Author of OUTBACK LOVE a contemporary romance novel set in Australia, JETTING AWAY a short story prequel to OUTBACK LOVE, MOON OVER MADNESS a paranormal romantic comedy and BAYOU BLUES AND OTHER SORROWS a collection of short stories and poems about life and love. All are available online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Sony, Diesel and Kobo. On Twitter @TeriHeyer

Friday, April 20, 2012

Talking About Reviews

Seagulls Talking About Reviews
I am trying to understand the concept of writing book reviews. As a reader and as a writer/author, I am looking at this issue from two different angles.

Until last year, when I became a published Indie author, I always considered reviews from the angle of a reader. I read a lot of books and some I consider so great that I want to talk about them. Those are the books I want to shout to the world, "Hey, you have to read this! This book is great, stupendous, glorious, outstanding, incredible, amazing, awesome!" You get the picture.

I wrote a fair number of those reviews on Amazon about books I loved and thought others would love too. I penned 5-Star Reviews for the ones I loved the most and 4-Star Reviews for those I enjoyed and felt them good enough to recommend to others. So for me, reviews were all about recommending a good/great book to other readers. It never dawned on me that reviews might be written for another purpose.

Now, as an Indie author, I'm hearing that reviews are really for constructive criticism to tell the author what's wrong with his or her book and how to make it into a better book. Huh? Did I hear that right? Now let's look at this from the author's point of view. Said author has spent one, or two, or more years writing a novel. Said author has put his/her whole heart and soul into that novel. Now that novel is published and out there for the reading public to read, savor and hopefully enjoy/love. But wait, a reviewer comes on the scene.

This reviewer may or may not be an author. That part doesn't really matter. But this reviewer wasn't part of that blood, sweat and tears process. This review says, "This book is a piece of crap and should be thrown in the garbage." Say what? I'm not making this up. I've seen so many reviews like this one that I've lost count.

I like to study things and analyze the whys and wherefores of something. So I've made it a point of studying reviews, hundreds of reviews, maybe into the thousands by now. I've studied reviews written on books by best selling authors published by the Big Six,  books written by genre authors, books written by Indie authors. The reviews that say, "This book is a piece of crap..." run the gamut of all those categories of books.

Now we're going back to the constructive criticism part of reviews. Is the review that says, "This book is a piece of crap..." constructive criticism? Or is this just pure meanness being vented at some hapless author? This is what I'm trying to understand. If this is constructive criticism, is the author truly supposed to take the reviewer at his or her word and throw the book in the garbage?

Here's an example of 1 and 2-Star Reviews for a single book. One review says, "This book is so bad the author should never write another book as long as she lives." Another review says, "I was looking for a romantic comedy and this is anything but." Another says, "I would have liked the book but it didn't have enough dialogue." Another says, "Too much talk and not enough action." Another says, "Not enough sex." Another says, "Warning, explicit sex. Don't read." Now, if this is constructive criticism, what is this author supposed to do?

Assuming this author can pull the book off the market and make changes, what changes need to be made? Add more dialogue? Or less dialogue? Add more action? Or less action? Add more sex/romance? Or clean up the explicit sex?

In most cases, the book has gone through a publisher, either the Big Six or one of the zillions of smaller publishers out there. So the book can't be pulled off the shelves, rewritten and then republished. The result, these reviewers have virtually just killed this book. Most readers will now pass on this book, because obviously it has too many problems to be read by anyone.

If this author happens to be an Indie who self-pubbed, maybe the book can be pulled and rewritten and re-published. But to whose standards? Reviewer A, B, C, D or ? Which reviewer is really in the know and can tell that author exactly what needs to be done to improve that book? No matter how you look at it, this is a no win situation, because when the book is rewritten it's most likely going to garner another whole set of 1 and 2-Star Reviews.

Then there's the reviewer who wrote that 1-Star Review and said, "This book is so bad the author should never write another book as long as she lives." Does the author take that reviewer at his or her word and never write another book again? Sadly, some authors do just that. Authors are sensitive souls who put it all on the line when they offer a book to the reading public. Does the reading public, the reviewers, have the right to destroy that writer's career and break that writer's heart and soul? I don't think so.

Another side to all this, I've heard many reviewers say that all 5-Star Reviews are suspect because no book is perfect. That may or may not be true, but as a reviewer is it your job to find every flaw in a book and point it out to the world? Is that what reviewing is all about?

I can honestly say that I don't think I've ever read a single book that didn't have a misspelled word, a missing word, the wrong word, grammatical errors, a typo. Even with the innovation of spellcheck, errors get through. Even with editors and beta readers, errors get through. It's a fact of life. Writers are only human and so are the editors and beta readers. What I'm getting at is that people aren't perfect, so why should we expect the books they write to be perfect?

