Reading Reviews: It’s Complicated

There are as many approaches to dealing with reviews as there are writers, ranging from the diehards who don’t read their reviews, ever, to the snowflakes among us who turn into sad, quivering puddles at the sight of the dreaded single star. (As a former snowflake, I resemble that remark.)

Many businesses when it comes to the online review world will get online reviews to try and prevent negative reviews having any impact on their business, but how do we manage this when it comes to books?

Book reviews fall into several categories:

–Good (Loved it!!!! Five Stars!!!)

–Bad (“Horrible!! wish I hadn’t read it.”)

–Meh (or what I like to call damned by faint praise)

–Irrelevant Content

–All About the Reviewer

–Actionable

The Good Review

Everyone loves a good review from TrustRadius (except your enemies). It feeds the ego of the little kid inside of us who trudged home from school clutching a hand-loomed potholder, desperate to hear that it was the BEST POTHOLDER IN THE WORLD! We’re adults now, of course. We are mature professionals who understand that a job well done is still just a job, and while we humbly tell ourselves that there are probablydefinitelycertainly things we could have done better, somebody thinks it’s the BEST POTHOLDER BOOK IN THE WORLD!

The Bad Review

Only true masochists enjoy getting bad reviews. I’m skeptical of writers who proclaim that they pay close attention to their worst reviews, saying they learn a lot from them. The most important thing to learn here is that not everybody is going to like our potholders books, in the same way not everyone is going to like you or me. This is when it’s important to remember that you are not your work. Though as artists (or craftspeople) our identities heavily influence our work, our work is a separate entity. Even if it’s a memoir.

The Meh Review

In some ways, the meh* reviews are the most frustrating. I would almost rather have a sharp, declarative bad review because the meh review is the participation trophy of the review world. A two or three star meh review means that the reader wasn’t much moved by the work. I want a decisive reaction, not a plot summary with a complaint or two about stereotypical characters or questionable geography. I feel like I haven’t done my job if I haven’t polarized and energized a few readers one way or the other.

*I found a 3-star review for Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises titled Meh: “Meh. Concise. Not much happens. It’s about postwar drunks dishonest with reality. Why does Amazon have a min word count on review?”

The Irrelevant Content Review

Ah, the Irrelevant Content review. This type of review is pretty much restricted to online purchases. Should a “Received in a timely manner as advertised” review award four stars or five? Tough call.

The All About the Reviewer Review

All About the Reviewer reviews can be a lot of fun. These reviews are for…other reviewers! Back in the day (and now occasionally in the New York Review of Books) there were many actual book critics who spent their time explaining books by connecting their cultural context and literary significance. Good critics were well versed in their specialties and liked to show it. The wittiest ones were often cheerfully savage and careers were made or hearts were broken. Now, the standard All About the Reviewer review is an extensive book report written for the reviewer’s memory of their favorite high school English teacher. I may seem to be poking fun, but these are the most useful reviews to people who are trying to decide whether to buy/read a book. They’re often thoughtful, complete, and nearly always earnest.

The Actionable Review

The Actionable review needs to be dealt with by the entity that published it or allowed it to be published. Actionable reviews are often ad hominem attacks that are meant to both draw attention to the reviewer and provoke the writer, i.e. “Ms. Author is a moral reprobate who hates babies and blinds puppies!” Here again it’s important for a writer to remember that they are not their work. Any reviewer is within their rights to express opinions about the work, but it’s not okay for them to abuse the writer.

I’m sure you can think of many other kinds of reviews. Feel free to chime in below.

I took a lighthearted approach to describing types of reviews because the subject can be a loaded, painful one. Our work is out there for everyone to see. To judge. To like or dislike.

Whenever I’m tempted to read reviews of my work, I keep in mind what my very first writing teacher told me: “You don’t get to look over your reader’s shoulder and explain your work. It is what it is.” That’s it. It’s out on paper or online (or shared with your workshop or writing group or significant other) and it must stand on its own. Sometimes it’s going to wobble, and sometimes someone is going to point out where you screwed up. That’s the way of sending work out into the world. The sending out has to be its own reward because there are no guarantees once it’s done.

