C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

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Who reviews the reviewers? You could.

The second generation Amazon Kindle, showing t...

The second generation Amazon Kindle, showing the book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Filed under: publishing, , , , , , , ,

28 Responses

  1. Excellent post! When it comes to reviewing a book, I personally I will not review unless I’ve read the entire book. If I can’t finish the book, then I won’t review it. It may just not be for me, but I don’t think it is fair to the author. If I review a book without reading it in its entirety, I may have actually enjoyed it more if I would have read it all.

    I too tend to read 1-star reviews first… and many times I just roll my eyes when the criticism is so harsh and usually very petty. I sometimes think, “This person must not have a lot of friends and is just angry with the world.” Other times, the review is very helpful and constructive. If the review attacks the author personally, I ignore it and move on.

    I enjoyed reading this post, my friend. Cheers!

  2. Chazz says:

    Thanks, Rob! I was just reading the comments on Armand’s blog about reviews. Very enlightening. One commenter suggested, tongue in cheek, that we simply refuse to read reviews. That would ease a lot of stress over nasty reviews, but I don’t know how anyone could resist the temptation, like when you get a bad tooth and you keep poking it with your tongue: “Ouch. Yeah, still hurts. Ouch. Yeah, still hurts. Ouch. Yeah, still hurts.” 🙂

    • LOL! Exactly! When I eventually get my first 1 star review (bound to happen… only have two so far), I’ve heard that it’s best to not take it personal and try to learn from it, but if it’s just slamming you personally, ignore it and DO NOT reply. Don’t take the bait.

  3. Although I understand that some people skip the review if they don’t finish the book, I don’t think this approach works all the time. After giving it the good college try, if there are just too many mistakes, I could see giving a one star review for a book I just couldn’t finish. It would be my duty to inform … tactfully, expounding the mistakes accurately. On the flip side, I don’t think just reading a few pages works either. You need to give it a good read. Percentage? I don’t know. If I’m ready to throw the book across the room at around half way, it might be time to stop.

    I’ve yet to give a one star review because I haven’t found a book that bad. The worst I have given is 3 stars, though it was on the low end—possibly could have been a 2. I tend to rate higher than the average reviewer. I can look past mistakes of all kinds as long as I am still enjoying the book. Of course, I choose which books I read very carefully. No sense in reading something that I will most likely hate.

    Keeping a tally of typos/mistakes seems a little harsh. I do notice them and will mention the notorious ones in the review but usually only if it occurs nearly every page (which is sort of a tally but a little bit more forgiving).

  4. Oh, and I think reviewing the reviewers is a good idea. Come judge us anytime. We take our reviews very seriously. If we are doing something wrong, I want to know about it.

    • Chazz says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not too worried about reasonable people in the mainstream of reviews. The boneheads seem to cluster around that dreaded one-star rating.

  5. Layla says:

    I always turn to one and two star reviews when scanning books to buy, and, yeah, some of them are just plain mean. I shudder to think how the author feels reading them, but you’re right, most of those reviewers probably didn’t finish the book or even get more thna a chapter or two into it before they went bashing.

    As for your question, I never feel qualified to review a book unless I actually finish it. I suppose if you slog through 75% of it, you should have a clear enough view to comment on it, but it just doesn’t feel right to me. Especially since I know how much time and effort goes into writing a book; the least you can do is read the whole thing before trashing it with a bad review.

    My only exception to this would be if the book were so poorly written, in terms of grammar, syntax, etc, that it’s unreadable; at that point I think it’s our duty to warn other people about it.

    Great post!

    • Chazz says:

      Thanks! I’m rarely moved to review books I’m not very enthusiastic about. My motivation runs to hoping to share something great instead of tearing something down. If a book deserves a one-star review, bothering to rate it seems like losing more time to a poor experience. I’m not saying no one should leave a bad review. I get that some reviewers want to warn others off as a service to readers. However, for me, I’m more likely to share something I love in the hope that others will find it, too.

  6. kimbervale says:

    On the flip side, as an author I avoid writing bad reviews. I leave a review for books I enjoyed, but feel that my hands are tied when it comes to speaking out about books that were poorly written/edited, etc. It doesn’t behoove me to leave a one or two star and offend fellow authors or alienate their publishing houses. In some cases, I wish I could warn other readers, especially if I bought a book with rave reviews and it turned out to be a complete dud. Why didn’t someone leave the review I wanted to write to keep me from wasting time and money?

    I like your plan to click the helpful or not button. I’ll try to use it more freely in the future.

    I, like you, tend to gravitate toward the negatives as well. Maybe I’m a pessimist, but I am leery of the books with nothing but glowing recommendations. There are too many ways for people to screw with the system and I frequently get the uncomfortable sensation that smoke is being blown where the sun don’t shine. True, there are malicious people out there, but sometimes I think there are more false positives than negatives.

