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 outreviews. 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.
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