Thursday, February 16, 2012

Learning From Online Reviews

I attneded a presentation by author J. Scott Savage titled, Using Reviews to Improve Your Writing. It was awesome. He presented a method for doing market research for potential novel ideas that you have.

Go to or, and find five books that are similar to the kind of book you’re writing. Read through as many of the reviews as you can. Here is what you’re looking for:

One-star reviews
These reviews were from people that were not the target audience. Jeff recommended that you print them out and tape them to your wall. Then when you’re feeling down you can read them and tell yourself “That book was a best-seller, and someone still hated it.” Everyone looks for something different in a book. If you haven’t disgusted a few readers then your work probably isn’t very original.

Two-star reviews.
This happens when a book didn’t quite live up to the expectations of the reader. Take a hard look and ask yourself if anything in this review applies to your own work. Ask yourself if there isn’t something you can do better, some new twist you can try.

Three-star reviews.
These reviews tend to be the most useful, because they come squarely from the target audience (especially true if the book is the first in a series). Pay attention to what these readers liked. Pay attention to what they didn’t like. Look for trends, and make sure you don’t follow the same mistakes that the author made. Emphasize in your work the things that these readers praised.

Four-star reviews
For most people this means that they liked the book a lot. You’ll get good info here, too.

Five-star reviews
Mom, is that you?

The series effect

Here is another exercise you can do to understand what your readers are looking for. To illustrate, go to Amazon and take a look at the Recluse series, by author L. E. Modesitt Jr. Here is an analysis of the first five books in the series (there are currently 16).

  1. The Magic of Recluse: 131 reviews, 3.5 stars. Very few people are in the middle. Most reviewers either liked it or hated it.

  2. The Towers of the Sunset: 49 reviews, 3.5 stars. The trend is sort of flat, with an even distribution of likes and dislikes.

  3. The Magic Engineer: 40 reviews, 3.5 stars. By this time the positive reviews are definitely more numerous than the negative reviews.

  4. The Order War: 18 reviews, 3.5 stars. Trend is similar to book 3. People are beginning to comment how the writing has improved.

  5. The Death of Chaos: 20 reviews, 4 stars. The trend is definitely positive. Very few negative reviews.

Did you notice that each successive book gets fewer and fewer reviews?

The first book in a series is always going to have lower reviews because it’s the one that everyone reads. The author is going to get a mix of people who liked it and people who detested it. Those who didn’t like book 1 will not buy book 2, so when book 2 comes out there will be fewer reviews but more of them will be positive. This trend will continue as the series progresses until book 5 when you see only a handful of reviewers, and they are overwhelmingly positive.

In short, only fans review the later books in a series. By this time the author has established themselves with their target audience. Pay close attention to what the reviewers praise. There will still be bad reviews. These are from fans who got let down. What didn’t they like?

As you write your own stories, keep in mind that book 1 is your most important work. This is the vehicle for introducing your writing to new readers. It will always sell the most copies. Some people will love it and some will despise it. Don't try to please everyone. Know your target audience, and write specifically for them. Your later books will always get better reviews.


  1. I was on Amazon today reading some reviews of books, and I couldn't help remembering what you had written here. Had to laugh; it was so true.

    To be honest, when I'm trying to decide whether or not to buy a book, I tend to look at a couple of detailed reviews from people who really liked it, just to get an overall feel of what is in the book, then I read the one-star reviews. A lot of times, this is the key to helping me identify whether or not I am in the target audience of the book. (For instance, someone who loves explicit books may not mention it is explicit in a 5-star review, but someone who doesn't will definitely mention it in a 1-star review.)

    Useful things, reviews . . .

  2. I'll have to remember that next time. Look in the one-star reviews for things that you think are red flags. This will tell you if you're going to like the book.

    I'm continually amazed at how diverse peoples' tastes are. I'm not a fan of Modesitt, but I've certainly learned a lot from his success. 16 books... Everyone looks for something different.

    I wish I knew what to do with 5-star reviews. The ones that aren't plot-summaries tend to be little more than "Loved it! ^-^"

    I really liked Savage's insights. I'm amazed at what I can learn at conferences.

  3. Lol! Sometimes even the 4-star reviews can help determine whether or not I am in the target audience. An example I read today:

    "What this contains: A woman living with the knowledge she was found in a dumpster and adopted, the possibility she's a pedophile as she discovers a summer fling is actually a high school student, divorce, and lack of self esteem. Also: Adultery, prostitution, interracial dating, undercover cops, drug rings, computer hacking... Really.. awesome stuff."

    Yea . . . awsome stuff . . . /rolleyes

  4. Anna called me from the school book fair yesterday. She read off titles to see if I was interested. I looked them up on Amazon, and checked out the reviews.

    Most of them were 4 and 5 stars. Likely written by friends.

    I didn't have her get anything. Everyone is looking for something different in a story, and nothing jumped out at me.