    • Chazz says:

      You could be right about some false positives, but maybe it’s just that people discover books in a different way than they used to. It’s a social media, one-to-one market so if you found my book among the thousands, it might be because you had some sort of interaction with me. When you know someone on some level, even just the cyber level, you’re less likely to go at them with a tire iron in a review. Authors are more out there than ever, so more reviewers see us as humans with feelings standing behind our work instead of something off a shelf without connection. Also, because I only leave positive reviews (see my comment above this one), I suppose some might consider my reviews suspect even though they are genuine. (Promise! If I don’t like it, I don’t review it and chalk up my instinctual aversion to the illusion of free will and the isolating subjectivity of the universe.)

      We routinely solicit reviews in the hope that others will find us, but it’s not a nefarious plan to load the deck. I often ask for reviews to grab some social credibility and to claw my way out of obscurity. What surprised me was how hard getting reviews can be. I *wish* it were that easy to get friends and family to write happy reviews! In my experience, getting someone to leave a review is like pulling teeth with toothpicks. Most readers just read books and though may even love the work, they aren’t into writing reviews.

      I’ve railed against the cranky one-star, but from my reading of reviews, you’re right, it seems some don’t trust the five-star reviews. Some even think that, because they didn’t enjoy a book, the happy reviews *must* arise from some sort of conspiracy among authors and their friends. I just read a one-star that claimed all the five-stars came from the author’s network of conspirators, but there were more than a hundred happy reviews. No one has that many family and friends willing to write a BS review. I go to family reunions for the fights and I don’t have that many friends, period.

      The danger of cynicism and disbelief is that we miss something good. Sure, we might get suckered by false positives sometimes, but I think the solid reviews outweigh the bad and if we read the samples — like a buyer whose alert level is set on “Beware” — we mitigate the risks to our time and money almost entirely.

      Thanks for reading and commenting! Your thoughts helped me clarify my thoughts.

  7. Glynis Smy says:

    Brilliant post. I am about to launch my debut and have bought myself a flackjacket! I too read the one star reviews in order to learn. What I have learned so far is there are some cranky, mean folk who only read two chapters of free books!

    • Chazz says:

      Gird those loins, Glynis! As I mentioned in the post, one-star reviews aren’t just the cost to the writer of a bad book. One-star reviews can also be the reward for being awesome. (There are many parallels outside of art, I suppose: People who get promoted get more money but much more work and heavy responsibility; You can diet and exercise and receive the gift of longevity but for the added years you can also get shrivelled up, live in diapers and have joints that people can hear from across the street.) After giving it some thought since last night, I think I’ll read more three-star reviews. I suspect we might learn more from them.


  8. I honestly don’t write bad reviews. If I don’t like a book, I leave it alone. Perhaps that’s not doing readers a service, but as a writer I just have too much compassion to publicly bash another.

    Ironically, I also think some people who review don’t understand the rating system. One of the best Amazon reviews I ever received was rated at 3-stars. The woman loved the book and had nothing but praise for it. I never understood her reasoning with the 3-stars.

    Then there are the people who criticize books for the strangest reasons. One of my adult paranormal thrillers received a low rating because “there was too much sexual content for young teens.” Um, it wasn’t written for a YA audience. I wanted to address her complaint, but wisely refrained from doing so.

    When I am curious about a book I read both the good and bad reviews and look for common themes among them. Then I read a sample. Then I take my chances. I also try to remind myself that art is totally subjective.

    Great blog post, as usual! I rate this one 5-stars!

    • Chazz says:

      Interesting. I read somewhere recently (I think it was on The Taleist) that there should be some exceptions to the Don’t Reply to Bad Reviews Rule. So, with errors of fact, the argument was that authors should be entitled to defend their books where non-subjective factual errors were spread in the review. I haven’t done that myself. I’m too much of a delicate doily, but I can see some circumstances where a reply could be called for. I’m with you on the non-bashing guideline. I started to write a lukewarm review once but deleted it before publishing it. It felt wrong, like taking a chainsaw to a baby. You gotta let those little things grow up to be serial killers before you can do that with a clear conscience. (Or mimes. You know how I feel about mimes.)

  9. I got my first one-star review the other day. It was a really terrible feeling. On the other hand, the reviewer was so unrelentingly negative (the review was this: “This book was a stupid waste of time.” That’s it) there wasn’t much for me to react to. Clearly, they didn’t like the book and it wasn’t their thing.
    To make myself feel better, I did what you suggest in this post — I looked up books I loved and read the 1 star reviews. And it was a great experience. It’s proof positive that not every book is for every person.
    And it’s also proof of this: some people are just assholes and hate stuff no matter what. Today, for example, I read the Amazon reviews for Stephen King’s “The Wind Through the Keyhole,” a book that has been out for a little over 24 hours. He already has 1 star reviews, including from some people who a) clearly didn’t read the book and b) wish King had died in his car crash. You see what I mean? Assholes.