If you’re not one of the stalwart writers who can confidently take anything a reviewer throws at you, pause a moment before you sit down to read your reviews at Goodreads or Amazon or anywhere else and ask yourself a few questions:

Am I looking for approbation? If so, then go ask your mom or spouse or bff what they think of your work, because while you might find some solace in reviews, you’re going to find a lot of other things that are nothing like approbation.

Am I being tempted to look at reviews by my overbearing inner critic? This is your own resistance trying to keep you from your work. Your inner critic will skim over all the nice things it reads and zero in on the negative comments. These are the ones that will stay with you when you sit down to write.

Am I willing to give equal weight to both the negative and positive reviews? This is related to the inner critic question. If you believe all the bad stuff, then you might as well believe all the good stuff, too. And vice versa.

Is there critical information that will help me become a better writer? This is a tricky one. Sure, there may be some clues in there, but if your goal truly is to become a better writer, then find a good editor and pay them to tell you what needs to change. Good editors rarely spend their time giving away their advice for free in reviews.

If I read my reviews, am I likely to be motivated to put my backside in the chair and write my thousand words today when I’m done? For me, this answer is always a resounding no. Your experience may be different. If someone writes to me and tells me how much they like my work, I sail away to my keyboard on Cloud Nine, but I’ve never felt that way after reading a review. And reading negative reviews can knock me off my schedule for days. Sometimes weeks.

My relationship with reviews has evolved significantly over the past decade. At the beginning I approached even Amazon reviews with reverence and fear. My attitude was funny given that I reviewed for a newspaper for ten years. I knew how subjective reviews were. Much depends on the reviewer’s workload, tastes, and expectations. But I couldn’t get past the kid waving the potholder for several years. I wanted everyone to love my work! And if they didn’t, I spent a lot of time worrying that there was something wrong with it.

I can’t pinpoint when I changed. Somewhere along the line I stopped having expectations of the people who—often very kindly—bothered to take the time to write down what they liked, or didn’t like, about my work. I turned my concentration to my characters, making them more human, even occasionally sympathetic. That was what I could control. Now, months can go by and I don’t even know about new reviews that have gone up.

There’s so much more to be said about reviews. What is your approach to reading them? How has it changed over your career? If you don’t have reviews yet, how do you handle criticism from the people you share your work with?

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

34 thoughts on “Reading Reviews: It’s Complicated

  1. I revel in the five star rankings, mourn the one stars, but try to determine if the reviewer was reviewing the book itself (especially for the lower rankings) or picking on one aspect (or even on sentence) that made them less than ecstatic about the read. I have a new series, and some readers are coming to the books with the expectation that it will be the ‘same’ as my other series. It’s not, and they’re disappointed. I even went so far as to hire a difference cover artist known for her romance covers to indicate up front this is going to be more romance, although it’s still billed as romantic suspense. One reader reviewer didn’t like the cooking scenes, although the heroine was a cook running a cooking school. She labeled her review “horrible” and said she deleted it from her Kindle. Ouch!

    I, for one, don’t like book report reviews, since I can get all that from the description and I hate spoilers. But if they convince others to buy books, I’ll accept them.

    My “peeve” about the star system is that people leaving reviews use their own systems, not the ones suggested by the sites. I know someone who feels that 3 stars is glowing praise and rarely gives anything higher.

    I was playing Candy Crush the other day (Damn Microsoft for including it as a freebie in Windows 10) and noticed the stars for points are laid out differently for different levels. For some, it’s easy to get 1 star, but the 2 and 3 levels are way up there. Others, the stars are more evenly spaced. Sometimes that 1 star requires a major number of points.

    And what was I supposed to be writing in this comment? Mayhap I got carried away.

    • Terry, I hope your new series draws many, many new readers who will obviate the few who are confused. That’s a tough situation.

      Great point about people using their own systems, rather than suggested ones. I’m always puzzled when someone leaves a glowing review and then gives three stars. Fortunately it’s generally understood that three stars on Goodreads might be a four or even five on Amazon.

