Writer Wednesday: Rethinking Reviews

There’s been a lot of fuss lately, on blogs and forums, about book reviews. Some writers feel reviews should be all about constructive criticism of the book. Others feel reviews are strictly for readers, to help them decide whether to read the book or not.

As a writer, reader, and reviewer, I firmly believe reviews are for readers. If an author gleans some nugget of helpful information from my review to help her make her next book better, so much the better. But my primary goal when I write a review is to share my thoughts about the book with potential readers. I’ve been fortunate in that all the authors whose books I’ve reviewed have been very professional and classy in their responses. Not all reviewers are so lucky.

Reviewer School?

Reviewers are coming out of the woodwork lately – far too many for authors to begin to keep up with all the reviews. Multiple reviews of the same book can be a good thing for readers, making the decision of where to spend their book $$ a little easier. But so many reviewers also means that not all reviews are created equally, to the consternation of some.

One writer recently accused a reviewer of not being ‘professional’, and not knowing how to write. Since when are reviewers required to be professional? How do they achieve that status? Is it some kind of correspondence school, or a degree at a major university?

Seriously, reviewers are readers. Nothing more. Some are highly educated professionals, some never finished high school, and everything in between. They’re all readers. Some have a great deal of sway over other readers, and within the publishing industry, while some influence only a few people, but they’re all still just readers. They won’t like some books. They’ll love others. It’s a fact of life.

Reviewers Behaving Badly

Most reviewers write tactful comments, and find something positive about even horrid books. They are simply sharing their reading experience, not trying to hurt the author’s feelings. But a few reviewers seem to take perverse pleasure in tearing out authors’ hearts. They find the snarkiest ways possible to criticize every aspect of a book, and if they can elicit an emotional response from the author, so much the better. Even better if that response (more about this later) is public and makes the author look bad. Thankfully, that kind of reviewer is rare.

Writers Behaving Badly

We’ve all heard of authors, some of them well-known and prominent, who spouted off at what they considered bad reviews. They’ve launched tirades against Amazon reviews, blogs, and newspaper/magazine reviewers alike. Anyone says something bad about their baby… uh, book, and they jump to its defense.

As a writer, I would be hurt if someone trashed my work publicly, especially in a hurtful way. But I’ll be damned if I would justify that kind of thing by responding in kind. To publicly argue with a reviewer, or any reader, is to magnify any attention their comments may already have drawn.

Those outbursts make authors look unprofessional, at best. Some, not content to leave well enough alone after the initial response, insist on dragging it out. Whether the reviewer responds or not, they fire volley after volley in defense of their work. And end up looking like a petulant child, a speshul snowfwake who must be handled with kid gloves.

Some readers will buy the book, just to see what all the fuss is about. I think the majority will just stand by and watch the train wreck, while they re-assess whether or not to buy any more of that author’s books.

The Bad Publicity is Better Than No Publicity theory might work for that one book, increasing sales. A few people who wouldn’t have otherwise bought it, will like it, and buy more of the author’s work. Most, though, are just curious, rubbernecking as they pass the pile-up. Those ‘sensation’ sales might not make up for the loyal readers who refuse to buy anything else by the author, because of her childish behavior.

So, what’s the correct response to a bad review? NONE. At most, a friendly “I’m sorry you didn’t like it”. The best advice I ever read about responding to any kind of review was really simple. DON’T. If politeness compels you to respond, a simple “Thanks for reviewing my book” will do. Anything more, and you run the risk of looking petulant in response to bad reviews, or like you asked your friends for a good review. Neither is a flattering view of an author.

Great Expectations (I know, I know, just couldn’t resist.)

I expect constructive criticism from my critique partners, beta readers, and, when the time comes, my editor. All before the book is published. I expect criticism from at least some reviewers, some readers, but not all.

If I (and my critique partners, beta readers, and editor) have done my job, my writing will elicit some kind of emotional response within my readers. Some readers won’t like the feeling they get from my writing, while some will. That’s what makes writing so satisfying. Every piece means something different to every reader.

Since reviewers are readers, some aren’t going to like how my work makes them feel. I expect that. I expect them to tell everyone if they dislike it. If they also tell everyone they do like some parts, so much the better. It would be great if they could tell me why they did, or didn’t like it, but I don’t expect that from them.

What I also don’t expect is for them to tell me how to do a better job next time. Figuring out how to improve my work is up to me, with the help of my critique partners, beta readers, and editors. If readers want to offer suggestions, fine, but I don’t expect them to do my job for me.

What do you think? Should reviews always offer constructive criticism? How should writers respond to reviews?