I think we need to back up here and determine the real purpose for writing a book review. This isn't like in college when we had to write a paper, literary criticism, of some classic. Reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes&Noble, etc. are not meant to be literary criticism. Unless I've got it all wrong, these reviews are to recommend or not recommend books to other readers. If you really loved a book, shouldn't that be a 5-Star review? If you only liked the book, shouldn't that be a 4-Star Review? If you read it, but you're not particularly crazy about it, shouldn't that be a 3-Star Review?

Personally, if I can't write a 4 or 5-Star Review on a book then I don't write a review. I don't believe it's my place to point out the flaws to another author. So I don't write 1, 2 or 3-Star Reviews. Like I said, that's a personal thing. When I write a 5-Star Review it's because I absolutely loved the book and think others will love it too. I'm not saying, "This book is perfect." We've already come to the agreement that no books are perfect, though actually I think I've read some perfect books through the years.

Personally, I'm a bit offended if someone would think that a 5-Star Review I happened to write on a book is suspect. If I say I loved a book and think you'll love it to, well, I mean just that. I'm not writing that review to make points, or please a friend, or trying to see how many 5-Star Reviews I can write. If I love a book, it's a 5-Star book. That's all there is to it. For me a 4-Star Review is a book I really enjoyed, but it didn't get into my "best of the best" books that I love. It doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the book. It just means that particular book didn't resonate in my soul, didn't have that extra "zing" that made me say, "Oh, wow!" A book that I write a 4-Star Review may be a 5-Star book for someone else. We all have different likes and dislikes.

I'd really like to know what other readers, reviewers, writers, authors think about reviews. Why do you write reviews? What is the purpose of those reviews? What are you hoping to achieve by writing those reviews? I hope you'll join this discussion.

I happen to love great reviews and not love the mean reviews, it's as simple as that. First off, I think it's wonderful that someone would a) buy one of my books, b) read one of my books, c) take the time out of their busy schedule to write a review about one of my books. I can't thank those readers/reviewers enough. You are wonderful, incredible, awesome people!

Now here's one of my pet peeves, and it happens to the best selling authors, the Indie authors and everyone in between. Why would anyone write a 1-Star Review about a book they've never bought or never read? Is this to just be mean? Is this to eliminate the competition? Is it because the reviewer got out of the wrong side of the bed in the morning or his/her toast was burned? What motivates a person to do that?

I can't tell you the number of 1-Star Reviews I've read that go something like this, "The book was so terrible I couldn't get past the first page." If that's the case, get a refund on the book, take it to the library or the used bookstore, give it to someone on the street, throw it in the garbage. Why in the world waste precious time writing about why you couldn't read past the first page?

I read a 1-Star Review this morning on book that was a best seller years back and has now been brought out as an ebook. This reviewer went on a tirade, about a thousand words in length, about why she couldn't read beyond the first page. To sum it up, she couldn't get past the first page because, a) the book was different from what she expected it to be and b) the book had religious elements and this reader didn't like religious books. All I can say is, read the free excerpt on a book before buying it. Most bookstores or online book distributors will take the book back and give a refund. This particular review was on the Amazon/Kindle version of a book. Amazon will take the ebook back and give a refund. It's not necessary to rant and rave about it.

I've bought many books that turned out to be different from what I thought they were going to be. I read them anyway and usually find the journey enjoyable. Sometimes I come across a book that just doesn't come together for me. Maybe it's too slow or too violent or it doesn't have that "zing" that I've mentioned before. I put the book back on the shelf and often give it a try later. Many a time I've picked up one of those books and found I loved it at the second try. I can only imagine that the first attempt I was in the wrong frame of mind to read that particular book. For those books, very few I might add, that just don't do it for me, I pass them on. I give them to a neighbor, a used bookstore, the library. I've never thrown a book in the garbage and never come across a book I thought should be thrown in the garbage. But remember, this is just me, this is just my personal opinion.

Thank you to all who have read this lengthy post. As you can probably tell, this is an issue I feel passionate about. I think it's incredible to have the privilege to be both a reader and a writer/author. This is a dream come true. I know it's a dream come true for countless others too. I can only wish all other writers/authors the very best in their dreams. It's certainly not my purpose in life to write reviews that destroy that dream. Just sayin'...

I hope you'll add your comments to this post. I truly feel this is something we can and should talk about. By the way, I'm just sure this is what those two seagulls were talking about the other day on Pensacola Beach.