      Crush that candy!

  2. I almost never read my reviews unless my publicist sends them to me–and if she sends them, they must be good. 🙂 And I really avoid the review section on Amazon for my books.

  3. Laura, we’ve all been drawn into and spit out of the read reviews/don’t read reviews cycle. I’ve eventually reached the point that a good review doesn’t send me over the moon and a bad one doesn’t put me into clinical depression. I will, however, read them every once in a while in order to see if there’s something I need to address for the next book. Other than that, the sales figures constitute the “reviews” that count. Thanks for the post.

  4. There’s also the Spoiler Review, especially vexing for mystery and thriller writers. “Great book! The doctor is also dead! I never saw that coming!”

    And then there are the reviews that clearly violate Amazon’s own guidelines … which for some strange reason Amazon refuses to remove. Like the 1-star review that, in its entirety, says, “I never received this book on my Kindle.” Um, that is not a review of the content. It is a delivery problem, which Amazon says is out-of-bounds for reviews. Yet when pointed out, the review stays … so odd.

    • Yes! I totally forgot the Spoiler Review. (I also originally said there were five types because it was, um, late. But it’s changed now.) I don’t know why people do that, unless they just don’t know any better. There have been times when I seek out spoilers, but no one likes to be surprised by them.

      Amazon doesn’t show any real consistency when it comes to removing reviews. And when they do make a change it never seems to be in the writer’s favor.

  5. One thing I forgot to mention is (especially for indie authors), the advertising/promotion newsletters like BookBub or Ereader News Today, etc., require a minimum number of reviews with a minimum ranking average before they’ll consider the book for a promotional spot.

  6. As you say, there are reviews you don’t need as an author. The people who are only in it to show off their creativity in how to bash others is so worthless that I do wonder why some editors don’t ask them to rewrite. Even the worst of experiences deserve at least a fair description of what they can improve. The effort made in producing a book merits a bit of respect. Especially given the fact that most reviewers haven’t written any books themselves, and therefore can’t really ‘see’ what is involved from thought and idea all the way to finished product.

    • You bring up some excellent points, Henrik. Some reviews are downright uncivil. But that’s sadly true of so much of our online discourse. Reviews attached to publications or institutions are usually more restrained because there is a degree of accountability. At major online retailers that carry all kinds of merchandise, books are often treated as just another consumer item, and a person might review a book with the same sincerity with which they’ve just reviewed Ghostbuster Twinkies.

      One of my pet peeves is with reviewers who slam a book but don’t bother to say why they didn’t like it. The Bad Review link I posted above even has a comment from someone asking the reviewer to be more specific. I wanted to cheer when I saw that.

  7. I don’t yet have to deal with reviews, but if I did, I would most likely take the approach that Richard does above–periodically checking them out to see what I can learn from them. I can see how easy it would be to fall into the trap of obsessively reading reviews—and ending up in a tailspin.

    I would likely approach reviews the same as I do crits. If a critiquer says something to the effect of “This scene didn’t work for me,” it’s an utterly useless crit. If they say it didn’t work and they tell me WHY, then that is something I can use.

    I think sometimes writers undervalue or overstate the problem with reviews. Are there some knucklehead reviewers out there? Most certainly. But a great many people try to provide feedback in their own genuine way.

    And there’s one other aspect to consider–to me it’s a far more telling thing if a book is out there and doesn’t have ANY reviews–good, bad or indifferent. It may not be a problem with the author other than they don’t know how to reach out and market, but the impression it gives is “Hey, this book is so lame no one could even bother to post a “it was delivered on time” review.” I would think that would sting more than an unfavorable review.

    • Hi, BK. Those first few days waiting for a review–any review–can be nailbiters. There is that worry that no one will care enough to post a review. The sting is real.

      When you start receiving your own reviews I hope you’ll tell us if your approach turns out to be as you predicted. It’s a good idea to give yourself guidelines, and you sound prepared!

