Book Reviews:  Are They Useful to Writers?

“Don’t read your reviews.” “Don’t read your reviews.” I had the same advice given to me twice by two different writer acquaintances. Both are million-plus sellers, and both are people I highly respect. Despite their experience and financial success, I don’t necessarily know if they’re right about this. That leads me to this rant post about book reviews and the question of ‘are they useful to writers’.

At their core, book reviews are sales tools. Publishers have long promoted good reviews as social proof of a book’s value. They want to positively influence readers to buy a copy. That leads to the issue of why expose negative reviews when they probably hurt sales, but that’s for a different philosophical discussion.

The problem with book reviews, as I see it, is subjectivity. Reviews are based on the reviewer’s opinion. Reviewers are readers, and readers have an enormous variety of takes, tastes, and tolerances. What is a good read to one may be bad to another.

I suppose an objective review would be thoughtful and helpful. It does no good for a writer to be lavishly praised or mercilessly trashed without the reviewer stating why they liked or disliked the work. We, as writers, learn from our work, and constructive criticism or accurate feedback is a wonderful learning tool.

I have to say I’m a bad reviewer. I don’t mean I leave bad reviews. (I won’t write a review if I can’t say something positive—that’s my nice guy nature). I mean, I rarely leave even a good review after I finish a book, and that makes me a hypocrite when I ask readers to leave a review on my publications.

Back to subjectively. We writers are readers, too, with personal likes and dislikes. When it comes to reading genre fiction, I’m on Team King, not Team Patterson. In my subjective opinion, Stephen King blows James Patterson out of the water when it comes to talented storytelling. However, I understand Patterson makes more money selling books than King, so who’s the better writer?

Not everybody likes J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series. I read there are nearly 200,000 one-star Harry Potter reviews on GoodReads. Twilight  apparently got eviscerated over there. So did Fifty Shades. Even Garry Rodgers takes the odd dart in the eye on the GR site.

Speaking of me, let’s see how I’ve fared on Amazon. I’ve worn everything from the crown of honor to the cone of shame. Here’s a review snapshot of my book In The Attic which has 262 Amazon reviews (ratings) that average 4.2 on the 5-Star scale. 51% are 5, 29% are 4, 15% are 3, 1% are 2, and 4% of my reviewers (raters or haters) think I suck and awarded me a 1-Star.

But what do these Amazon stars actually mean? GoodReads uses a 5-Star rating system, too. I haven’t looked under that bridge in over two years, but out of curiosity for this post, I checked the Amazon-affiliate site. GoodReads has 184 hits on In The Attic, and they give it an average of 3.77 out of a possible 5.0.

I Googled around and found a subjective article titled How Are Product Star Ratings Calculated? The author tells me that Amazon is more generous than GoodReads when it comes to the stars aligning. Here’s how the writer says Amazon and GoodReads interpret ratings:

5 Stars — On AZ “I love it.” On GR “It was amazing.”
4 Stars — On AZ “I like it.” On GR “Really like it.”
3 Stars — On AZ “It’s okay.” On GR “Liked it.”
2 Stars — On AZ “I don’t like it.” On GR “It was okay.”
1 Star   — On AZ “I hate it.” On GR “Did not like it.”

I found another piece where the contributor equated star rating to a school report:

5 Stars — B+ to A
4 Stars — C+ to B
3 Stars — C to C-
2 Stars — D or D-
1 Star   — F for Fail

Fair enough. The star rating is obviously subjective. What about written reviews? Is this where the rubber meets the road and we writers can find useful criticism? Let’s look at In The Attic again and take the ice cream with the ugly sweaters. At least the way Amazon sees it.

Reviewed in the United Kingdom on November 25, 2020
***** Brilliant story.

Reviewed in the United States on January 5, 2020
* Horrible. The worst book I have ever read, I tried to like it but could not get past the first few chapters. This is the only book (in my life) I could not finish.

Reviewed in the United States on May 13, 2020
***** Caveat: This is not for the faint of heart. And that it is a true story just blows my mind. The author does not lie about the content being graphic. If you are prone to nightmares, this is a warning. I literally prayed last night that I would not have a nightmare (thankfully, I did not).

Reviewed in the United Kingdom on June 26, 2020
* All I can say is thank goodness I didn’t pay for this book. Author wasted many chapters on absolute rubbish. At least I know not to read any more from him. A true story but he so missed the mark and could have had a winner if told only from his perspective. Sorry but true.

Reviewed in the United States on September 10, 2020
*** Mr. Rodgers, are you are (sp) of your subject matter? And that it’s based on TRUE events? Sir, only true psychopaths would get decent entertainment value from this book. (I just needed to point this out while I remembered!).

