There is something you can do

I toyed with writing this for a long time but always talked myself out of it — for reasons that will be apparent — but I keep running into a misconception that, at least for my own piece of mind, I’d like to clarify.

(I feel a little better about writing this now since the triggering incident, which was on a different network, was directed at a colleague and not me.)

People will often say to a creator something like “I enjoy your work. I wish there was something I could do to help,” the implication being that there isn’t, that anything they would do would be uncomfortable and ultimately pointless, akin to pissing in the wind. But this isn’t true.

Now, no creator is owed anything. Period. Full stop.

What’s more, no one should feel guilty about helping or not. It’s not the customer’s job to help. If you’ve paid for the creator’s work — versus pirated it or whatever — then you should feel no obligation. You should feel enjoyment! That’s the whole idea. If you didn’t, forget it and go on with your life.

But there are those who enjoy a work so much that they feel the urge to help get the creator’s name out there. (Satan bless you all!) And that’s awesome. I can’t speak to the music or illustration businesses, but in the case of writing, there IS something you can do: write a review.

GROOAAAAANNNNN

From what I can tell, most people see writing a review much as they see public speaking — awkward and potentially embarrassing, something to be avoided if at all possible.

Thing is, it doesn’t so much matter what you say.

Really.

What’s more, it doesn’t so much matter what star rating you give.

Really really.

BookBub released a study not too long ago that, while not extremely rigorous, did offer anecdotal confirmation of a common bit of conventional wisdom — namely, that above a certain minimum rating, number of stars is NOT the top criterion readers use to judge a new book. Similarly, they don’t actually read very many reviews. They scan the first few. If they’re intrigued by what people are saying, or if there seems to be a controversy of some kind — DRAMA! — then they’ll keep reading. Otherwise, that’s it.

(Please don’t make the mistake of thinking I am describing you, or any single individual. This is aggregate behavior. You may use a Ouija board to find your next book. This would still be accurate.)

So what does matter?

NUMBER of reviews.

To repeat, this is true only above a certain (fuzzy) minimum rating. For example, if a book has 30 two-star reviews, most people will probably pass on it. But, interestingly, if it has 30 five-star reviews, they will still be skeptical! Those reviewers could all be the author’s friends and family.

Readers are good at recognizing an “organic” set of reviews, which will always include some folks who really didn’t care for the book. (Haters are the only constant in the universe.) This is why most professional authors — again, there are always exceptions — are not scared of your mediocre review of their book and why you shouldn’t feel bad about giving it.

In other words, readers understand that pretty much no properly-rated book is going to get a perfect score. Not even Shakespeare. Anecdotally, a “good” book seems to fall in the 3.5- to 4.7-star range. Or thereabouts, and as long as it’s above that floor, what matters to new readers is the total number of reviews.

This explains the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon. We all know it wasn’t such an awesome book, but EVERYONE read it. I think most intelligent readers understood what they were getting. They weren’t expecting Beloved. I suspect many of them, most people even, had been mildly curious about erotica but never enough to act on it. 50 Shades, as a mediocre book, was EXACTLY what they wanted — it was “safe”! And by being popular, there was no shame or embarrassment when they walked up to the checkout counter.

So, as long as a book doesn’t completely suck, number of reviews matters, which leads to the next awesome point about helping. Reviews stick around.

Social media posts are great, but they only reach your friends and they only last 12-24 hours (or whatever) before they fade into the mists of time. However, a review on Amazon, or similar retailer, has the potential to reach anyone, and it sticks around for years. And it really does help bring in new folks. For example, once a book hits a certain number of reviews — around 50-70 I think, but don’t quote me on that — Amazon increases the places where it will appear in the recommendations section.

That kind of thing is crucial for authors building their brand, and any review you write helps them reach that goal and stay there.

Now, I understand that casual language is dynamic and when people say, as I heard this morning, “I wish there was something I could do,” many times they don’t actually mean that. What they’re really saying is “I hope you make it.” It’s an encouragement, a verbal pat on the back, and that’s awesome. We need those too.

But if you’re one of those folks who are motivated to help, don’t fall into the trap of thinking there’s nothing meaningful you can do. That’s just not true. It doesn’t so much matter what you say — just write the minimum if you want — and it doesn’t so much matter what star rating you give, but a review really helps.

(street art by La Fleuj)
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