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Monday, 25 July 2011

Exploring the difference between technical and mainstream reviews…

… and their affects on the budding writer.

I’ve been reading book reviews and comments left on Amazon and various other sites lately, and have begun to realise that these seem to polarise into two distinct camps. On one hand there are the relatively serious and well informed reviews and comments left by people who seem to have a more than average grasp of literature, in the proper sense of the word. I suppose these are the people who are generally referred to as ‘well read.’
The ‘other half,’ which isn’t really a half as it makes up by far the majority or readers, are the people who generally read the mainstream blockbusters. They tend to read things they know, and their comments also tend to reflect this. In general they write less comments and reviews than the first group, but their bulk almost evens this out.
Believe me when I say I mean no disrespect to ether group. Reading isn’t a race to see who can do it better, especially fiction reading, which is supposed to be a pleasurable pass-time. I personally think some people should do well to remember this.

So what’s my point? Well, in my experience the first group is far more likely to read and review work by new and especially beginning authors. In general they are the ones who are reading the free-stories and self-published Kindle books. A fair percentage of them may write themselves, in some form, and they will read with an eye towards general grammar, spelling, and punctuation. And they will pick up on what they see as inaccurate or strange in each case.
Now don’t get me wrong. This is a very good thing, and I’m thankful for everyone who takes the time to write me a review in this manner. And, before the grammar-police jump on me, I’d just like to state for the record that I’m in no way saying that these things don’t matter, but I do count myself lucky that any reviews I’ve personally had have also commented on my writing style and, perhaps most importantly, the story. Why do I say that? Well a minority of these types of reviews, whether intentionally on not, can seem to over-dwell on relatively insignificant, or even merely perceived, ‘syntax errors’ without passing any comment on the content of the authors work. I’ve read some stories that in my opinion were well-crafted, poignant, and even inspirational, then I read reviews that list comma mistakes and seem to delight in finding even a single wrong-spelling, typo, or homophone… again, not that I’m saying these things don’t matter. But is it fair to dismiss a good and overall well-written story simply because of a few minor grammatical mistakes? If you genuinely believe it is then that is your choice, but I believe this feeds into the ‘all self-published books are badly written and not edited or spell-checked’ views widely expressed by the second group of reviewers.

I know people who have genuinely said that they will never read an independent book because they have heard that they are all badly-written and miss spelled rubbish. But the same people seem oblivious to genuinely badly-written prose or grammatical, spelling, and punctuation mistakes in their traditionally published books. Ok, granted that not as much mistakes get through the cracks in the traditional route, mainly due to the rigorous editing process.
But to say that all independent authors don’t edit is simply wrong. Most people spend far more time re-writing and editing their work that they do with writing the original first-draft. And most of the main-stream readers, from my second group, would be very unlikely to even see the errors that are being picked up by the reviewers in the first group. Am I being derogatory here? I don’t think so, as there is little to no reason why most ‘normal’ readers would pick up on some of the errors mentioned in some of the reviews I’ve read. But the people who do delight in picking out these errors are being read by the average reader and colouring their views of the independents without them even reading a single independently published short-story, far less a novel.
This all seems to have resulted in a culture where a bad to mediocre traditional published book is immediately more accepted that a decent to good self-published one.
Now, although I’m by no means defending bad writing or bad editing, I think it is fair to state that most independent authors have no editorial staff to vet their work and they are largely responsible for all their own editing. I would ask readers to remember that these people are primarily writers and not editors. Mistakes get through even in the biggest of the traditionally published books, so please don’t dismiss someone on the basis of a reviewer finding a comma-splice or single typo, most good reviewers don’t, and you could be missing out on some very good work.

So do you agree with this summation?

On a personal note I would love to know what the average Twilight reader thinks of my work, but although I don’t think they would pick up much grammatical mistakes they would probably find it has ‘too much words but nothing happens and it’s boring.’ And yes that is a direct quote from a teenage reviewer, who writes vampire stories…


  1. On the whole I agree with your post.

    Personally I prefer reviews by non-writing-non-English-teaching-readers. They tend to concentrate more on the story, what the book did for them. As I write to provide readers with an emotional experience, I'm most interested in the clues they can give me about what worked and what didn't.

    Most readers are very smart. Of course they are: they're readers. Most of them know that you can't expect the driving experience of a Mercedes if you only paid for a bike.

    That being said, I believe we should try to offer them the best reading experience we can manage, regardless of the price we're asking.

    Finally: is it just me, or are typos more abundant in traditionally published books as well of late? Could this have something to do with diminishing profits, and hence fewer editors?

  2. There is a stigma attached to self-publishing, and that stigma will continue to dog most self-published authors for many years to come. It's hard to overcome, but it has happened (just not to me, unfortunately).

    Ironically, as soon as you overcome that stigma, you suddenly become "legit" in the eyes of those who limit their reading to the well-known author.

  3. I agree with Andrew that people who are primarily straightforward ‘readers for pleasure’ very often give the best feedback. Unfortunately they are the people who most rarely write comments! Not that I don’t appreciate every comment, critique, and review by people who are more technically savvy.

    If I think something is polished, and a reviewer points out grammatical mistakes… wells that’s kind of a big deal! But I would love that, often brutally, honest teenage audience to say ‘I loved it’ or ‘I hated it’ both would tell me a lot about what I’m writing.

    I also agree with the self-pub stigma thing. But where do these people who suddenly read the ‘validated’ author think these people come from?
    Then again, a lot of them think J. K. Rowling was ‘an average single mum who just sat down in a café one day and wrote Harry Potter’… Yes, yup… of course that’s how it works… happens all the time that does!?!?

    If we manage to keep plugging away for another 10 years or so, who knows, maybe we too can be a ‘new’ writer with an easy overnight success story! And all the ‘normal’ people will say, ‘Lucky get. It must be easy money that writing lark. They just sat down in a café and wrote stuff.” ;)