Reviews... "Do you realize how good that is?"
"I see you've got nine reviews on Amazon," the caller said of my novel God's Furry Angels, published almost one year ago. "Do you realize how good that is?"
For an independent author, this salesman could have added, for that was not just his implied meaning, but the reason he phoned – one of a growing number of regional or national marketing firms seeking to win some of my limited advertising dollars. Most self-published authors consider it a blessing to gather three to five reviews, or so I've been told by fellow authors, bookstore owners, and this man… so by that limited standard, nine is indeed fantastic. I thought about reminding this caller of the seven five-star reviews my first novel also drew on Facebook, or the three on GoodReads.com… but I didn't. For all of them combined are but a pittance compared to what bestsellers collect, as we both knew.
Most authors fret over and long for reviews, with good reason. These analyses are not just the best, but often the only effective sales tool available to writers. Sometimes it makes me want to laugh, thinking of the times I practically begged past and present readers to post their thoughts. Then I remind myself how useless such pleas usually are. For such audiences almost always listen to my outpoured heart with honest interest. Their appreciative nods suggest they won't let me down – indeed, that they'll help me out all they can in such a simple task. And as noted above, a few people actually followed through. But once my words pass into memory and life resumes its dizzy pace, most such pledges to post apparently drift into oblivion…. which may explain in part why many independent books are lucky to draw three to five reviews.
It's maddening, and yet an apparent reality. I can certainly vouch for that from my experiences as the writer and publisher of three novels. For every posted review these books have drawn, I've had at least one person (and in the case of God's Furry Angels, many, many more) tell me how they much liked, if not loved, my works…. and yet they post nothing.
So many reasons abound, starting with how people staring you in the face don't like to hurt your feelings or embarrass themselves. They may indeed mean what they say, or they might not… as several admitted as our discussions deepened. People don't like to reveal how long it takes them to finish a book, if they ever do. As someone who often devours one book a week, it boggles my mind how many people reported taking weeks, if not months, to get through the simplest of tomes. Many also told of countless hurdles faced just to find reading time, or of numerous interruptions from work, family, friends, commitments, hobbies, and all sorts of other distractions/demands/roadblocks/confrontations in life. Sometimes they admit to laziness, but usually not. And sometimes, every once in a while, they share what they didn't like about the book, or me. Or both.
That, of course, is the last thing I want to hear, in theory anyway, and yet part of me wishes people would just start with that truth when it exists. For such admissions usually open the door to honest questions and responses that help me identify what they didn't like, and why. That almost always proves helpful, allowing me to discern if their comments are valid, pardonable, indicting, illuminating. After all, I can only learn from and correct my mistakes when they're revealed.
And there's nothing in creation – not even God – that encounters no opposition. I once read a survey suggesting only one in every 10 people liked the Beatles, and only one in 100 liked Shakespeare. That gives me encouragement, whether true or not, for if the best at their art who ever lived have so few fans, I need not worry about my drawing even less. I certainly shouldn't expect, hope, or try to please everyone.
When you cut to the bottom line, many reviews don't happen because leisure reading itself may be a dying practice. Last summer, the Washington Post (owned by the founder of Amazon, the largest bookseller in the world) printed U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics stats that suggest only 19 percent of Americans age 15 or older read for pleasure in 2017, down from 28 percent in 2004. Those studies determined U.S. residents averaged just 17 minutes of leisure reading each day, down from 23 minutes in 2004. By comparison, the average American spent almost three hours a day watching TV in 2017.
I knew about these declining habits when the end of my newspaper career led me into publishing. I dove in anyway, for I felt the hand of God in this – the opportunity to bring more than a dozen completed novels to the public. The fact that I'd already written that many should illustrate that destiny, much less my preparation, and yet it took two years of work (a separate story in itself) to get my first book out, with two others soon following (parallel stories there, some of which is told at godsfurryangels.com).
Some might consider that a silly investment in the face of declining reading trends, but I'm not alone in this potentially foolish move. More than 1 million self-published titles appeared in 2017, driven by Amazon's publishing arm, according to an October report by ProQuest affiliate Bowker. All of which makes reviews and endorsements all the more important, for authors must get their titles noticed amidst all the clutter. Authors need some trusted way to make friends and strangers alike want to read their works. Reviews have long proved the best and easiest way to achieve that.
My Oct. 9 publication of The Road to Renewal revealed yet another reason for limited responses. Drawn from actual events in my life, that novel's protagonist endures a downpour of difficulties and damaging events that nearly shatter him. I soon discovered how those people who read this work often personified that text, for they had either endured similar heartache themselves, or they knew someone dear (me, in a few cases) who had.
As you might guess, almost 100 percent of readers I encountered told me just how uncomfortable and challenging that book was to finish. While nearly all said they liked The Road to Renewal’s writing style and humor – it sports almost as much comedy as tragedy – not one reader said they felt comfortable talking or writing about the book. It seems that very process made them revisit feelings they didn't wish to share, much less renew.
Here's an unpublished example. This reader said she spent a month putting off posting her Road to Renewal review, in part because she had limited access to a computer. When she did get online, she found new reasons for not posting it, such as not being able to find the book at Amazon.com, or not wanting to get on GoodReads.com or Facebook. So she gave me a hand-written review, saying I should post it as I felt best. As you read it below, notice how nearly everything she writes refers not to the book, but her own thoughts and experiences.
"When some signs of danger in life pop up, we tend to think they are for others, not us, so we continue on our way. Then, when we get in trouble, we expect others to drop what they are doing and rush to our aid immediately. That is not how the world works, unfortunately. Even God sometimes says ‘Wait!'
"When I ask for help, I often do not explain myself fully in detail in good English. I think the other person can read my mind, like when the telephone conversations were going on.
"Finally, I was left very uncomfortable with the ending, as I have had to ask someone to move on who does not seem to have anywhere to go. I sought counsel from other Christians and those who knew them, and they agreed with the decision, but I still felt bad. I hope they do not feel I have abandoned them. I tried, but they took advantage. Did the Good Samaritan pay for the man for life, or just for a week? Our good witness often is not even known to us at the time. We just live it.
"This book reminds me somewhat of my life journey. But it is not over yet!"