Thursday, June 19, 2014

Did they read the same book?

By Sheila Lowe, forensic handwriting analyst and author of the Forensic Handwriting Mysteries

Last week I hosted a free download of What She Saw, my suspense novel about a young woman with amnesia who wakes on a train, not knowing who she is or where she is going. Leaving the train, she walks into town and meets someone who seems to know her. He takes her home, where she is further confused to find two IDs, both with her photo, but different names and addresses. The only certain thing she knows is, she cannot contact the police.

Over the four free days, the downloads totaled 117,083, which amazed me. Along with the downloads came (as of now) 115 reviews. On the high end, 102 of them gave 4 and 5 star. On the low end, 5 are 1 and 2 star, and in the middle, 8 have 3 stars. In reading the highest and the lowest, I had to ask myself, “Are these people reading the same book?”

One of the lowest reviewers admitted she had not actually read the book, but was turned off by the four-letter word in the excerpt. She thought it sounded like a good story, but she didn’t like having to read those words. As someone who never claimed to write cozies, I understand that those who take issue with a bit of profanity are not my readers. Still, I think people should actually read a book before publishing a review. Another low score reviewer didn’t like it because it wasn’t what she expected. The middle of the road people complained that it wasn’t part of the series and they were looking for more handwriting analysis from Claudia Rose (What She Saw is a standalone novel of suspense and my series characters appear in a secondary role).

Just for kicks, I looked at what readers were saying about Michael Connelly’s latest Mickey Haller book, The Gods of Guilt. Out of 2565 reviews, 25 were 1 star and 48 were 2 star, so I’m in excellent company. I find it endlessly fascinating to see how one person filters what they read through their own set of experiences and end up with a polar opposite view from someone else who read exactly the same words, same plot, same dialogue.

So, I wonder, are reviews of any real value, or do they cancel each other out? Do you read them? Pay attention to what they say? When I’m considering a purchase I read a few of the highest and lowest, then look at the preview pages before making a decision. It occurs to me how different this is from the “old” way of walking into a bookshop and browsing the titles without benefit (or detriment?) of other people’s comments.

The reason why I did the aforementioned promo was because my new book, Inkslingers Ball, was released last week. I figured that of the folks who accepted the free download, some would like the book well enough to buy my series. It seems to be working, at least in sales of Poison Pen, the first book. I won’t know about Written in Blood, Dead Write, or Last Writes for a while, as they’re published by a traditional publisher who only sends royalty statements twice a year.

I’m most curious to see the response to Inkslingers Ball, which is the fifth book in the series, but the first not written entirely from the point of view of my main character, Claudia Rose. Much of the story is seen through the eyes of Claudia’s LAPD detective lover, Joel Jovanic, which makes it closer to a police procedural than the others. Early reviews are favorable.

I just checked Amazon. There’s a new review of What She Saw. “Manofsixties” gave it 3.5 stars—that’s a new one on me! He liked the beginning and the middle, thought the characters were interesting, but the ending was weak. Others said they loved the ending. Go figure. Many of my author friends refuse to read what people write about their work, but as a handwriting analyst, I’m a student of human nature, so I always want to know what others are thinking. I guess that means I’ll keep checking.


Like her fictional character Claudia Rose in the award-winning Forensic Handwriting Mysteries series, Sheila Lowe is a real-life forensic handwriting expert who testifies in handwriting-related cases. She holds a Master of Science in psychology and is licensed to provide continuing education for marriage and family therapists. She also authored the internationally acclaimed The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis and Handwriting of the Famous and Infamous, as well as the Handwriting Analyzer software. Sheila lectures around the country and is sometimes seen in the media, analyzing celebrity handwritings for Teen People, Tiger Beat, Us, Mademoiselle, numerous Bar Association magazines (that’s legal, not drinking!), and many others.

You can learn more about Sheila and her novels at her website


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Reviews are as varied as people. You do have to wonder if they read the same book. (And if they weren't enjoying it, why on earth did they keep reading?)
I'm with you on not reviewing a book I didn't read. That's so uncool.

Dean K Miller said...

I'm still in the "jury's out" phase with reviews. Most (I hope) are honest reviews, but then you see what they based their review on and it becomes nearly worthless.

I believe a negative review (1-2 stars) generates as much interest (maybe even more) than a glowing, champagne filled 5-star review.

Awesome you got so many reviews so quickly. They (whoever that is) say reviews matter. I'm not sure, but they must somewhere.

Donna Volkenannt said...

Congratulations on your book and all the reviews. I agree with Dean that even negative reviews can generate interest. What I don't understand is why someone who hasn't actually read a book could post an opinion about it and give it a low score. Seems dishonest for a "reviewer" to do that.

Michelle Mach said...

Reviews often tell more about the reviewer than the item reviewed. I read them, but I often end up thinking, "Wow, that reviewer has some serious personal issues" rather than "Oh, I'm so glad the reviewer mentioned that typo on page six and saved me from buying that book!" :)

Sheila Lowe said...

There's a wonderful response to the 1 star reviewer ("Bookreader") of What She Saw who didn't like the profanity. Chris G wrote an entire short story, where the judgmental reviewer is taken in the night by death and has to face her own judgment. I wanted to give it five stars for creativity!

Talli Roland said...

Oh, reviews, sigh. I do think anyone who reads the book has the right to an opinion, but some of the more scathing reviews can really hurt. I try not to read them!

Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Sheila.

Sheila - This is an important topic for authors to think about, because writers have to decide how they'll handle both praise and criticism. I think a big part of it is understanding that each person is different. Each one sees the same book in a slightly different way. So in that sense, no, they didn't read the same book. On the other hand, I think one can look for patterns in feedback and we can learn from that.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Sheila, nice to meet you. Recently I reviewed a MG book for Penguin where I felt the writing was mediocre and I mentioned it in my review. I read another review of the same book where the reviewer called the writing lyrical. That confused me big time. Just yesterday, I came across another review, where the reviewer had the same complains as me: that is poor writing. This particular reviewer even quoted texts where the writing was chunky.
I would say, take the reviews with a pinch of salt. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.

Eileen Goudge said...

Reviews are a reminder of why we have the 12-person jury system. If it was up to just one person, there'd be a lot more "hangings." I never review or give a blurb for a book I didn't like, for the simple reason that it's damn hard to write a book and I don't like slamming someone else's effort. We, as writers, have a tough enough slog as it is. My own bad reviews? I don't read them. I check my aggregate Amazon ranking, and call it a day.For what it's worth, Sheila, your new title looks like a winner!

Optimistic Existentialist said...

I have been fooled so many times by reviews of movies, books, etc. There have been poorly-reviewed movies that I LOVED and critically-acclaimed movies that I loathed. Go figure :)

Gina Gao said...

Reviews can sometimes be hurtful.

Sheila Lowe said...

Thanks, everyone! I liked your jury comparison, Eileen. As a forensic expert, I get to put my opinions in front of juries and quite right, they all get to have an opinion.
And regarding movie reviews, one of my favorite movies (after reading the book) was The Lovely Bones. It got terrible reviews, but that didn't make me love it any less. Independent thinking rocks.