21 comments:

  1. I have a lot of opinions on reviews, and I think there are many authors out there who do as well. I will say that I have written 2- and 3- star reviews, but I save those for corporate authors (e.g. David Morrell, Douglas Clegg). I view those reviews as literary criticism (and I believe the author won't read them anyway.) I'm never trying to be mean, just honest in my assessment of the book.

    I like the Goodreads definition of reviews where 2-stars actually means "it was okay." Very few people do that, though, and I know authors who view anything less than 5-stars as a slap in the face.

    I agree with most of what you've said.

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    1. And by "most" I mean "everything but the part about literary criticism." Actually, if there are gross errors in an Indie's work, I would rather talk to the author personally and let them know where the problems are in kindest way possible. We're in this together, and there's NO REASON for being rude to other people.

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    2. Ben, thanks for the comments. I agree, I'd rather talk to an Indie author and explain the problem(s), usually formatting, rather than leave a low review. We Indies have a hard enough time as it is to get established, recognized, develop a fan base. Also, for Indies it can be difficult learning all the formatting tricks to begin with. I've learned a lot since I first started out as an Indie and I'm sure you have too. Anyway, I agree, there's no reason to be rude to other authors. We are all in this together.

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  2. I don't leave negative reviews. I read a lot of Indie books and I know how difficult it is to not just write but revise, edit, format, publish and promote a book. If I do not like a book, well that's me. Others may love it in spite of whatever flaws I might perceive. I think I would leave a 3-star review on, like Ben said, a book written by a corporate author. But on an Indie? No. If the book really isn't any good, others will probably do the dirty work but I don't want to be part of tearing down a fellow author.

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    1. Michael, thanks for the comment. I left a critical review once on a corporate author book and then felt so bad about it that I deleted the review. At the time, I felt an established author should have done a better job. But negativity doesn't sit well with me. Since then I've tried to be very positive in my reviews. Indies are particularly vulnerable since we don't have corporate backing to offset negativity. So bad reviews can be devastating for an Indie. We need to help each other through this learning process and not tear each other down. Like Ben said, we are all in this together.

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  3. Phew, quite a furious dissemination of book reviews here...

    One of the perils of putting writing out there, or any artwork really, is that you do get exposed to everyone's opinions; whether positive, negative, wanted, or unwanted.

    I suspect reviewers post more for their own benefit, than that of the author, hence the occasional tendency towards rantitivity. Maybe I'm revealing my own motivations here, however I'm pretty sure many reviewers, are in fact authors hoping to get a little readership, and sometimes offload some angst.

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    1. psycthom,thanks for the comment. You're right about reviews being one of the perils of putting your writing/art out there. You get the good, the bad and everything in between. Of course, writers, and artists too, desperately want to be liked. So the negative stuff hurts even more. I just have hopes that reviewers will at least include kindness with their criticism.

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  4. I have recently started a review blog trying to meet indie authors & I review to be helpful. I have done mostly ebooks, but have done a few print ones. If I noticed any error, I made a note of it & emailed it separately to the writer ( to help) in case it slipped through. I have given a lot of 5 reviews because I truly liked the book. I did not dissect it as required in college, but mostly commented on things I liked. I notice things like unreadable script type, or bad color of type that designers like myself would notice since so many writers are not getting professionals to design or illustrate for them.

    I am never mean, because as you say... No book is perfect and my personal opinion is NOT perfect. It is just my opinion. Even if something doesn't strike your fancy, that does not automatically make it wrong, & every reviewer should use some kindness & think about what is constructive and what is just mean lashing out at a stranger. Writers and artists are real people and kindness should always be used in conveying any message of likes, & what you disliked may be just your opinion in the first place. No reason to be unkind. Be helpful or hush. Haha.

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    1. Thank you so much for your wonderful input. This really helps to define the purpose of writing reviews. Authors love having their books reviewed, but also love kind words. Emailing an author about formatting, typos, script advice, etc. is a great way to let an author know about problems with his/her book. As an Indie author, I know I strive to make my books as error free as possible, but I'm only human and some things slip through. I'm always open to receiving emailed suggestions. Thanks again for joining in this discussion.

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  5. I'm an author who has published in the "corporate" realm and now in the Indie world as well. One thing I've noticed is that (my) books that pull 1-star reviews are almost always the ones perceived as "successful." It's almost as though when a book starts flying high, some people want to shoot it down. It may be true that they didn't like it, but with a "small" book it seems they're more inclined to withhold that opinion.

    I think it's hard for some people to keep their own personal and emotional agendas out of reviewing, because often they don't even realize they are there. This is true in the world of big-name print reviewers as well. When too much ego comes in on the part of the reviewer, the reader (who is using the review for purchasing advice) will suffer.

