No.9: Never judge a book by its Amazon review
Whenever I want to know anything about anything I look it up on Wikipedia.
I love Wikipedia. I could spend hours on there clicking from page to page.
Incidentally, if you ever do happen to be surfing through any of the pages dedicated to Roald Dahl’s books: you’re welcome. A lot of that stuff is put on there by me. You know I mentioned that time when I was looking for a job in publishing? Well let’s just say that updating my CV and writing perfectly crafted covering letters to prospective employers proved insufficient to fill every hour of my day.
Anyway, that aside, Wikipedia is definitely one of my favourite things.
Indeed, whenever I was researching anything for an essay or a similar sort of project my standard practise would be to firstly Wikipedia it then to take that initial notion of understanding to the library. At the library I would search through the tome-like dusty books for what my teachers/lecturers termed ‘actual proof’.
Sometimes Wiki let me down. Sometimes what my beloved Wikipedia had told me turned out to be complete doohicky. Sometimes it came through. But it was always my first stop. And still is.
The thing is, as much as I adore Wikipedia, I take everything it tells me with a pinch of salt. It’s just not 100% reliable. Often it’s not even 2% reliable.
The information could have been put there by a learned professor or a 14 year old prankster pretending to do his homework. The person telling you the plot to Matilda may only ever have seen the film or, on the other hand, they might be someone who has read Matilda at least a hundred times and even visited the Roald Dahl museum recently because she’s between jobs at the moment and has a lot of extra time on her hands.
It’s the same with a lot of the covering letters we receive and the readers’ reviews people choose to include in them.
A vast amount of new writers use up a lot of space in their covering letter outlining the feedback they have received from readers. So much so that at this point in my career I suspect I have read every variation of these phrases that there can possibly be:
‘My friends and/or family love my book/s…’
‘I’ve showed it to several people and they’ve all asked to see more…’
‘My children/grandchildren always demand to hear the next chapter at bedtime…’
‘I read it to my class and there was such a positive response…’
‘People say this is exactly the sort of thing they wish was available on the market…’
‘My writing group/people online have been really supportive…’
These are all lovely things and if anyone you know has been this positive about your work you should totally take it as the compliment it was intended to be. Nothing I am going to say on this subject should detract one iota from that.
However, the person you are writing to doesn’t know these people. They cannot judge the weight that they should assign to their feedback. Just like on Wikipedia they don’t know who has provided these opinions.
Therefore, these opinions can’t really inform their opinion of your work.
Some of the people whose opinions literary agents can assign weight to include: already published authors who have done well and/or gained notoriety, publishers, editors, other literary agents, literary critics and creative writing professors (particularly those who are known in the industry).
If any of these people have specifically agreed to support your work or have provided an impressive review of your writing definitely include this in your covering letter, the more glowing their praise the better.
Be sure to keep your rendition of their feedback nice and compact. If one of these people has given you an in-depth critique of every aspect of your narrative I would recommend simply pulling out a representative quote from them and mentioning that they have provided feedback which you have worked on.
Something like ‘Sir Salman Rushdie described my work as ‘literature at its best’ and has been immensely helpful with his feedback throughout the redrafting process’ would be mind-meltingly ideal (provided it is true, of course).
As ever, avoid including anything negative even if it is constructive. Agents do value honesty, of course, but presuming that any criticism you have received has been worked on accordingly there isn’t really any need to divulge. Omitting the heckles whilst singling out the applause is absolutely acceptable in this case.
All of that said, I would urge you not to worry if you don’t have any complimentary quotes or flattering feedback from people of note in the book world just yet. Many people who approach us have never shown their work to anyone before they send it to us; others just don’t have the contacts at their disposal. None of this works to your detriment.
If you do find yourself without anyone of note to vouch for your work at this early point in your career just let your work speak for you. Make your writing and your story the focus of your covering letter and in the interest of keeping things positive don’t even worry about mentioning whether anyone has read it yet or not. The agent is reading it – that’s what is important.
Positive reviews are a bonus to your covering letter, not a prerequisite.
By Vicki Le Feuvre