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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