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Oh, those reviews...

by Barbara Early

Best advice ever: authors, don’t respond to reviews.

Back before I started writing, I thought the lack of author response meant that writers didn’t care about or read their reviews. In my mind, at least, writers were rare, distant people, all too busy buying sports cars and mansions. If they did read a bad review, they’d probably laugh it off all the way to the bank.

Ha ha! I was naïve. Not only did I completely misunderstand how little most writers earn, I somehow decided they not only had thick hides, but they were armored as well. The truth is, many writers do read reviews. And after pouring months or years into a book, they do care what people say. And the negative reviews can sting.

Before I get hate mail, I’m not saying that readers can’t write truthful reviews. I think reviews are helpful in allowing other readers to understand what a book is like and whether it’s for them. And if a reader doesn’t like a book, especially if he or she paid for it, he should have a right to say so.

But not all negative reviews are fair and measured, either.

Before I go any further, I will say that I have been pleased to receive many positive, well thought out
reviews. These readers can make my day! And I am grateful.

When I do get a bad review—and, by the way, I’m at the point where I don’t read ALL my reviews—I try to remind myself that not everyone likes the same books. I do consider if the reviewer might have a valid point that I can use to improve the next book. (I haven’t come across anything helpful, yet, however.) Often, maybe in an attempt to put the comment in context, I try to figure out where the review is coming from. I’ll click the person’s name and read his or her reviews for other books. And I also read reviews of other writers, just to reassure myself that I’m not the worst hack alive. Here’s what I’ve learned.

I’ve noticed some trends. Many of these hurtful, negative reviews are coming from the same people. It’s like they’re the Don Rickles of Amazon or Goodreads, and they’re trying to entertain friends with their snarky comments. When I see how they cut down other writers I enjoy and admire, somehow their comments about my book don’t sting so much. Let’s call this group of reviewers, the entertainers.

But there are other categories of negative reviewers, as well.

The clueless. Have you ever read a glowing review, and then seen that the reviewer gave the book one star. (In case you missed it, one star is bad. Five stars is good.) I’ve even come across one-star reviews that say “I did not read this book, so I can’t review it.” Huh?

But there’s more than one way to be clueless. I have a five-star review (not negative, so I’ll mention it) on one of my books that simply says, “Good service.” I’m glad the seller did a good job. But book reviews are about the content of the books themselves. They are not about the condition of the used edition you bought, how long it took to arrive, or the quality of the paper.

The really bad book picker-outers. Awkward name. Perhaps inept consumers? But every now and then you encounter negative reviews that start, “This isn’t the kind of book I normally enjoy…” or “I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to like this book…” Quite a few negative reviews out there are written by people who can’t seem to locate the right section of the bookstore or library for the kind of books they want to read. And then, because it wasn’t their cup of tea, they conclude the fault was in the book. It happens in inspirational books all the time. “The story was good until all the preachy stuff. I don’t know why they had to bring God into it.” Ugh.

I recall reading a review for a cozy mystery (not mine), where the reviewer took the author to task for the facts that the sleuth was an amateur who had no business investigating a crime, and that it predictably took place in a small town. Formulaic, the reviewer claimed…without understanding that those things are genre expectations for a cozy mystery.

The most memorable example I’ve seen? I had just finished reading a book and really enjoyed it. The writer had once written for Newhart. The book featured a cartoon cat on the cover. The blurbs and back cover copy gave every indication that this was going to be a funny book. And it was. I took a peek at the reviews. “I could have done with a little less hilarity,” one critical review said. There’s someone really bad at picking out books.

Beginning and/or frustrated writers. Learning to read critically is a vital skill for writers. Unfortunately, learning to do that can take the enjoyment out of reading. This reviewer is hypersensitive to all kinds of flaws, real or imagined. You can often tell these reviewers, because they will use “writerly” terms. They’ll talk about a book’s inciting moment or dénouement. Sometimes they know what they’re talking about. Sometimes they don’t.

Identifying this reviewer removes the sting. It’s not your book they hate. It’s the fact that you’re published and they’re not. (I also reckon that I deserve a few of these, since I might have written one or two, back in the day.)

The drama queen. There may be some overlap with the previous category, but the drama queen goes one step farther. Not only did you write a book they didn’t enjoy, but somehow you ruined the reader’s life in the process. And they’re going to make you pay.

These are the folks that don’t just stop reading a book. They fling it against the wall. And instead of saying what they didn’t like about a book, they FLAME all over the Internet in all caps, just so everyone will know how bad a book you’ve written. These are the folks you definitely don’t want to respond to. You want them to forget you and move on to someone else before you have to take out a restraining order.

The contradictory. When reviewers make opposing statements about the same book, it demonstrates the subjectivity of reviews. For example, one review says the book had too many penguins. Another says, “I LOVE the penguins.” You can’t please everyone. I had this discussion with a friend of mine when we read the same book. The author set it in Paris, and whole scenes detailed nothing but the characters sightseeing. I complained that it read more like a travel log. My friend, who loved Paris, thought the book was amazing. All subjective.

