Musings on reader reviews

Now and then, writers’ groups will discuss reader reviews, the sort posted on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads and other places. Negative reader reviews can cause angst, especially among new authors.

Although I once hoped to learn from reviews, I’ve found that is tricky unless there are enough reviews to show trends. Looking at individual reviews, one reader will love exactly the aspects of a story that another hates. I don’t think readers should be expected to be objective, not when professional reviewers often disagree. Objectivity isn’t the point, I think. Customer reviews are about voicing opinions and when possible, discussing them. In my opinion, that’s a good thing.

I don’t often post reviews myself, because it takes time away from writing and reviewing fellow authors could lead to all sorts of awkwardness. I do make an exception for books I love, especially if I feel they haven’t gotten the attention they deserve.

Would I make any rules for customer reviews? I’m not sure.

I recently heard that on some sites, there are customer reviews posted before the book is released or even before advance review copies (ARCs) are available. This one is pretty easy. I really don’t think anyone should review a book without having read it!

But does one have to finish? Personally, I wouldn’t review a book (or score it in a contest) without reading all of it. But a few years ago, I decided that I don’t have to finish a book I’m reading for pleasure if it isn’t delivering. I’ll always read at least a few chapters; there are books on my keeper shelf that I thought started slow. But if I’m not enjoying a book by about a third of the way in, I don’t force myself to read the rest. So by my rules, I’d never give a book less than a 3. But maybe it’s OK for readers in general to say “I couldn’t finish” (and the why of it would be helpful).

As for virulently angry reviews, authors benefit by being philosophical about them. Everyone gets savaged once in a while. There was a reviewer who said my first book gave her a headache; it hurt, being an early review, but I felt better when I found out she’d also given 1’s to books by Mary Balogh, Mary Jo Putney and a number of other favorite authors. It’s all in the free expression of opinion.

Anyway, I wouldn’t make any rules other than those usually in place (don’t change the facts, no personal attacks). You can hate the book, but don’t hate the author.

So readers, if one of my books ever starts to give you a headache, I give you permission to stop reading, right away. Then write a scathing review if it will help, but a nice, hot cup of tea might help, too. 🙂

How about you? Do you have any personal rules for reviewing, or rules you think others should follow?


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11 years ago

Reviews are just people’s opinions so it would have to be subjective. As long as there are no name calling or personal attacks on the author, it’s okay. After all, the deal-breaker for me may not bother another reader.

Virginia C
11 years ago

I am a frequent online review contributor at Amazon, Good Reads, Library Thing, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books, and other sites and blogs. Many of my reviews are 5 Stars because I am fortunate to have access to a wide variety of high quality reading material and other products. However, if I don’t like something, I just can’t fake it! I work really hard on all my reviews, trying to find the right wording to capture my experience as a reader of the book or user of the product. Amazon invited me to join their “Amazon Vine Program”, and they send me books and products (at no charge) each month in exchange for my review. This is an “invitation only” program. Not all of my Vine reviews have been positive. I have come a long way as a reviewer, and whenever I receive a book or product in exchange for my opinion, then I note that fact at the end of the review. I have never been paid to write a review, nor have I offered to write a favorable review for money. I am effusive and enthusiastic about my love of books and reading. Books are my second language. I “book-speak” with friends, family, coworkers, and anyone who will pause long enough to listen. One of my goals is to promote literacy and put books in the hands of everyone who wants to read. There are still many people in the United States and the world who are struggling with literacy. Improving one’s reading skills boosts self-esteem, opens up the world, enables informed decision making, and brings forth all kinds of new opportunities. People who read for pleasure have good imaginations, an ability to think outside the box, and the vision to go beyond black & white to see the shades of gray.

Jane Charles
11 years ago

I’ve reviewed very few books and it is something I am not comfortable doing. However, I do enjoy reading a balanced or positive review and it has often helped me decide one way or another on a purchase because I can learn more about the book. I try to avoid reading scathing reviews, the kind that reads almost like a personal attack, nor will I let it affect my buying decisions.

Elena Greene
11 years ago

Sheree, that’s what I’ve seen too, re the deal-breakers. There are some standards out there regarding what constitutes good writing (although there can also be disagreement there) but in reality, the chemistry between a book and a reader is more complicated. A book can flaws from a writing standpoint but still reach some readers on an emotional level.

Virginia, you sound like a very thoughtful reviewer and a wonderful advocate for reading. Literacy is something I care a lot about. Once my children are at college and I have more time, I would like to volunteer in a local adult literacy program.

