08 September 2015

A Librarian's Perspective on Book Reviews

It's hard enough to write a book, but as most authors know, selling it is a special problem.

Have you seen the ratings fiasco on Amazon for Chuck Wendig's Aftermath? The #1 selling author is used to 4.5 stars and suddenly he's getting a 2.5 star rating. However, it's probably selling a lot more copies, because of the negative ratings.

Is it a smear campaign? A dark anti-Chuck conspiracy? Or is it just not what Star Wars fans want in their genre? Or perhaps it really just has a weak plot with cliched characters lacking obvious motivations.

Readers are as complex as... people who read books. Yeah, that's it.

I've worked in libraries since I was fifteen and I have a library graduate degree. I've operated public, private, general, special and international libraries. I know seven automated library systems and eight classification systems. My job in libraries was often to match book to reader based on their preference and I had to know enough about people and enough about books to make a good connection.

Here's what I believe:

1. Writing technique is the least important factor. 

Good writers write good books that people don't like... All. The. Time. And bad writers write bad books that readers HEART. That's why the best seller lists are dominated by people from every background and every profession.

If you can communicate a story without baffling people, there will people will evaluate your work on entirely different criteria. Readers do not experience a novel as a reading writer does.

2. Readers are much more critical of well-written books.

An amateur effort in writing will enjoy positive encouragement typically reserved for students and small children. Few people want to the be reason a writer they know personally quits, but as soon as the writers pass the threshold from amateur to professional that changes.

People don't feel bad about knocking down better work. They assume the writer doesn't need coddling and they tend to engage solely with the content on a personal level. They didn't like it. It's not their style. They don't relate to the world view. It offended them. Maybe it's a well-written book, but if its professional that just doesn't matter.

Some people will avoid admitting why a book didn't appeal to them personally by citing writing technique or professionalism in a review online, but people almost never make that claim in a library. You can be the Leondardo Da Vinci of writers and a lot of readers will say, "No thanks, I prefer Van Gogh."

3. Books confirm people's nature. They don't change it.

Sorry! I'm not saying we as readers cannot see past our narrow views. But, as a former librarian, I can confirm that only a select group of people like to be actively challenged by a writer's world view. Readers come to the reference desks looking for books that compliment their view of the world. Maybe expand it a little, but not too much.

Example: I have never had success giving a skateboarding teenager with multiple piercings a second chance Christian romance set in the Amish countryside.

Recommendations are tricky. I found that people coming to check out books with a friend or family member sent a lot of the same messages with the titles they selected. The book might help the other person understand them or show that person they are understood. The book will help them become the person they want them to be.

Although, at times, a recommendation is about what the person thinks of the potential reader.

Example: Male librarian recommends shopping themed chick lit to every woman who comes in, because he feels emasculated by his choice of profession and needs to feel that the scifi novels he personally likes only appeal to manly men. 

I know bad reviews can hurt writers both personally and professionally, but I think it helps to take a step back from your own book and think like a librarian sometimes. I enjoy the company of a lot of people who hate the books I like to read. And I hate the books enjoyed by a lot of people I like.

Even though I'm a writer now, I still think of readers as patrons. If a person doesn't enjoy my book, I can recommend someone else from my mental database of indie writers. I can try to match their feedback with a different style of work that fits them better than mine.

I never withdrew a book from a library collection based on one person's opinion either and I never added a book based on one person's request either. And, as a writer, I don't make changes to my work based on the feedback from one person. Yet, people sometimes get really excited and want to actively participate in developing my work. I've been presented with unsolicited edits quite a few times as the person angled for a role as co-author. It's really as flattering as it is insulting. I spent five years writing my first novel. Five pages of opinion does not a co-author make. Love you all, but I'm not restyling my post-apocalyptic work as a vampire novel or political manifesto.

However, all feedback is precious to me. If I believe a person is a legitimate reader interested in my genre and not person trying to push me to write an entirely different genre, then I collect every word they share, combine them with the other feedback I get and wait for themes to emerge.

Maybe I still think like a librarian, but connecting with interested readers is the best part of writing.

I suspect Chuck Wendig is hurting right now, but somewhere deep inside all of us, we can see the bigger picture. This is Star Wars. This audience protects its cannon with the passion of an angry child on the playground. Remember Jar Jar Binks? I remember the reaction to the unlovable goof much better. 

I don't see this as a failure for Chuck Wendig as a writer. And I don't see this as a sinister plot from bitter fans. Reading the one and two star reviews, I hear a lot of honest disappointment. Super high expectations met with too much Chuck and not enough Star Wars from the very loud, very vocal Star Wars fans who go out of their way to be as clever as they are critical.

And while Chuck Wendig fans may be rallying to his side to support him, a lot of these people aren't passionate about Aftermath. They might not have read it if it weren't for the all the low ratings. Just for the record, I have not read the book and I have no basis for any opinion.

But, if I were working in a public library right now, I would recommend it to people who both might enjoy both Star Wars and Chuck Wendig's blunt style of writing, but not real fans of either. Both are excellent and the height of achievement in the arts and pop culture.

Boolean Logic:

Star Wars fans AND Chuck Wendig fans
Star Wars fans OR Chuck Wendig fans <--- This one

For now, however, I'm checking the Amazon page daily for amusing reviews on both sides waiting for that one fair one that's going to tell me...

Is this book a good bet for me? 

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