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19 responses to “Writer Wednesday: Rethinking Reviews

  1. My reviews are about my feelings concerning one book at a time. What I liked about it and what i didn’t like so much. I have a problem with overly nasty or negative reviews. Especially from someone who is borderline illiterate. If you can’t write or grasp the English language, don’t attempt to instruct an author. That is just the height of tacky. We all make spelling or grammatical errors from time to time. That’s not what my pet peeve is. (See, I can do it too) But a great many of the really nasty reviews are simply horrendous. *tsk-tsk* I would never take it upon myself to instruct an author on their craft, just give my feedback. I give a list of what I like and my book “deal breakers” on my ” To request a review page” so if you ignore that and are surprised when I had issues with your characters or plot…. that’s on you. I like what I like, but I will always offer a positive with any negative.

  2. As a reader and a blogger, I don’t think reviews should contain constructive criticism by the way of “well next time you should do this and fix this horrible error”. When I read reviews, I look for how the book was received. Did they feel they couldn’t relate to the characters (and furthermore, can I relate to the person leaving the review that couldn’t relate to the characters?), did they think there wasn’t enough detail? I mean seriously, there are so many dimensions and ways a review could go, its almost impossible to nail down what you want to see in a review. I like to know what kind of emotion it made the person feel. If they stood up and cheered when the good guy won, and switched from Team vampire to team werewolf because of this one character? Then that’s a book I am going to read.

    As for writers responding… I think some of them should remember that we can all see their responses. 🙂

    Great post, loved it!

  3. I’ve read some really hurtful reviews on Amazon. I’ve read reviews where I had the impression that the person who wrote it, hadn’t even read the books they’re reviewing! They just didn’t like the genre, so they stomped on anyone writing this type of story! Yikes! How crazy is that?

    I think you’re right. The best response an author can give in this situation, is none at all. If a book is well written, the good responses will generally be larger than the bad ones. Besides, readers are smart enough to spot these types of reviews. 🙂

  4. As a reviewer, I think I’ve only left ONE review that some would consider to be nasty — and the worst thing I did in that was compare it to “mediocre fan fiction” (but really, the book was baaaaaad), and that was long before I had a blog.

    Seriously though, like you, my reviews are not for the writer. If it boosts their sales, or gives them something to consider for future novels, then great! If not, oh well. My reviews are for other READERS so that they can get a solid, balanced opinion on many of the things that the book contains, and hopefully help them to spend their money wisely, especially when it comes to works by authors they’ve never read before.

    I DO think it’s the reviewer’s responsibility to be balanced and honest in their review. If you hated it with a passion, tell people WHY. Don’t just say “It’s the worst piece of crap I’ve ever read, and I wish I’d gotten the paperback so I could have something to use when I run out of toilet paper” — instead say “The characters were flat, the dialogue was wooden, the love scenes used so much technical language I felt like I was back in biology class, and the plot was utterly ridiculous”.

    That also goes for glowing reviews too — if you gush about how much you love the book, and it’s the best book you’ve read all year, but you don’t tell readers WHY you liked it, or what plot points blew you away, then chances are, many of them will think you’re a shill reviewer, especially on Amazon.

    I have, in the past, included “constructive criticism”, such as “with judicious editing, I think this book could have been fantastic”, or “toning down on the purple prose might make readers take their books more seriously”, but that’s merely me expressing my opinions on what would’ve made the book better — not an honest-to-goodness “suggestion” to the author. In fact, most of the time, I tend to forget that authors actually READ my reviews :-/

    I have quite a few authors contact me after a 4-Star or lower review, and the vast majority of them were wonderful. They contacted me privately rather than in comments on my review, and actually DISCUSSED with me the points I didn’t care for. In most cases, I’d missed the point they’d been trying to make (which they themselves usually say means that they needed to explain things better in future stories), or I’d pointed out something that they themselves had missed.

    However, I had one author, who had requested a review from me, BLAST me for it via email, for what I would consider to be a positive review — 3/5 Stars and IMHO quite balanced in the positive and negative points that I listed. The author, however, took it very personally and basically called me an idiot, because they’d received so many “5-star” reviews on Amazon that I MUST have read it wrong and not taken the time to really “consider” things. (And frankly, if you go look at their Amazon page? I’m pretty sure most of the 5-star reviews were from friends and family of the author).

    Let’s just say that while I was initially interested in seeing what the author was capable of in future works, her name has been stricken from my reading list permanently. I don’t have time to read the works of authors prone to diva-like temper-tantrums. 😉 I almost wish the author had done it publicly rather than via email, becuase she truly made herself out to look like a spoiled child rather than a professional writer, and I think other readers would’ve been just as disgusted with her as I was.

    Anyway, as a reader, I simply skip over the reviews that have such poor grammar that I can’t really understand them, or that simply say it was great or horrid without saying why. The snarky reviews though? I can honestly say I’ve bought quite a few books BECAUSE of the horrible, snarky, vulgar reviews — if for nothing more than to see if the book was truly as bad as the person says 😉 If the author had responded negatively though? I would’ve just assumed the book WAS that bad and moved on.

  5. This is a great topic. I agree that reviews are for readers. I suspect that as publishing continues to diversify across a wide variety of platforms, the importance of the reviewer as a guide will only increase.

