Two recent book reviews and how I took them

It’s said that a review can sometimes make or break a writer’s day and in that I’m no different to any other author. Publishing a book is like sending a child out in the world by itself for the first time and a review is like getting your child’s first exam results. A bad review can really hurt and a good review can be like a shot of literary adrenalin making you want to write even more. I’m lucky, the first book I published, The Body in the Boot, has racked up quiet a lot of reviews in both the USA and the UK and almost all of them are positive (it has an average of 4.4 out of 5 in the USA and 4.3 in the UK).

I often wonder who readers are primarily writing for when they publish a review. Of course the main purpose of the review should be to tell other readers if a book is worth buying. In that respect a book is no different to a hair dryer or a phone and a careful buyer will always check the reviews first to see what other people thought of the product. However, it’s not really the same. A book is not a hair dryer.

A hair dryer has a well understood function and even a template as to more or less what it should look like. Users will judge it on how well it’s made, how good it looks and, of course, how well it dries your hair. However, every book is unique. Even though we like to slot books into categories, these categories turn out to be very broad. Would someone who enjoys a good Agatha Christie mystery necessarily like Psycho? They’re both crime thrillers yet they are manifestly worlds apart. So, when we try to judge one book against another we necessarily bring along our own personal, and probably extremely subjective, ideas of what a book ought to be. In this I feel sorry for literary authors who are trying to do something different. I’d guess that many of what we now consider to be great ground-breaking works of art were met with howls of horror by readers at the time.

Thankfully, I have no literary pretensions. My books are aimed solely at being entertaining page turners and, if a reader reports that they enjoyed a book, then it’s mission accomplished as far as I’m concerned. However, I must admit to having another agenda. I was still working at the BBC when I started writing the Mac Maguire books and there was a discussion being had at the time about the invisibility of disabled people when it came to TV dramas and fiction in general. It was this discussion that decided me to give my main character the same disability that I live with every day, chronic pain. I must note that, even though it’s some years later now, I haven’t noticed disabled people being much more visible in TV and fiction than they were back then.

Anyway this brings me to the first review –

I am very happy I found this author. This was a really great story and I look forward to reading all of the other books in the series. However, a huge number of typos in the book. Always some with ebooks but whoever edits for this author is doing a terrible job.”

I liked the comment about it being a ‘great story’ but the bit about the typos stung a little. As I’m my own proof-reader and editor I have no-one else to blame. I’ve followed the strong advice of other authors in not responding to reviews but, luckily, the reviewer decided to contact me by email with some examples of where I went wrong. In some disbelief I decided to have a read through the book. I found to my horror that the reader had actually been going easy on me and so I did an immediate re-edit of the ebook and paperback and republished them both. I realised somewhat late in the day that I’d learned a lot since publishing my first book. The upside of this is that I’m now confident that my first book hasn’t got quite so many errors as it once had and the reviewer has volunteered to read any future books before I publish them. An offer I may well take her up on.

The second review was somewhat simpler –

Good book.I like that the detective was more human not a super cop.It made the book seem real. I will read more of this series of books.Good book.”

This was one of my favourite reviews of all time. Why? Well the reviewer said it was a good book and that’s no bad thing but it was the line about my main character not being a ‘super cop’. I’d been getting hints of this in previous reviews and this confirmed it. I’ve often wondered why my books were so popular in the USA and, due to reading reviews like this, I think it’s mostly because the hero of my books isn’t an alpha-male rogue cop shooting everything in sight but a man in quite fragile health who loves nothing better than to work in a team and to use his head and his knowledge of people in solving a crime. I didn’t really plan for Mac to be this way, his character sort of came to me as I wrote. Strangely I now think of him as if he was someone I know and I often wonder in certain real life situations what Mac would make of it.

Anyway, if you’ve read the books please leave a review and just be honest. There is another audience for your reviews beside other readers and that’s us authors. While I do love to hear nice things about my books, sometimes, telling me where I went wrong can be even more valuable.

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