I've been noticing a small trend of emphasis on readers lately. Some pretty powerful blogging voices are saying that readers influence book purchases and best-seller lists to a degree the publishing world has never experienced. A few years ago, book sales depended on the all-important appearance in The Times Review of Books or on a similar best-seller list. Academic writers gained tenure or were forced to change careers at the whim of reviewers in the most influential academic journals. Literary critics held the fates of new writers hostage to the complimentary review. But now? All that has changed. Now you, the reader, are in control!
That's a powerful position. I applaud the change. Readers are the people we writers really want to please. But being the reader who can change a writer's life is also a weighty responsibility. If a reader can help make a book a best-seller with a single comment, then that same reader can kill a writing career by remaining silent. Readers need to take their own commenting power seriously.
Let me give you an example of how a single review affects a writer's ranking. On Kindle, my book, Beyond All Price, currently has a ranking at the 4,000-level. For those of you who haven't paid a great deal of attention to these rankings, that's actually very good. Every book that sells a single copy gets a ranking, and there are now well over 900,000 books that are ranked. Being number 4,500 out of those puts me well into the top 1% of all books that are selling on Kindle. (And I'm laughing at myself here as I realize the new connotations that 1% ranking carries. No, I'm not rich!) But I'm not on the list of the top 100 best-sellers in Historical Fiction at the moment, either; for that I need to crack the 3,000-level.
Yesterday, I received a "direct message" on Twitter from someone who had just finished the book. She was complimentary, and I appreciated her praise. I responded by asking her to put that comment on Amazon, where the rest of the world could see it. Most people won't follow up on that suggestion, but Anne did. When I checked the book's listing an hour or so later, her review was there -- five stars, less than four lines long, a total of 86 words. The book's rating before she posted her little review stood at 4,162. For the next hour, I tracked the book carefully. Not a single copy sold. The only difference was that review. An hour later, when the ratings officially changed, it was at 3,546 -- an improvement of over 600 points from just one review.
Do readers make a difference? Absolutely! Beyond all Price is doing moderately well. There are over 44,000 copies in circulation. But out of those 44,000 readers, only 20 have left comments on the Amazon site. Those 20 people have encouraged the other thousands to try the book.
Is doing a a review hard? No! All you have to do is go to the Amazon page for a book you like and click the "Create Your Own Review" button. You'll jump to a new page where you can assign stars, leave your screen name, or an anonymous one, and post a few words about the book. Amazon will accept as few as 20 words as an adequate review. It takes you only a few minutes. And then your words fly out there to work their own magic on the rankings.
Please take your power as a critic seriously, not just for my book, but for every struggling writer out there. If you really hate a book, your best recourse is to kill it by remaining silent. Don't use the reviews to snark or attack. Offer constructive criticism. Find something faintly nice to say. Or -- if you really enjoyed the book -- let the world know it. At least click the "Like" button. You are the new Literary Critic! Enjoy your new position.