Maybe we need to make a concerted effort to review some reviewers so they’ll either change, cheer up or shut up. Allow me to explain before you give this blog post a one-star review.
I’m in the home stretch in completing my crime novel and after a hard day sweating over a hot keyboard, I dip into my Kindle to unwind. As I search for new books to load up on, I find myself drawn to scan Amazon reviews. The sad truth is, I haven’t been reading the five-star or four-star reviews much. I’ve been clicking on the one-star reviews and reading with horror.
There are several reasons for my self-abusive behavior:
1. I’m looking for mistakes to avoid. Not all one-star reviews are wrong and I’m trying to glean the honest from the brutally honest. Some books are plain bad.
2. Cranky people can be funny sometimes. Sometimes on purpose. Just as villains can be more interesting to write than heroes, a bad review is often more interesting than a positive one…at least to write, possibly to read and, as far as achieving the purpose reviews are meant for? We’ll get to that in a moment. Hang in for the punch.
3. Five-star reviews tend to sound alike while the one-stars should be more interesting. This is the Anna Karenina/book review version of “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Generally, reading one-star reviews has proved a mistake because either it’s depressing or annoying. I should probably quit reading them. Or, we could review the reviewers in the hope they might improve just as they supposedly do for our betterment. That is the purpose, isn’t it? Or is it?
Hm. We’re writers. We should be able to do a better job than many reviewers at reviewing. Shouldn’t we?
With regard to point 1: The one-star reviewers often haven’t finished much of the book they’re reading and their criticisms are often inarticulate, too harsh or too vague. “Yuck” doesn’t inform anyone of anything except the reviewer might be a dim seven-year-old with a limited vocabulary and access to their parents’ Amazon account.
As far as point 2 goes, the hate comes through, but there’s not often a lot of creativity in the funny department. The problem is that too brutal a review isn’t a message conveyance system. It’s just a knife slashing from out of the darkness wielded by a bitter, blind assailant. Some reviewers offer such consistent patterns of hatred, I suspect they don’t enjoy reading but reviews are an outlet for problems that are traditionally worked out on a couch with the aid of powerful psychopharmaceuticals.
As for point 3: I was wrong and Anna Karenina was wrong. The hate sounds more alike than the all-out loving reviews. People love different aspects of a book but they repeat the same stuff that bothers them, often within the same one-paragraph review.
The Internet is mean because it’s anonymous. Some people mistake mean for being intelligent or funny. Nah, it’s often just mean and dumb. We keep hearing the rule “Don’t say anything on the Internet you wouldn’t say within bitch slapping distance.” It’s good advice crazy people don’t take.
Recently one of my books, Self-help for Stoners, got its first three-star review. (The others were four and five stars and wow did those make me happy!) The reviewer who gave that book three stars wasn’t in love with the drug use aspect of the book. Instead, he winced and I don’t think he meant metaphorically. I’m always intrigued how people react to that book because some have told me it’s anti-drug (Get off your ass, stoner!) and most assume it’s pro (What a wonderful world it could be. [insert trill of violins rising here] ) When people ask me straight out, I say it’s anti-censorship and pro-freedom but mostly it’s stories of suspense that challenge readers to draw their own conclusions.
Though it was a three-star review, the reviewer found a lot to love and respected the work enough to give it very thoughtful consideration that I appreciated. It was largely complimentary despite the aspects he disapproved of. That’s pretty decent and open-minded of him, don’t you think? Lots of people have three settings: love, hate and apathy. The mark of a good book review is an appreciation for nuance. Would I prefer unmitigated bouquets and cyber kisses? Of course, but it was still a good review from him and a good review for me. (In retrospect, I wish I’d sent him Sex, Death & Mind Control. He probably would have enjoyed that book more. The style has similarities and the subject matter is still suspenseful fun but there’s nothing there that could be considered advice.)
Which brings us back to those hateful one-star reviews. You know those little boxes that say: x number of y customers found this review helpful? Yes? No? I’ve been clicking “No” a lot lately. Too many of them are just too mean or uninformative or uninformed. If you think a review breaks the bitch-slapping guideline, click No. (Or click Yes if it was disapproving but helpful, funny, clever, civil or anything non-hateful and crazy.)