    It’s true that we authors put our hearts on the page, and a bad review can really sting. One that is intentionally mean can just about drive you mad, but there is nothing to be gained and a great deal to lose by responding. At such times, the best thing you can do is log off the internet and go do something else for awhile. Like write the next book.

  6. You’ve all raised some good points. I agree that readers are smart enough to weed out the reviews from people who seem to have not read the book, especially those using the review to preach or condemn. And I don’t think most readers put much stock in the reviews that are obvious personal attacks on the author.

    As reviewers, we owe other readers our honest opinion, presented in a balanced way, and in a format that others can understand. I always try to stay objective about the story, and give my honest impressions, both good and bad. Some books come *this* close to the next higher rating, but I can’t quite put my finger on what keeps them from it, so I can’t explain that to other readers.

    A few times, I’ve declined to complete a review because the book was simply so bad that I felt I couldn’t give my honest opinion in a way that wouldn’t hurt the author. The last thing I want to do is publicly humiliate someone, especially after they’ve put so much of themselves out there. In those cases, almost invariably, the authors have asked for a private review or critique so they could see what my issues with the book were, and they’ve all been extremely professional and gracious.

  7. I agree that reviews are for reader, I use them to help me make my book buying choices and find the help invaluable. I do sometimes offer what I hope is constructive criticism , and I have on occasion highlighted what I felt were major errors in editing in a book. ( For instance in a recent read one of the characters name changed in the middle of the book and it was integral to the plot)

    However I have never had an angry author response to a review. I do enjoy when an author comments on my review, but I see your point in that their responses can easily be misconstrued I know I have seen many authors comment in interviews that they try to avoid reading reviews because they can illicit such emotional responses, making the author feel bad or even too good.

    Very insightful article. I will definitely keep it in mind when writing my future reviews!

    Thank you

  8. Pingback: How to write critical reviews; a skill every writer should learn. | Lemon City III

  9. Don’t respond. Ever. It’s really the only way. Don’t read them if you can’t take them. Or read them and move on. You have another book to write! 🙂

    • That’s very sound advice, even though, as a reviewer, I admit I like it when a writer stops by to thank me for reviewing her book. It just feels like a classy thing to do. But then, I’m Southern, and we thank everyone for everything. :0)

      • I usually thank the reviewer BEFORE – that is if s/he requested a free copy for review – no matter the outcome of the review. Once I thanked a reviewer after, offering more (free) reading if she enjoyed it, but haven’t heard from her again. Sigh.
        Otherwise, when I find reviews of people I don’t know – well, I could say I “like” them on Goodreads, but I don’t know… feels kind of forced! 😦
        Ah, the lost art of diplomacy! 🙂

      • In reply to Barb’s reply (gotta fix that 3 levels thing!)

        Diplomacy is definitely a lost art! Thanking before the review is a good idea, unless it might make the reviewer feel pressured to give a high rating. It wouldn’t me personally, but it might some people.

        The whole thing is a kind of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Like anything else in life, no matter what your policy, it simply isn’t going to please some people.

  10. The trickiest thing is that many of us wear multiple hats: reader, reviewer, writer. It helps to remember which one we’re wearing at a given moment. Certainly my experience as a writer informs the way I review (reading is Industrial Espionage for writers… but hey, we’re readers too, so it’s also Entertainment). For writers, the great thing about reviews is seeing readers respond as readers. Some people are going to hate it, and some people are going to love it, and some people are snarky bastards who love to trash stuff. Nonetheless, I like the fly-on-the-wall view. It helps to read reviews on other people’s work to realize that you’re not the only one… other writers get the same stuff.

    • Yes, keeping straight which hat we’re wearing at the moment is important, and can be extremely difficult. I’ve found, though, no matter if I’m reviewing, or writing, I’m still a reader first.

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  12. Even if it were a good idea to have a consensus of opinion on what reviews should or shouldn’t do, it would be impossible to enforce it. I suppose we could review the reviews and point fingers of blame. But what should a review of a review do? Should it provide constructive criticism for the reviewed reviewer, or should it advise readers on which reviews are worth reading?

    I rarely read reviews other than my own, and then only because I have a terrible memory and need to remind myself of what I’ve read.

    The reviews I enjoy writing most are of books by writers who are a million times more famous than I am. I usually give them a very hard time. I’m praying for the day one of them visits my blog and protests at my harsh and unfair judgments. Yes, my reviews are very often unfair, biased and, for all I know, ungrammatical.

    So what? Is Nabokov going break out of hell and incinerate my blog?

    • LOL, Vanessa!

      I suppose we could have “The Review Police” or “Review Enforcement Agency”, haha. Seriously, no one said anything about “enforcing” the consensus, if one even existed.

      Everyone here is simply expressing opinions and sharing experiences, not proposing some kind of arbitrary limitation on reviews, and not saying that reviews must meet some sort of standard of professionalism or grammatical perfection. I actually stated that reviewers are readers, and have various educational and professional backgrounds, implying that not all reviews will be perfectly written. Perhaps I should have been more clear with that.

      Kenra

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