    Like you, I don't agree that a review should be a critique for the author. I think a review has one purpose and one purpose only. To help those who are considering a book decide whether or not to try it. Therefore, a positive review should focus on why the reviewer liked it--negative, why the reviewer didn't. That gives the potential reader a better idea of whether he or she will feel the same. In my opinion, trying to do more is overstepping, and attempting to place the focus back on the reviewer. Of course it's a free will situation, and people can do so if they choose. But I think everyone would benefit if we focused more on what a review is meant to accomplish.

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    1. Catherine, thank you so much for adding to this discussion. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I believe reviews should be used to help a reader decide whether or not to read the book. A review is most helpful if the reviewer doesn't try to grandstand. Also, I like to think all reviewers will strive to be kind. Thanks again for your wonderful input.

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  6. Good blog. Thoughtfully written. I've stopped reading my reviews. It helps me stay sane and keeps my blood pressure normal. Incidentally, LOVE the photos of your pets. I'm a big animal lover, too.

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    1. Deb, thanks so much for your sweet comment. I pretty much avoid reading my reviews too unless a friend lets me know that I have a new, nice review on one of my books. I'm so glad you love the photos of my pets. I love animals of all shapes and sizes. My husband wasn't a dog lover when I married him so he's had to learn along the way. I'd have a bigger menagerie if I could afford to feed them all. My two dogs, Shani and Dude, insist they're always hungry and always need more treats.

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  7. Hi, Teri,
    I'm with you, in that if I can't write a fairly decent review about a book, I won't review it at all. Based on all the time and effort writers spend on producing one book, I've also stopped 'rating' books.

    I certainly don't have time to post a 1 or 2 star review on someone's book. Unfortunately, it's a permanent slur on the book. Not to say that people shouldn't be honest, having read a book, but the fact is, there's always a way to be tactful.

    I notice that the books that tend to have really bad reviews are the ones that go free and the ones for 99 cents. Sometimes, I wonder if the reviewers have even gone beyond the sample chapters downloaded for those books that aren't free to read.

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    1. J.L., thanks for adding to this discussion. I've noticed that when books go on the free or paid best seller lists they become a prime target for unsavory reviews. It's unfortunate that some people feel compelled to put down the successful books. I don't believe real reviewers would do such a thing. Besides, the bad reviews tend to be written by anonymous reviewers.

      I agree, it often appears that those anonymous reviewers never read the books and often don't even buy the books. I like to think they'll eventually realize the harm they've done and decide to remove their reviews. That would certainly be the nice thing to do.

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  8. Teri, the people who spew the kind of poison you cited are not real reviewers, and their hateful comments should be dismissed. Real reviewers, with something useful to say, will offer it in civilized terms. I work hard at Honest Indie Book Reviews to offer helpful feedback to authors ~ both what I thought could be improved and what I thought the author did well. Authors need both and I try to provide, but never in a mean or snide way.I'm an author as well, and deeply appreciate a well-thought-out, relevant review.

    The idiots who write those hurtful things on Amazon are no more reviewers than I am 10 feet tall. While it's impossible not to feel wounded by their thoughtless comments, it is possible to know their comments have no critical value.

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    1. Gary, thank you. I couldn't have said it better. Real reviewers know what they're doing. They have tact. I believe all authors appreciate a "well-thought-out, relevant review." It's the make-believe reviewers that get to us from time to time. Thank you for pointing out that "their comments have no critical value." Hopefully readers will realize the difference.

      By the way, your reviews are excellent. Any author is fortunate to have you review one of their books.

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  9. I thought you summed up my thoughts on reviews fairly well. I write reviews on books I like. A 5 star review from me doesn't mean the book was perfect, just that I loved it and would read it again. I generally ignore 1 and 2 star reviews. Not everyone likes the same things and some people are just mean. And I always think that authors should write the story they want and ignore the negative reviews. (Easier said than done, I know. But whenever I read mean reviews about a book I loved, I want to give the author a hug.)

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    1. wilovebooks, thanks for the nice comment. I agree, some people are just plain mean. It's unfortunate that they feel compelled to write those mean spirited reviews. Yes, I feel like you do and want to give the author a hug. I'm thinking there are lots of authors out there who need hugs.

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  10. It annoys me when people negatively review a book just because it wasn't necessarily their cup of tea. Can you really blame the author for the fact that you bought a paranormal romance novel, knowing you don't like paranormal romance?

    My last favorite rating is 3-star. You're basically giving the book a C.

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    1. Kelly, thanks so much for your comment. I fail to understand giving a negative review after reading the kind of book you don't like to read in the first place. That never makes sense to me. True, a 3-Star Review is like giving a "C" grade. I hope more reader/reviewers will see it in this light and refrain from writing those negative reviews. Well, we can always hope.

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