  10. Chazz says:

    Wow. Really? Since king’s hardcover comes in at 320 pages, it’s hard to imagine the one-star reviewer read it at all much less gave it due consideration. Haters gotta hate because that’s all they do, I guess. You’re reinforcing my already dim worldview of my fellow humans, Rob!

    I didn’t mention it in the post (which already runs way too long, so blind was my rage) but beside each review there’s another useful button we could use. “Report abuse.”

    I’ve only clicked the “No, this review wasn’t helpful” button, but your comment reminded me that I’ve seen some one-star reviews that deserved to be reported. Frankly, it hadn’t occurred to me to exercise that Report Abuse option in defence of my fellow authors until now. I’ll put that defensive weapon in my sling, too, when next I hunt the Amazon forest.

    Thanks for the spark, man!

    • I’ve noticed the button and used it in defense of fellow indies before. Mostly when the 1 star rating is just egregious. If they’ve read the book and don’t like it, fine — I leave it alone. But if the review feels mean-spirited or downright nasty, then I will click.
      Again, I would never do this to a legitimate bad review. I think we can all see the difference.
      On your other point, I’ve noticed growing skepticism of 5-star reviews. It’s really crazy. I saw someone accuse somebody with 200 5-star reviews of being on the “friends and family” plan. As if. I think people have no idea how hard it is to get reviews at all.

      • Chazz says:

        Valid, sir! I think I’ve seen that same review. The author I’m thinking of did comment on the bad review, but was very tactful about it and basically said that it’s subjective. Some people seem to want an apology for reading something they didn’t like, which gets weirder the longer I think about it.

  11. patricefitzgerald says:

    Great post… I found this when you linked to it on Twitter. Good food for thought.

    Somewhere I read a list of terrible one-star reviews for classic books. That cheered me up. I have very few one-stars (3, but who’s counting? Me, that’s who!) The first one hurt a lot, and now I shrug them off. They do seem to come only from readers who get the book for free. Geez. I think they’re mad about wasting their “free” time — but what about my giving away my years of effort in learning the craft and writing a good book — all for them, for nothing?

    • Chazz says:

      Wow. That’s interesting, Patrice! When I worked in the service industry, I found that people who came in on some kind of discount coupon or charity deal were often the clients who came across as the most demanding, entitled pains in the ass. Seems there might be a common thread there.

  12. This is definitely one of the downsides of the world wide web. Flamers and bullies abound, finally given a forum for their vitriol. Unfortunately, the book world isn’t exempt from this phenomenon. Some people like to be mean. It’s really that simple, and that sad. I posted about this on my blog earlier this week: Don’t Feed the Trolls. Curiously, while it’s had lots of readers, no one has commented yet. I think authors have been cowed by the admonition to ignore bad reviews that they are avoiding the issue altogether. But it does matter when civility vacates the commons, and this worth discussing. Great post.

  13. Dalya Moon says:

    I like how you describe reading your low-star reviews as “self-abusive behavior.” I’ve had a few that actually made me laugh, because sometimes they are amusing. Occasionally, people exhibit a … um … lack of connection to reality? I really can’t say more, or I’m part of the problem. 😉

    The first few critical ones are truly the worst, though. Maybe there will be other low points in your writing career, but the first couple 1-stars are a shock to the system.

    Hang in there! Step away from Goodreads until your skin has been thickened by a few books’ experience! 🙂

    • Chazz says:

      Actually I haven’t had any one-star reviews yet personally. I’ve been clicking the “not helpful” button in defence of other authors and I used the Report Abuse button for the first time yesterday. It was well-deserved. The review gave away the end of a novel without warning. Without a spoiler alert, that’s inexcusable in a review. I’ve got an author profile on Goodreads, but I’m not particularly active on there. Amazon reviews seem to be a much more active and interactive experience of late.

  14. Chazz says:

    Addendum: I personally don’t believe in the thickening of skins, at least not for many. I planned a post on that for next week, but the shortcut is that for most people, skin doesn’t thicken. It gets raw. I’ll save that for next week.

  15. Chazz says:

    🙂 Thanks Dalya. Those one-stars are, like Arnold says in Judgement Day, “inevitable,” at least eventually. (I even anticipated that I might get some out of petty vengeance for daring to write this post.) However, rationality will show through from the real readers. “No fate but what we make.”

  16. walldi says:

    I have left a few negative reviews but I have to be moved to do it. I do read the whole book, and usually try to find something I like about it. The title of one of my reviews was “I have a love/hate relationship with this book” because I loved the plot but the author thought so little of themselves that they didn’t take the time to proof it or have someone help them do it. Thus it became almost unreadable. I also got lambasted by someone for posting a negative review of a rather well known author.
    So as a person who reviews, I am glad to see at least one author who reads them and takes them seriously.

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