If you only gave the book five minutes or a few pages, you aren’t qualified to review it. Move on. (I don’t know how much of a book you have to read before you’re qualified to review it. 50%? 75% 100% including the ISBN? Hence the Question of the Day at the bottom of this post.)
If you couldn’t wait to delete it because it’s somehow digitally sullying your Kindle, okay, but very often these folks are really mad at a book that was free. I’m not suggesting a free book should be bad. I’m saying, let’s keep our rage in check and our world in perspective. You tried something and it cost you nothing but time and you didn’t really give it much of that, did you? I don’t waste time finishing a book that I don’t like. There are too many good books out there and life is too short to get all OCD with, “But I got it so I’m committed to this living hell now!” C’mon. Let it go.
Please read a sample before you buy: “I thought by the title that it would be a summer romance and it turned out to be borderline porn about a war between foot-fetishistic elves and fairy vampires! I’m pissed!” We are all the star of our own movie, but just because you hated it doesn’t mean the extras milling around at the back of your set wouldn’t enjoy it. Leave it for those foot-loving peons and weirdos. Stars should be gracious with the supporting cast.
Nastiness is forever, so please check yourself before you wreck somebody else. An ill-intentioned review could have real-world consequences. At best, you could dissuade someone from something that they could enjoy or maybe even love though you didn’t. At worst, you’re the one taking money away from some poor sod whose only crime is using too many adverbs. Ease up on the stick and don’t overshoot the runway.
What’s your motivation behind a bad review? A friend of mine has mentioned that once his book hit high rankings on Amazon, the nasty reviewers boiled out of the woodwork as if to make a point of taking him down a peg or two for having the audacity to do something that pleased a lot of other, happier people. Another author got a nasty review on her book which she suspected was payback from a writer who had asked for an honest critique and got one she didn’t like. (Warning to the petty and petulant: You don’t get help or even civility in the future if the word gets around that you’re a nit. This is the Internet. Word will get around.)
When you make a big deal about the book being a sub-standard work from an indie press, you’re smearing all hard-working, low-resource indies and dreamers with the same acid-tipped brush who are providing some grateful people with very inexpensive information and entertainment. That’s an ad hominem argument which is Latin for “Shut the $#@! up.”
Are you counting typos as you read? I recently mentioned a reviewer who said he liked a book but started off his review with the fact that he found five typos. If you can’t handle a book with five typos over 250 pages, we have a tank lined with cotton waiting that will protect you from the world. You’re too fragile for earth’s atmosphere. Once again, ease up, man! Many of us (most?) are doing all we can to prevent typos and as much as it may annoy you to find a mistake in someone else’s work, it kills writers to find it in our own books. (You can read a traditionally published book with as many typos. Lots of people hate that argument, so let’s try this tac: You can have a traditionally published book with (what you perceive) as no typos! Yay! You will, however, have to pay ten times more money for it. Deal? Deal.)
Authors: Please read the whole review and weigh it with due consideration. Just as we hope book reviewers will be civil, gentle and thoughtful and read enough to have a reasonably informed opinion, we should assess reviews individually before clicking that dismissive “No” button. Let’s not let our egos impair our journey to improvement. (If you figure out how to do this, please write me explaining how. I’ll do anything short of meditation, a word whose language root comes from a Latin phrase meaning “Boring as $#@!”
I do thank people for decent reviews. I don’t encourage anyone replying to a nasty review. We can legitimately use the “Was this review helpful?” buttons as they were intended without getting sucked into a black hole of bitterness. If you find yourself explaining why someone should love your book — my baby! my baby! — either you wrote something incomprehensible or they’re kind of dim. Either way, arguing is a waste of time. Use that time to instead write another (great!) book and accept that no one book is for everyone.
Try this: Take a book you love. Look up the best book you ever read! Read the reviews. See all those one-star reviews? Yeah, that’s what I mean.
Question of the Day: How much of a book do you read before you feel you can honestly review it? I welcome your (helpful) comments.