Reviews: The good, the bad and the ugly

Ah, reviews. The bane of an author’s existence. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em as they say.

For me there is a clear distinction between professional reviews (Publisher’s Weekly, newspapers, other trade media), semi-professional reviews (blog sites, ARC reviews), and reader reviews (Goodreads, Amazon etc.). The first two categories, I have a vested interest in. These are reviewers who generally follow some criteria, standards or provide reviews of value. These I follow and share when appropriate.

But as an author, I tend to ignore reader reviews and stay away from them. I’ve always felt that once I put the book out there, it’s out of my hands. Sure I want people to like it (I love when readers write me to tell me they enjoyed something), and yes it hurts like hell when they don’t, but I don’t see it as my job to police readers’ opinions. I have far too many other things to stress over (like writing the next book). It’s not that their reviews don’t matter, because on sites like Amazon they do, it’s that when it comes to readers, there are so many variants and so much subjectivity involved that in a way reviews become meaningless. One person’s five star review may be another’s three star. How can that be meaningful?

Which brings me to the dreaded one-star review. I admit I don’t understand this reader. And I definitely don’t understand the ones who intentionally one-star everything. They are clearly not book lovers. Book lovers know that a particular book may not be to their taste, but they generally appreciate the work that went into producing the book. As an avid reader myself, the only time I would ever make the effort to low ball a review is if I felt particularly betrayed or deceived, as in the description didn’t match the content. Or the book was unreadable. Like many people, if I simply didn’t enjoy the book or it wasn’t to my taste, I don’t bother writing a review. I mean, if I went to the trouble of buying the book, there was clearly something there that drew me. I’m not going to buy something knowing in advance that it’s not for me.

Many of these one-star reviews have very little “review” content to them, so the goal is obviously not to help other readers in their selections. And most “legitimate” readers know enough to take one-star reviews with a grain of salt now. Does the reviewer do it to hurt the author, either through sales or psychologically? Or are they just bitter, angry people who have nothing better to do?

I have some theories about the routine one-star reviewer. I envision them as the type of person who doesn’t leave a tip when eating out, despite the fact that they’ve made their server jump through hoops and asked for all sorts of substitutions and accommodations in their meal. They’re the type of person who is always angry or unhappy about something. My other theory is that these micro-aggressions are a form of bullying, and we all know that bullies are generally bullied themselves. Picking on others is how they lash out at what’s going on in their own lives. So, I guess if writing dozens of anonymous one-star reviews is what gets you off, then knock yourself out—there are clearly bigger issues at work.

I see so many authors decrying the one-star review, and yet it’s the “fake” glowing five-star reviews that get me riled up the most. We don’t talk about these ones. There is a whole industry out there built on writing fraudulent favourable reviews, never mind champions looking to bump up an author’s profile with too-generous reviews. A struggling author can be tempted to look at another author’s reviews and go “Huh?” But we can’t speak out against those for fear of looking jealous or vindictive. While I rarely use reader reviews to guide my own reading choices, I’ll often take a look at them after the fact out of simple curiosity. More than once, I’ve thought “Really? That was a five-star read?” I’m not just talking about subjectivity here, I’m talking about books riddled with errors rating five stars. These readers either have lower standards than I do, or there is something fishy going on.

What’s my point here? There is no win-win when it comes to readers’ reviews. Some are good; some are bad. They’re subjective, written with bias and in some cases, agendas. But that’s the risk you take with putting words out there. Authors, stay out of them. Readers, like with any product, do your due diligence.

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