One tool every writer needs is a hide thickener. We can’t always get ego-praising, “If I could give it 10 stars, I would” reviews as one reader left for me. We have to endure comments such as, “Never have I given a bad report on a book because it really is a huge undertaking and hard work for the author… but THIS book… OMGosh…talk about sensational drivel. I’m speechless. Most of it was hard core fluff to fill out a book that should have been 30 pages instead of 155, with sexual content jabber, sensationalism, and …well…let’s just say Do yourself a favor and pass this one by. Or…go ahead and read it and then hit yourself in the forehead for not paying attention to an honest one star rating. Sorry, author…. “I wish I hadn’t….” I’m sure your other books are better.”

The problem with reviews like these, good-neutral-bad, is they’re not particularly useful to improve my craft. I want to know why my writing is brilliant on one hand and horrible on the other. Why do I appeal to psychopaths and blow people’s minds? How is it my senseless drivel leaves a reader speechless? A little elaboration would be handy.

I know the trolls are out there. I also recognize a butt-kisser, and that goes with travelling in writing country. As an online crime writer, I’ve had everything from marriage proposals to death threats (not joking). By the way, In The Attic is 167 pages and contains no hardcore sexual stuff. The reviewer must have read a different In The Attic.

I’m still early in my writing travels. I might be a “C or D” on the popularity list, and I have no problem with honest criticism that’s meant to be helpful instead of hurtful. It’s somewhat comforting to know that A-listers who’ve gone before me have worn sweaters uglier than my driver’s license photo. Here are some slams I found on the net:

On Herman Melville and Moby DickSheer moonstruck lunacy.

On J.D. Salinger and Catcher In The RyeThe greatest mind ever to stay in prep school.

On George Moore’s work — He leads his readers to the latrine and locks them in.

By Samuel Johnson to an aspiring writer — Your book is both good and original. Unfortunately, the parts that are original are not good, and the parts that are good are not original.

On James A, Michener and ChesapeakeTwo recommendations. First, don’t buy the book. Second, if you do buy the book, don’t drop it on your foot.

By Randall James on a poetry book — This reads like it was written on a typewriter—by a typewriter.

By Mark Twain on Henry James — Once you’ve put down one of his books, you simply can’t pick it up again.

By Oscar Wilde on George Meredith — As a writer he has mastered everything except language; as novelist he can do everything except tell a story; as an artist he is everything except articulate.

How about you folks on the Kill Zone? Do you read your book reviews, and are book reviews useful to writers?

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner responsible for investigating unnatural and unexplained deaths. Now, Garry is a crime writer and indie publisher working on a based-on-true-crime series. His seventh book in the collection, Beyond The Limits, is coming out this month on Amazon, Kobo, and Nook.

Garry Rodgers lives on Vancouver Island at Canada’s left coast. When not writing, Garry putts around the Pacific Ocean and drinks boxed wine—not necessarily at the same time. Check out DyingWords.net (Garry’s blog & website) and follow him on Twitter.

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39 thoughts on “Book Reviews:  Are They Useful to Writers?

  1. Getting reviews is great for a writer. But letting them into your head, good or bad, can be deadly.

    If you let a good review into your head, you might feel pressure to do “as well” next time. And pressure is never good for a writing career.

    If you let a bad review into your head, you might have any reaction, up to and including doing anything else but writing.

    I don’t personally read reviews because what other people think of my books is (as you say) their opinion. It is also none of my business.

    • Right, Harvey, letting reviews – good, bad, or otherwise – into your head is not healthy. I read an interview with Paula Hawkins (Girl On The Train) about dealing with her follow-up book after the enormous success and highly-praised reviews of GOTT. She said she was severely stressed when Into The Water came out and feared she would be ripped by critics for not outdoing her debut novel. Although sales were fine, ITW wasn’t well-received by the biblio-snooterati. It’s been 4 years until her third book is set for release in 2021.

  2. I’m going to take a quick side road. Recently, one of my books (a perma-free, because trolls don’t pay money) has been the victim of “reviewers” gaming Amazon’s system. They write short reviews, ranging from “Great book” to “Not my favorite” being careful to stay within Amazon’s TOS so they’re nothing anyone can flag. However, they give 1 or 2 stars (even for the ones that say “Great book.) and have no other reviews on their profile. Many of these are word for word copies of legitimate reviews–take a 5 star reviews, copy it, but give it 1 or 2 stars. Rinse repeat. The issue (and probably their goal) appears to be to lower the overall star rating, which can have consequences when it comes to being able to promote at various sites.
    The few “reviewers” who do have other products are reviewing things like battery chargers and related electronics and giving them glowing 5 stars.
    I’ve been trying to work with Amazon to get these trolls’ reviews removed, with only moderate success.

