as you might think.

So why do professional book reviewers often dislike books which sell well?

Because they are human.

 

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Appreciating Reviews

While researching my St. Patrick’s Day blog, where I reminisced about writing a novella, I must confess I poked around and looked at the fate of a few other books I wrote as well. I tell authors that a one-star review isn’t as bad as they think because that shows that …

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Bad Reviews

This post isn’t about what you think. I am not going to address how to handle the emotional sting of a bad review. Instead, I am going to talk about those closest to you, showing how your friends and family can hinder your writing career. If you cannot stand the …

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Avoid Trashing a Book Online

When I’m thinking of buying a book, I do read the one-star reviews. There. I admitted it. But would I write one? No, and here are three reasons why:

The author is not a moneymaking machine, but a human. A mean reviewer won’t see the fallout of posting a nasty review, but writers cry, get angry, sulk and fall into depressions over one-star reviews. It’s not fair to use the Internet to vent at a target you think is safe because you are in a bad mood that day or just angry in general. I know I’m preaching to the proverbial choir because I don’t sense angry dispositions among our regular blog readers, but we’ve all seen reviews from people who need a chill pill. If a book happens to hit all your HATE IT buttons, take your chill pill before bequeathing a one-star review. Wait a day or two before spouting off. Or better yet, don’t.

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Influencers and Etiquette

Recently one of my author friends needed a couple of people to act as influencers. She asked me to give her the names of people who aren’t writers, which I think is a fine idea because readers in other professions will reach new audiences. I asked several people. None of them knew what an influencer is until I explained it. So when you are tasked to find influencers, feel free to direct them to this post.

Is an influencer the same as an endorser?

Not in the formal sense. An endorser is a recognized name, usually a popular author writing in the same topic or genre or a known authority in the field such as a doctor or pastor. That person writes praise for the book that will appear on the front or back cover or inside the book.

An influencer is a person who agrees to read a book with the hope that he or she will spread positive news about it. This person is viewed as a fan or friendly reader and doesn’t need to be a particular expert other than having read the book. Any reader can be an influencer, but librarians, book club members, and people with special interest in the era or topic are great choices.

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Everyone is a Critic

by Steve Laube

One of the burdens an artist must bear is the scrutiny of public opinion. It can either be exhilarating or devastating. At the risk of oversimplifying the issue let’s look at some of the categories that define this topic.

Opinion
Everyone has an opinion. The problem for the author is to determine how much weight to give to those opinions. One mistake a writer will make is to ask someone or group of someones, “What do you think of this?” with “this” being your work or the cover of their latest book.

Think of it this way, if someone is asking for your opinion and genuinely says they want to hear your thoughts, you will give that opinion…and it is often critical. It is as if we don’t feel like we have been “honest” unless we find something wrong or something we don’t like. We can become overly nitpicky and focus on things that are not vital to the design or the composition of the project. And this is where it becomes dangerous for the author. The tendency is to place too much credence on these type of opinions given by those who may not have the experience or know-how to truly be of service. That is not to say their opinions are wrong or misinformed, merely that discernment must be used when filtering these comments.

The gathering of too many opinions can clutter a sure vision or shake your confidence. It can become like the cynical definition of a committee: “A body that keeps minutes but wastes hours.”

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Paid Book Reviews?

by Steve Laube

You may have read or heard of the NY Times article where an author admitted to using a now-defunct service that wrote positive online reviews for a fee. Unfortunately I was not surprised. There have been many attempts to game the system over the years.

One man bought thousands of his books in various locations to launch it onto the NY Times bestseller list (Read a report about it here). And here is a link to a recent article which helps authors strategize how to get on the Amazon.com bestseller list. I remember back when I ran a bookstore a well-known author refused to let our store run an event’s booktable because we did not report our sales to the New York Times.

Having a system to create fake reviews only reduces our confidence in the reviews we read online. In fact there are laws in place now whereby a reviewer must reveal whether or not they got the book for free in exchange for a review. (Here is the Federal Trade Commission guide concerning the “Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.“) Booksneeze.com is a great source for bloggers to get books in exchange for honest reviews.

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