  8. I agree with Jim on the spoiler review. That makes me cringe more than anything else because it ruins the reading experience for future readers. Most reviewers do a good job of enticing a potential reader with their story summary but with the online book jacket copy, there isn’t much need for a summary of a story, especially if that is the only focus of the review. Reviewers who only summarize the story don’t have an appreciation for subtle mystery elements or twists and often reveal far too much.

    I once had a reader give a 1 star review on one of my books because another reviewer gave too much away on their review. That’s not fair to me but it makes the point that reviews can be punitive for reasons beyond your control.

    I remember awhile back where leading authors became magnets for 1 star reviews because of pricing disputes with the publishers. An author can only hope that readers will read between the lines of reviews like that and select their book for other reasons.

    • What a nightmare, JD. I can’t believe a reviewer downgraded your book because of someone else’s review. Isn’t that what comment sections are for? Both Amazon and Goodreads allow comments on reviews. Did you protest it?

      As I wrote to Henrik, I think many people have come to view books as consumer items, so it doesn’t surprise me that authors are caught in the frenzied dance between reader and vendor and publisher.

      • No. I never tried to protest it or get it changed. Sometimes making a thing of it, as an author, brings more unwarranted abuse. I’ve just developed a thick skin and don’t plan on driving myself crazier than usual over something like this. Not worth the aggrevation.

  9. If I’ve read far enough into a book to want to finish, that’s when I give a review. That means I liked it enough for a rating and that’s why I rarely rate below a four star.
    I always read the “look inside,” and that’s what hooks me into wanting to read a book.

    • Hi, Annie! I try to remember to remind folks that the “Read Inside” feature is available, even if they don’t want to buy from that website. Then I also put extensive excerpts from my books on my own website. As a reader, I find sneak peeks invaluable.

      Your review approach is very encouraging and positive. Love it!

    • If you give a review before you finish the book, what do you do then when the wheels fall off at the 80% mark? I’m seeing a pattern with some books I read and enjoy. I boob along, liking the book, making note of things I want to mention in the review. And then something happens near the end, about the 80% mark. I’m not a writer, so I don’t know what it is, but it feels to me, as the reader, that the writer loses interest, or feels pressure to finish, or something else, and the book falls apart or feels a rush to wrap it up.

      Do you go back and revise your review? It’s because of this that I never publish a review before I’ve finished the book. I feel so let down when this happens, almost as if the writer has been carrying me along in a wonderful flight through this fictional world, and then I’m dropped on my head.

  10. I don’t read reviews, especially if I’m in the middle of writing another book because I know they’ll get in my head. So I just don’t. The other day, one of my oldest friends sent me a Facebook message about a less than stellar review on Amazon: “I know you don’t like to read reviews, but there is one guy on Amazon who’s being a little stinky. I felt I had to respond. Now aren’t you a little bit curious?” No. No, I’m not. And stop being so helpful.

  11. Amanda, hi! So glad you dropped by.

    Why do people feel compelled to do that? I don’t understand. Obviously she really did think she was being helpful. It was nice of her to respond. But still. Ugh.

    It’s like when people try to share bad food: “Here. This is awful. Taste it.”

    Good for you staying strong and staying away!

  12. I try to consider the source, though I don’t always succeed. Naturally any reviewer who gives my books a rave review is a person of vision and taste, and the scumbags who one-star them are too dumb to write their names, much less review books. Seriously, I have paid attention to legitimate criticism made by reviewers I respect, such as Oline Cogdill. She was correct and I didn’t do what she’d objected to in any other books. And all bad reviews hurt, no matter how hard I try to convince myself otherwise.

    • Ha! You made me laugh, Elaine. It is refreshing to read solid, professional criticism, and Oline Cogdill is a great example. Thanks for your honesty. I agree. Bad reviews hurt.

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  15. I love this. I am one of those who does read reviews, especially int he first week after release. I can’t seem to help myself. But I rarely let it get to me. I do think if you believe the bad, which is our tendency, that you must believe the good, as well, which generally far outweigh the former.

    • That part about the good generally outweighing the bad is nearly always true, but hard to realize. Your equanimity when it comes to reviews has been a great example for me. I hardly ever cry anymore. ; )

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