    • I hear ya about the trolls, Terry. I had one clearly non-legitimate 1-Star which I tried to get Amazon to remove. I got no response and finally gave up after three tries. I have no idea how fraudulent and malicious reviews benefits Amazon’s business model as, after all, they’re all about the money. Now Kobo is excellent to deal with. They don’t seem to let BS happen in the review department.

  3. I’m not yet in the position of having my books reviewed, but I’m sure it is a nerve wracking experience. I’m guessing I’ll have to adopt a policy where I eventually read them (or the suggestion to have someone else read and give you the key take aways from the reviews left). If a writer can learn something from reviews that improves their stories, that’s great. But a lot of reviews are written unproductively.

    From the standpoint of a reader, I make limited use of reviews. As discussed in today’s post, there is much subjectivity. For some people, waking up on the wrong side of the bed is reason enough to leave a bad review. I rarely read book reviews on fiction. When I do, it is usually because the author hasn’t done a good job in the cover or blurb and I’m unclear either as to time period or maybe I’m not sure the focus of the story is what I’m looking for. I want to be sure I’m getting the right book for me.

    I do skim more reviews for non-fiction, usually to see if readers feel the author has adequately covered their subject and to make sure it’s worth the dollar investment before I purchase.

    It may be pessimistic, but I think good quality reviews will get more difficult to obtain. In a society that doesn’t (even before pandemic) have much face to face time, it’s too easy to vomit out whatever comes to mind without giving it good rational thought before the review is posted. Yes, works should be critiqued in a review, but there’s a difference between honest assessment and tearing a book apart for bizarre reasons. We all, myself included, have quirks about our reading. I keep that in mind when I write reviews. There are some things I might not like that I know won’t apply to most readers.

    • I fully agree that getting reviews is hard, BK. I don’t know what the ratio of reviewer-to-reader is. Maybe 1 in 500 or more? I generally know how many downloads I have and can do the math about the review numbers. Overall, I don’t worry about what the reviewers say. The star rating is more important and I think any average over 4 is excellent feedback. In the end, from a commercial point, it’s sales numbers that matter.

  4. Great piece, Garry! Now I’m struggling to recall what I wrote in my reviews of your work! I have to review a book (by another author) I finished last night. I’ll be more conscious of the feedback I give. Thanks for the perspective.

  5. Great post, Garry.

    My answer to the whole subject of reviews: Find beta readers. Use a site such as BetaBooks – https://betabooks.co/ – where you can get feedback any way you want it, chapter by chapter, the whole book, etc. You can ask any question you want the reader to answer. You can interact with the reader during the process. This site allows you to find volunteers to beta read your book from all over the world. (I have two loyal fans from South Africa.) And its cheap. You can even sign up for just the months you are using it, then put your subscription on pause until the next book is ready for beta reading.

    I like to work with teachers who pick their top students. The teacher knows me and keeps things under control (she can monitor the comments), but the students don’t know me and are sometimes ruthless (but honest). The students get an autographed copy of the book when it is published, and are listed on the acknowledgement page.

    Having a following of readers who like your books and are willing to beta read, gives you, the author, a good source for blurbs to put inside the front cover, where potential buyers on Amazon can find them when they “look inside.”

    If our purpose in reading reviews is to get feedback, I prefer the beta reader.

    The best beta readers are those who don’t know you, but are willing to do a careful review of your book and give you honest feedback.

  6. Thanks, Steve. Good information about beta readers here, especially about having ones who don’t know you and can give honest (objective?) feedback, which is possible. I’m going to check out BetaBooks – thanks for the link which I didn’t know existed.

  7. Good topic, Gary. I’m evolving my own ideas on this. With my first novels and novellas, I read every review. I was thrilled anyone would take the time to say anything at all. And I hated that blank “post your review here” spot.

    But after the emotional whiplash of bouncing between 5 and 1 or 2 stars, and not recognizing the reasoning behind them, I’ve settled into a routine where: when the book first appears, I’ll read the first reviews, but once they move into double digits, I stop. As long as each book is in the 4+ range, that’s all I need to know. If the average were to suddenly plunge, I’d probably dive back in to investigate if something odd was happening.