Elena Greene
11 years ago

Jane, I think a lot of readers are like you, smart enough to tell more legitimate reviews from the disproportionately angry ones or (on the other end of the spectrum) by the author’s family and friends. Reviews with a 1 or a 5 without specific details aren’t terribly useful.

11 years ago

You know, I have to take exception to the view that reviews are simply a matter of opinion.

Whether you like a book or not, yes, that is a matter of opinion. We all know that tastes vary enormously, or there would be only one flavor of ice cream available.

Whether or not a book is any good is another matter. Is it at least competently written? Are the characters, whether you like them or not, well developed and consistent in their behavior? Does the plot make sense and is it resolved in a believable way? Etc., etc.

There are any number of books I have read that I can see are good, though I did not enjoy them, and there are any number of books I have enjoyed immensely even though they are at best mediocre. I wish more reviewers would endeavor to make this distinction.

Elena Greene
11 years ago

Lil, I think that kind of intelligent analysis is what professional (paid) reviewers should be doing. It would be nice if more reader reviewers did that, but I don’t think it’s realistic to expect it.

I’m a bit amused (though also sympathetic to the author) when a reader writes a scathing review of a book for being what it was intended to be, versus their expectations, for instance, a dark, angsty book when they wanted a light beach read (or vice versa).

11 years ago

Interesting musing. I don’t often review books. When I do, I will only review books I loved and want to share that love with others. If I didn’t like a book, I don’t write about it. In my reviews, I try to encompass the essence of what it was I liked. I keep it short, with the goal of expressing why I’d read it again. If there was something specific I liked, I try to email the author.

I really don’t like the reviewers that are scathing. Yep, the message that you hated the book is coming through loud and clear but so is your maliciousness, which makes me question you. I’ve liked the reviews where they’ve admitted that they didn’t like such-and-such type of character, and that’s what turned them off to the book. A general “I liked it” isn’t much use, except to tell me what kind of book that reviewer likes.

11 years ago

I always view those scathing reviews as being from someone who was PO’s at being asked to reveiw the material… You would hope that a professional reviewer would skip the nastiness and just say what they thought was wrong or what they didn’t like… You feel kinda like that person ranted on and on… and should not have press the submit button but rather save in draft format for 24 yours..

11 years ago

I rarely do reviews. I hate to say it, but it’s almost like you can’t trust them anymore. What with sockpuppetry (writers doing their own reviews) or when you look and see a new book with 3 or 4 reviews and they are all 5 stars, you know its just family and friends. There are also people who give bad reviews to some authors because they are trying to “prove” something with the ranking systems or because there has been some scandal with the publisher, and again they want to prove a point.

Elena Greene
11 years ago

Judy, I also wonder about the motives behind all out angry reviews. One wonders if they tell more about the state of the reviewer’s mind than the book.

Girly Girl, if the scathing review is from a professional reviewer, I am guessing he/she was trying to write an entertaining review. Snark can be funny; sometimes it backfires. When it’s a customer review, I think it’s just his or her chance to vent.

Bettie Lee, I’ve heard of the sorts of abuses you mention, too. It’s sad. At least now a lot of readers are getting more savvy about it.

11 years ago

I have done a few reviews, but don’t have any rules for myself or anyone else. A review is an opinion, and we all have different tastes. If I am going to say I didn’t like a book, I will say why and try to say something positive about it. I may not like the plot or characters, but I can appreciate good historical details and use of language.
The one thing I don’t like is for a reviewer to give a relatively detailed outline of the story giving away the plot, characters, and events. A review is an opinion of the book, it isn’t supposed to be a book report.
I know it is hard to ignore a negative review, they hurt. Sometimes you have to consider the source. I linked to a site once and read a review for a book I’d been hearing about. Everything I’d heard prior had been pretty positive. That reviewer ripped the book apart and said it was a waste of time to read. I was a bit taken aback by her overly negative stance. Out of curiosity I went back through her other reviews. I couldn’t find a single book or author she liked or felt anyone should read. If it is such a chore to suffer through all those books, maybe she should look for something else to do. She is wasting her time, because no one is going to take her seriously if they are really paying attention.

There are some review sites I always go to. Their reviews are always balanced and informative. They usually give a pretty good idea of what the story is about without giving away too much. I rarely let a single review, especially a bad one, determine if I am going to buy a book.

Thanks for the interesting discussion.

Elena Greene
11 years ago

Pat, I don’t care for reviews that give away too much of the plot, even if they aren’t outright spoilers about the ending or whatever. IMHO they should limit to plot setup, the sort of information that would be on a back cover blurb.

The other solution is a spoiler alert notice up front.

Diane Gaston
11 years ago

Great topic, Elena. And terrific discussion, ladies!

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