tellthetruthTwo things happened which had me thinking about reviews this week. Firstly, I got some fresh comments on a 2015 story I did on the mania for 5-star reviews on Etsy. Then, I saw a Book Riot piece that asks: What’s the purpose of a book review?

It’s actually a useful question. What is the purpose of a review, for a book, or for anything, really? The Etsy people seem to think it’s to improve the seller’s rating so that others will buy from them. The fresh feedback I got on this long-ago story were all from Etsy sellers, and it further confirmed the existence of their belief that anything less than a five-star review is failure—and furthermore, that if you give one, you are making the decision to deliberately harm a person’s business.

Conversely, I always thought that reviews existed for the customer. If there was something I found lacking, I felt that the review was my place to warn away other customers who may share my view. I can’t stand reading an e-book with many typos, for instance. I appreciate when another review warns me away from a book which has this problem, and I assume that if this issue does not bother you personally, you are smart enough to dismiss my review as irrelevant and continue your shopping unimpeded.

To me, the author’s ‘feelings’ simply don’t enter into it. I am never rude when I review. I am never mean and malicious. But I feel that if the author puts it out there on the market and I pay money for it, it’s fair to truly say what I thought. I will be complimentary when the product calls for it; I don’t think I am especially stingy. But I have many friends who share my taste. I know what will annoy them in a book, or which books they may especially like. It is for their benefit that I review, when I choose to.

But maybe I’m wrong about this. I know many authors work very hard to get reviews. I have gotten a few mediocre ones, and while they didn’t hurt my feelings (I am too business-like for that), I did wish they had been a little more explicit about what it was which failed to meet their expectation. I got a two-star review which simply said ‘not what I expected.’ I wished I could speak to that person and ask them: what did you expect? And how could I provide that for you next time?

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  1. Your view of reviews is too parochial. I started writing reviews over forty years ago. I was reading a lot of non-fiction and was bothered that I didn’t remember as much as I wanted about a given book. Soon I had notebooks filled with notes about what I had read. When I started publishing a newsletter for the library where I was director, I began reworking my notes into more formal reviews. For whatever reason they caught on and the newsletter became quite popular. When Goodreads came along I started posting them there and developed a group of people whose tastes (!) reflected mine and who liked my reviews. I now have several thousand out there. My original goal of the reviews, i.e., helping me to remember books I’ve read, has not altered. If others find those reviews interesting, well, fine. I learn from theirs also.

    As a rule, I only very rarely write about a book I didn’t like, not wanting to waste the space or time, so my comments tend to be positive. On the other hand, I despise those ratings from hotels or repair shops that insist only a rating of 10/10 is good, that anything less is failing. Those are meaningless and I refuse to complete them, because they are used purely as marketing tools rather than to really learn something about their service. So the message I get is they don’t really care about improving.

    Authors need to understand that reviews are almost never written for them. Why would one? The book is done. It’s out there. Can’t be changed. Reviews are written for self, friends, general public, etc., All sorts of different reasons.

    Ironically, in my view, anything getting only 5/5 or 10/10 ratings is suspect. Nothing appeals to everyone’s taste.

    • “The book is done. It’s out there. Can’t be changed.”

      In this electronic age, that’s no longer true. In fact, I’ve often corrected problems within 24 hours that were identified in reviews. At least the next people to get the ebook or POD book will receive a better product.

  2. […] Antes de exponer nuestra creación, asumamos que, estadísticamente, le va a gustar a poca gente, incluso aunque se convierta en un superventas. Ningún texto o escritor ha sido unánimemente aclamado. Cada artista tiene su público y nosotros deberemos encontrar el nuestro. La crítica es inevitable y en principio no se dirige al autor, sino a otros lectores o a uno mismo. […]

  3. Disclaimer: I’m an independent author of more than twenty novels.

    There’s the rating, and then the verbiage of the review.

    As long as the facts are not in dispute (for example, are they reviewing the correct book?) then the verbiage is mostly for potential readers to assess whether they would like to read the book. However, there is a feedback aspect that can help a savvy writer, because in this age of ebooks and POD, problems can be easily corrected, at least for future buyers. I really don’t mind low-rating reviews much anymore, as long as what they say is accurate and reasonable.

    But as for the rating, if it does not accurately reflect the verbiage, it can hinder an author’s sales, often unfairly, especially if it’s one of the first few reviews.

    The worst example of this problem is the glowing verbiage that doesn’t match the rating. “One of the best books I’ve ever read!” – 4 stars or 3 stars or even 2 stars – is painful to see. I have to wonder what was going on in the reviewer’s head, because it’s true: any review below the current average can be damaging (although the sheer number of reviews can offset this, if the average is not too low). A real fan who genuinely loved the book wouldn’t intentionally sabotage sales, would s/he?

  4. “To tell the truth or . . .”

    Based on my observations, many readers aren’t capable of telling the truth for the simple reason that they don’t even know what the truth is. Unfortunately, like many writers, they don’t have critical thinking skills, creative thinking skills, and plain common sense. The reviews aren’t even reviews, but just attacks on writers because their own lives are in such a mess.

    For example, in two of my retirement books, I have a retirement planning tool called “The Get-a-Life Tree”, which several retirement experts have ranted and raved about, and have even written blog posts about it. Yet a few readers who have reviewed my books have said things like, “Nothing new here.” Or worse, a one or two have accused me of stealing material from other retirement books, even though those other retirement books were issued years after mine.

    Then there is the issue of people attacking a book (and the author (s) at the same time) because they are jealous or despise the author(s). Several years ago, I saw this happen to “The Wall Street Journal Complete Retirement Guidebook” by Glenn Ruffenach and Kelly Greene. Go to the Amazon page for this book and then hit the 1-star reviews. You will see that out of seventeen 1-star reviews, sixteen were written either on November 27 or November 28, 2007, mainly financial planners attacking the book and authors. Undoubtedly, these were financial planners acting in unison to discredit the authors and the book.

    In short, a lot of reviews (particularly the negative ones) seldom reflect the truth.

    • I can’t think of a better way to piss off your potential readers. The subtext of your comment is that anyone who doesn’t like your books doesn’t know the truth because they aren’t as smart as you. Some other comments above seem to reflect the mistaken idea that reviews are written to help an author get better. Nothing could be further from the truth. All the reviews I have written (most of them paper books that couldn’t be changed anyway) were written for the benefit of me and fellow readers. To suggest readers and reviewers exist to help you is the height of narcissism.

  5. I have my own book blog where I post regular reviews. I don’t use star-ratings because I’m hard on people, and will usually give 3/5 for pretty much everything.

    Instead, I give my opinions on the points I liked, the points I didn’t, and a sum-up ‘verdict’ of my overall opinion.

    I have a policy of always being honest – but never rude if I can help it. I want people to read more – and if I refer them to a book they’re not suited to, it might put them off reading more books in general, or trusting that my opinions are honest (which they are.) At the same time, I appreciate that people work hard on their books, and I don’t want to unfairly dismiss anyone – there’s usually *something* about a book which I liked, after all! 🙂

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