The spoiler. This reviewer doesn’t just write a review, he tells the whole plot of the book in the process. Things like, “I was really surprised that the butler did it!!” OR “I hated that the dog died at the end.” And this is a problem when people are shopping for a book. If it’s a mystery, and the reviewer spills the beans about whodunit, then that review could hurt sales.

I’m sure there are more categories. And sometimes the negative reviewer just honestly didn’t care for a book, and that’s okay. But the vocal group of clueless and mean-spirited reviewers are one big reason why authors are always encouraging—and yes, begging—readers to write reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and other sites.

Now, I have heard a few readers fret because they say they don’t know how. So I thought I’d finish with a quick primer.

How to write a review:

1. (Optional) Tell a little about the book. Many bloggers do this, sharing a paragraph or two about the plot and/or characters. (Just don’t give away too much!) You can add a plot summary if you want, but you don’t have to. This isn’t an assigned school book report that makes you recount the plot so that the teacher knows you read the book. (You could always cheat that system, anyway, by rewording the back cover blurb.) Nobody is grading you on it.

2. Tell what you liked and/or didn’t like about the book. That’s all there is to it. A review can be as short as a sentence or can last several paragraphs.

So please write reviews, especially for the books you enjoy.


Barbara Early grew up buried in the snowy suburbs of Buffalo, NY, where she developed a love for all things sedentary: reading, writing, classic movies, and Scrabble. She holds a degree in Electrical Engineering, but her penchant for the creative caused her to run away screaming from the pocket-protector set. Barbara cooks up cozy mysteries with a healthy dose of comedy and sometimes a splash of romance. Her holiday novella, Gold, Frankincense, and Murder was released in e-book and audio format from White Rose Publishing. Barbara also writes the Bridal Bouquet Shop Mysteries as Beverly Allen, including Bloom and Doom, For Whom the Bluebell Tolls, and Floral Depravity from Berkley Prime Crime. You can learn more about her writing at www.barbaraearly.com

Comments

  1. Excellent and very timely article!!! As I read the beginning I was thinking through all my pet peeves, and I think you hit about all of them. One other has been people who summarize and give incorrect information. Or complain about something being missing, but I could easily send them the quote of where it is. Those are some of the hardest not to respond too.

    And yes, I read reviews, and yes, many of them sting. Even some of the well-meaning ones in odd little ways. But nothing is more spectacular than when a reviewer really "Gets" not only your writing, but your themes and story goals. Those reviews really make my day.

    The hard thing with the contradictory reviews is that I really want to grow in my writing, but they are a sharp reminder that I really can't please everyone, which is kind of a bummer.

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    1. Yeah, I had a review to my first novella that said there were no clues and the killer came out of left field. I really wanted to send her a list of all the clues she missed. Sigh.

      And the contradictory ones...I have a few reviewers say I put too many flowers in my books. But most people say they love the flower stuff. Since the books are covered with flowers, I kind of have to consider that those are my target readers. But yes, I know it's going to irritate other readers.

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  2. I had to chuckle reading this. It's SO spot on. I made a promise to myself to NEVER respond to any review, good or bad. Sometimes that's so hard, especially when you can explain how the reviewer missed something or made a claim about your book that's just not true.

    I had one recently that said "the English and Grammer [sic] were poor." I had to puzzle over that one because, besides my own devotion to getting the mechanics right every time, this book went through at least three rounds of professional editing at my publisher's. But I think it was my use of British idioms that probably threw this reviewer off.

    And of course it made me chuckle to be scolded for bad "Grammer" by someone who can't spell "grammar," but I digress.

    So, yeah, reviewers. We love 'em. :D

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    1. Yes, if it's a negative review, you got to love the illiterate ones.

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  3. Great post! And it made me laugh, too. I am bracing myself for reviews of my May release. Taking deep breaths.

    On a similar note, Dina Sleiman is on my blog today sharing tips to writing a fast, helpful book review! Between her tips and yours, Barb, I feel more confident in writing book reviews. Thanks, ladies!

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    1. Susie, I expect you're great at writing reviews! And yes, take those breaths now, and then when they come, enjoy the good ones! And take the others with a grain of salt.

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  4. The first time I heard about internet trolls leaving negative reviews without actually reading a book, I was shocked. I couldn't understand why somebody would do that. I've read a few reviews written by the "uninformed consumer". I read one about one of my fav romance author's books. The reader kept sputtering about how shocked by all the sexual content. First of all - it's a romance. As a romance reader I think if you pick one up should expect anything from low heat to scorching. And if she looked at excerpts of this author's previous books - or just a quote on the cover - she would have known this author is known for writing spicy scenes. As for the spoiler....this one throws me sometimes. I get the obvious - if you announce in a mystery who did it, but there are some things that some reviewers warn "spoiler ahead" that I don't consider to be a spoiler. I don't consider "there are a lot of surprises in this book" to be a spoiler, but some readers/authors do. I am a reviewer for the website Fresh Fiction and I try to look over my reviews with a critical eye to avoid being "summary heavy" & throwing out what some would consider "spoilers".