    • Very rational reasoning, Harald. I think the overall star average says a lot – at least a lot from the readers who post a review. What goes on in the hearts and minds of the silent majority – who knows? I feel an ever-increasing sales volume is the real measure of worth. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  8. Hi Garry,

    A helpful look at an important topic. I’m with you–I read my reviews, trying to focus on what worked and what didn’t, and endeavoring to not make it about stroking my own ego when I read the five stars. It’s very useful to see what resonated with readers, and what didn’t. You’ll discover contradictions–I had one mediocre review of my urban fantasy “Gremlin Night” that disliked the magic system, while another reviewer criticized the lack of same. A matter of perspective, I suspect. Sometimes you’ll read a review that can’t help but make you shrug. Mine was a review on the first novel in my Empowered series where the review gave it two stars, saying they enjoyed the story but were disappointed it wasn’t in Kindle Unlimited and wouldn’t pay to read the other books in the series. Nothing I can do about that, since I’m wide with all my books 🙂

    • Kindle Unlimited. I never had any KU traction whatsoever when I was exclusive with AZ. I still have a few minor publications there and nothing. Maybe it works for others, though, but my experience with wide far outweighs any value from going it alone on AZ.

      Just a side note, Dale. I don’t put much weight on book reviews – they are what they are – but I read blog comments with a magnifying glass. A while ago, I was a regular contributor to the HuffPost blog team. The comments there were far more trollish than anything I’ve ever got on Amazon. I finally quit submitting because the Huff wouldn’t moderate their comment feed.

  9. I’ve found that the ONLY people who care about reviews are authors and the book promo newsletters. Readers don’t care. I can’t tell you how many readers I’ve seen who never look at reviews, only the blurb and cover. Reviews are known to be bought and sold, or be written by crazy people. They’re unreliable. I think it’s a metric that needs to fall by the wayside. Sales are the only metric that should matter, ever. A review site can tell the quality of the book by a look at the first page, cover, and blurb, like any acquisitions editor. They won’t do that, though, because you can’t automate that.

    • Great comment, Kessie. I think you’re 100% right. I heard a judge once say, “There’s nothing more unreliable than an eyewitness”, and I think the same holds true for a lot of reviews. IMO, you nailed the buying process – cover, blurb, look inside, and click.

  10. Garry, Thanks for the post.

    I’m new enough (two published novels) that I read every review that’s written about my books. It’s changed my attitude toward *writing* reviews. Once I realized how important it is to hear what people think about my work, I started leaving reviews for most books I read.

    I think every rating should be accompanied by a review. Whether it’s a five-star or a one-star, it means nothing without a written review. I wish we could convince the etailers to agree to this.

    I also noticed the difference in platforms. Goodread’s reviews seem to come in a little lower than Amazon’s. I wonder if that’s because folks who review on Goodreads are very prolific and serious readers.

    One interesting fact: I had a Chirp deal on my first novel a few months ago. There are now more ratings and reviews on the audiobook on Chirp (155 ratings) than on the Amazon book (133 ratings), even though the audio has been out for less than six months. That makes me think there’s a very large audience for audiobooks and they’re serious listeners. I’m in the process of preparing to have my second book recorded.

    • Good morning, Kay. I’m with you on the written review to go along with a star rating. I think if a person has an opinion as to the book’s rating, then they should take time to give it a basic justification. But that takes time, and many people simply don’t want to take the time to do it.

      Chirp, eh? The more I see and hear about audiobooks and platforms like Chirp, the more intrigued I am about getting on that bus. I’ve been naively waiting for some sort of technological breakthrough where a manuscript can be convincingly narrated through a decent text-to-speech app. I recently posted this comment on another popular blog and was told (by someone in the know) that it’s a decade or more away.

  11. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Garry.

    After decades of critique groups and workshopping, my hide is like a rhino’s. While compliments are appreciated, I’d rather focus on where the problems are and how to fix them.

    I do read reviews. Some are off-the-wall, some are helpful, some are clearly bogus. You learn to recognize which is which and dismiss the irrelevant. Some of the most critical reviews raised valid points and actually gave me insight into plausibility and character inconsistencies which I addressed in subsequent books.

    The all-time favorite review of one of my thrillers was taken down after a few weeks. The reviewer wrote: Five stars. Works even better than demonstrated on TV and cheaper than other brands.” Always wondered what the product really was.

    • You’re welcome, Rhinohide 🙂 I gotta share a reviewer that stalked me. She left 4-Stars on my series books (I don’t think she actually read them from cover to cover, but they were verified purchases) and her main complaint why she didn’t give them 5 was that my editing sucked. Then she had the unmitigated gall to email me and offer her editing services. Geeze… some people.

      I wonder what that unnamed product was, too. I had to laugh, because I envisioned some battery powered thing used in the bedroom.

