The Other Side of Book Reviews: How Writing Reviews Can Improve and Promote Your Books
You hear it all the time, the importance of reviews for selling your books. You work hard lining up colleagues, friends, even family members to read your book and leave a review on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Goodreads.
But have you ever considered how important it is for you to write book reviews? Posting book reviews on any of the sites mentioned above is a great and inexpensive way to get your own writing recognized. Moreover, learning how to produce a professional book review can help improve your own writing.
Let's take that last sentence first.
Reviews written by casual readers are usually quite simple. "I liked it a lot!" "Couldn't put it down." "Exciting, rip-roaring read!" What's usually missing is any explanation of why the book was enjoyable.
As a writer, you are not a casual reader. Any time you read a book, you should be taking it apart piece by piece. What is the plot, conflict, and theme? How well developed are the characters? How is the book structured? What is the pacing? What did the author do (or not do) to make the book stand out?
Researching the author can add to your insight. One of my favorite authors, thriller writer David Morrell, lost his father in WWII, had a bad relationship with his step-father, and later lost a young son to cancer. Father and son relationships are a recurring theme in many of his books. I recently read Karl Marlantes Vietnam novel Matterhorn. Looking up his biography showed his novel was based largely on his own experiences as a Marine Corps infantry officer in that war, particularly a battle in which he earned the Navy Cross for heroism. It took Marlantes 30 years to write the novel, probably as a way to exorcise old ghosts.
Analyzing a book this way does two things: it gives a greater understanding of what the author did (or didn't do) to make the book a success or failure; and understanding this will help you improve your own work.
The analysis should also provide the grist for your review. Start the review with a short description of the book. Pretend you're writing a cover blurb for the novel, explaining the premise of the book in a way that entices the reader but doesn't explain the plot step-by-step.
In my recent review of Bob Mayer's political thriller, The Kennedy Endeavor, I simply lay out the historic facts of the October Cuban Missile Crisis and its aftermath.
"For thirteen days in October 1962, the world stood on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe. Only back-channel diplomacy between U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev averted a world-ending nuclear war. But was there more to their diplomatic agreement than history recorded?
"Within a year, Kennedy was dead, ostensibly killed by the lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald. A year later, Kennedy's long-time confidant and one-time lover, Mary Meyer, was also dead, shot execution-style. And the day after Meyer's death, Khrushchev was ousted from power and placed under house arrest. Were these events an attempt to hide the real reason the world survived the Cold War?"
The true events cited in those paragraphs lay out Mayer's premise for the book: Was there something more to ending that crisis than we've been told about in history books?
Comparing a book to other well-known books in the same genre is a quick and easy way to let readers know something about the book you're reviewing, while also letting them know how well read you are. My review of Marlantes' Matterhorn started like this:
"There are few truly great war novels. Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, Anton Meier's Once An Eagle, and Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny all come to mind—novels that explore themes of leadership (or lack thereof), camaraderie, sacrifice, and, ultimately, the futility of war. To these great novels I would add Karl Marlantes' Vietnam novel Matterhorn."
In that one paragraph I tell the reader that Matterhorn is a serious piece of literature and not some sort of shoot-'em-up action war novel, that it will be a story about the sacrifices and sufferings of fighting men enduring unbearable hardships and absurdities.
Sometimes a book hits a personal emotional note with you. When that happens, it's perfectly fine to use it in your review. My review of the nonfiction book, The Finest Hours, recently made into a major motion picture, begins like this:
"I have to confess up front, I'm a bit biased about this book. The Finest Hours is about one of the most dangerous rescue missions in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard, and I spent 13 years of active and reserve duty in the Coast Guard. Moreover, this book focuses on the exploits of four men who were members of my part of the Coast Guard—the Boat Force, those Coasties serving in small boats who "have to go out, but don't have to come back."
I go on to explain I thought the authors did a good job of describing the dangers of operating small, open rescue boats in a heavy sea. I was able to give this insight because I've done it myself, though not in any way near the size of the seas described in the book.
Very well, you say. You can see how thoroughly analyzing a book and writing a professional, critical review can help improve your writing. But how does it help promote your own books?
When you post thoughtful, well-written reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, etc., you become something of a subject matter expert on writing. I have hundreds of "friends" on Goodreads, but I was recently surprised to find I have quite a few Goodreads subscribers who simply follow my reviews. If they are interested in my reviews, odds are they will someday check out my own novels. Frequently, I will get a notification that someone "liked" one of my reviews posted months or even years before, then next I frecieve a friend request. One more person who gets to know me as an author.
The same thing can happen on Amazon. Few people realized this, but when you sign up for an Amazon account you automatically get a reviewer's profile page— a profile page separate from your author's page. Each review you post contains a link (i.e., your name) to that page. On that profile page, you can provide information on your own books and links to your web site and social media pages.
Amazon used to have signature lines for reviewers. Mine said, "Author of Mysteries and Thrillers." Unfortunately, Amazon appears to no longer include the sig lines on reviews. Nevertheless, each time a reader indicates your review was helpful, it moves up on the list of reviews. The more "helpfuls" your review gets, the more often it will appear on the buy page of the book you're reviewing, providing your name more exposure.
Very often the art of promoting your books isn't hitting readers over their heads and telling them to buy your books. Sometimes it's gently leading them to the conclusion they should try your books.