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  5. Yes, I can see complaints about the heat level coming on romances. I'm not too big of a romance reader, but if I were, I'd probably stick with inspies, or books that I knew were "sweet." I love that some reviewers will rate the spice of the books. It helps readers find the ones they want.

    Similarly, cozy readers who expect a certain tameness will often rant about non-cozies they read. Which has a lot to do with being an inept consumer. If a reviewer, however, feels the book is promising one thing but delivering something else, that seems like it's fair game.


    Spoilers are tough. I think "The ending really surprised me," and such are fine. They don't really give anything away.

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  6. You are so spot on with these categories of reviewers. I am astounded with how many unhappy people are out there spewing their venom in reviews.

    I haven't written a book (yet), but there are times when I'm looking for reviews to be an educated buyer and I cringe at times thinking: "Wow...bitter much?" In fact, I've found more than a few good reads based off of the hate-filled reviews. My thoughts being that if such a grumpy person hated the book, I probably would like it - and I did.

    Very, very, very, very (to the power of infinity) rare is a one-star review that is an accurate reflection of the book quality. Kinda like four-leaf clovers.

    I've always felt bad about my two or three sentence reviews which were basically. "wow. cool. really loved this book and couldn't put it down till I was done." I always thought I had to be more formal or literary sounding. I'm glad I don't have to. Maybe the point is just getting the I LIKED IT out there to counter the internet trolls... hmmmm....

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    1. Yes, DebH. I've never read a simple, "I LIKED IT" review on my book and thought, "Wow, that was lame." It's always nice to know when someone enjoyed your book.

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  7. Amazon is partly to blame for some of those reviews you mentioned. I gave my aunt some Kindle books for Christmas. I clearly bought them as gifts. There is no way that Amazon thought they were for me. Yet I still got an e-mail asking me to review them. If I had followed the links, I'd have left some pretty bad reviews. (Ok, fine. I'd actually already read and reviewed the books, which makes the e-mails from Amazon even funnier.)

    Still, so many of the other categories you mentioned are no one's fault but the bad reviewer. At times I feel like I'm fighting a losing battle trying to convince my fellow reviewers that some times authors who complain about things in reviews have legitimate points. But they rarely see it that way at all.

    A final thought, I've actually had people complain about my reviews when I say "I was shocked by the ending." They then complain I made it easy for them to guess the ending. So it's very hard to write reviews that please everyone.

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  8. Good points, Mark. Which is what I'd expect from such an awesome reviewer.

    I think that much of the difference is that authors and readers actually approach reviews from two different sides. Yes, writers would love if they only got four and five star reviews. Hey, we'd be happy if you took away the fours. To us, they become not only a pat on the back (sometimes needed) but marketing tools allowing our books to find other readers. But mainly, for me at least, I love to know that people are enjoying my work.

    Readers (and I know this, because I am also a reader) will often rate a book based on a number of different factors,including what kind of mood they were in when they read a book. Except for "the entertainers" it's usually all about the relationship between them and the book. Lots of other factors end up sneaking into it--the weather, pain, relationship issues, the book they read right before it, stress...And we know, not everybody gets along.

    Please know that this article isn't criticizing reviewers as much as it is categorizing reviews, which helps writers contend with the onslaught they are often faced with. But reviews are important. As are critical reviews sometimes. I've been upset, more than once, when I bought a book that had only five star reviews--only to discover the book wasn't worth the paper it was printed on. (The author must have had a dedicated band of friends.) Ugh.

    But there's also a few mean-spirited "reviewers" out there, who seem to enjoy tearing down everybody, often making personal attacks, while asserting themselves. In any other venue, that would be called bullying.

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    1. I'm perfectly okay with calling some reviewers bullies. They are. The problem is that many other reviewers don't see that.

      There is going to be a tipping point in the next couple of years as more and more people start to see it. Hopefully, that will mean a maturing of reviewers and book bloggers.

      Oh, and I know I've said this elsewhere, but as a guy who really could care less about flowers, you have the perfect mix in your books. You keep it interesting, and it's definitely there, but you never bog down the story with it.

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  9. I figure a couple of bad reviews are good. Proves your reviewers aren't all a bunch of "sock puppets" (fake names you've created) and that your readership isn't limited to your mother and closest friends.

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  10. I think I'd rather not read any reviews, good or bad, about my own stuff. That may just make me a chicken, but at least I'll be a happy chicken. ;) And we'll see how long that lasts...

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    1. NIki, part of the problem is that if you want to look on amazon to see your sales numbers, it's hard to avoid them.

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