  12. Garry, I am howling at your various examples of reviewer snark, even as I wonder why authors would snipe at each other in front of the children and the cooks, as it were. My particular favorite, very understated, came from a fictitious blurb for a fictitious novel and presented in, I believe, Jesse Kellermann’s novel POTBOILER. The blurb, presented as being by a well-known author, was “I have read a number of books this year and (book title) was one of them.” Ouch.

    To answer your question…I believe that a favorable review can potentially benefit an author with respect to channeling readers toward an author’s work. There are reviewers who have their own followings and who to some extent degree function as literary trendsetters for readers.

    I’m not entirely sure about whether or not it helps an author to read a review of their work, though it would be hard to pass up if an editor, friend, or family member told them, “Wow! You got a great review by…” Hard to say.

    Happy New Year and thanks for another terrific post.

  13. No one has discussed one reason writers might want to encourage reviews and that’s the Amazon algorithms. What I’ve been told is that after 20-25 reviews, Amazon often will include the book in “also bought” or “you might like” lists which will improve visibility and help boost sales. After 50-70 reviews, Amazon will often select the book for spotlight positions and include it in their newsletter. I would think both of these would help an indie author get name recognition outside their circle of regular readers. As for reviews, I rate books I read on Goodreads for their Reading Challenge (as a way for me to keep track of what I’ve read) but don’t write reviews for all of them. As an author, I’m keenly aware of it being a small community and don’t want to cut down other’s works. If it’s five stars for me, I generally write something and then also post it to Amazon.

    • Excellent, excellent point about Amazon’s algorithms, Maggie. I believe you’re right that strong reviews – both in numbers and star ratings – help to boost the book through charts and referrals. I don’t have anything to do with GoodReads. Maybe I should get out more often and take a Billy Goat Gruff with me.

  14. I don’t leave bad reviews, either, Garry. If I can’t rate a book 3 stars or above, I’m not about to trash another author’s work. The one exception is a novel I read last year by some bigwig television personality (who I’d never heard of). I paid $13. for the ebook because of all the 5-star reviews. By Chapter Two, the story made no sense. Not only did the protagonist mysteriously find clues that dozens of LEOs couldn’t find, and with very little effort, but the killer wound up being a character that was never introduced till the final three pages! The author pulled him out of midair, as if he didn’t know how to end the story. Total waste of time and money.

    As for reading reviews, I do with new releases. Then I rarely look. Unless I’m searching for something specific. Say, I left one small thread hanging for the next book in the series. Sometimes reviewers will try to guess in the reviews. Then I know to do the opposite. 😉

    • You paid 13 bucks for an eBook, Sue? Sorry to hear you got ripped – you don’t always get what you pay for. If you’re looking for frustration, mine are all priced at $2.99.

      Hmmm… interesting tactic to fool reviewers to up your next game. Hey, I gave Pretty Evil a totally-well-deserved plug. Look at my reply to Joe’s comment.

  15. I’ve had only one truly awful review which has long since vanished into the aether of time. Take that, you illiterate idiot! Snicker. (Some say that Internet content is eternal. It isn’t.) Reviews on Amazon also vanish the moment your book is out of print, too.

    Anyway, if you can’t deal with negative reviews, a professional career is not for you because you need the skin of an alligator and the courage of Captain America (“I can do this all day.”) to survive the professional aspects of this crap-show of a profession, and negative reviews aren’t the worst of it.

    A reallly good reason to read a review if it’s from a professional source where they send it to you early as a courtesy is to stop minor errors and straight-up disasters. I’ve corrected character names, etc., but the biggest disaster I stopped was a reviewer who revealed a THE SIXTH SENSE worthy secret at the end of one of my novels. One of those everything-you-thought-you-knew-is-wrong moments to blow the reader’s mind. That hurt readers’ enjoyment of the book, more than my sales, so the review site removed that bit of info.

    • Yes, the spoilers, Marilynn. Why do people do that? Why do some people think a review is to do a book synopsis and tell how it ends? And then there’s the reviewers who criticize a spelling or grammar mistake and their review reads like it was done by an English second language student.

  16. I read reviews by professional reviews. Those — even the less than favorable ones — can be useful. I avoid reviews on Amazon. The bad ones often don’t make sense. A writer friend who did a brilliant and very readable history book got one star on Amazon because the price was too high! That’s not the writer’s fault.

    • Happy New Year, Elaine & hope you’re staying safe in snowbird country. I’ve seen 1-Stars on Amazon because the story was too long, too short, not available in print or audio or digital or even not downloadable for free never mind being too expensive. There’s no pleasing everyone, and I agree professional reviewers make a case when the post theirs.

  17. I have 16 books published and I keep an Excel chart that I update every 2 months or so with the average of each book’s reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. That way I don’t read text reviews but I can see if something strange, good or bad is going on.

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