Reviews and Opinions: It's okay to "just not like" something.

It's weird that something like book reviews can be so controversial. Everyone seems to have an opinion on how to do it or how not to do it. I think it's because in recent times it has gone from the realm of "qualified literary critics" to something anyone with an internet connection and an Amazon account can do.

Personally, I'm all for populist reviewing. I don't write brainy literary fiction. I write fantasy. It's the best fantasy I can make it, but I'm not trying to win the Pulitzer here. It doesn't matter to me what some guy behind a desk thinks of my books. It matters whether people like me like my books, readers who read for enjoyment and love a taste of the fantastical.
So your reviews mean something to me, mean something to pretty much every author I've ever met. Reviews mean someone read our book and cared enough to write something about it. Reviews are awesome. Right?

Well, you'd think so...

However, there's a disturbing trend among Indies which occasionally sets Reader against Writer, and that is the "Thou Shalt Not Poorly Review" trend.

I get it. Bad reviews hurt, and they can often feel unmerited. I've seen reviews left by "mistake." An author I know has a short story with the word "Gray" in the title that got reviews clearly meant for a much more famous novel complaining about all the explicit sex ... no, her story does not have any explicit sex. I've seen reviews that flat out reference not reading the book, and reviews that are just complete nonsense (maybe someone dropped their phone while reviewing and didn't realize it posted?).



However, it seems like every writers group I join has someone lecturing on how reviewers should review.

It usually starts out fairly benign. Someone posts wanting a little bit of comfort because they got a bad review and an author group feels like a safe place to share. The next thing you know, though, the writers in the group swarm like a pack of hungry piranhas.

Commiserating quickly turns to reviewer bashing.

  • The reviewer is mean.
  • The reviewer has no life.
  • The reviewer is a troll. 
  • The reviewer is jealous.
  • The reviewer is stupid. 

Sometimes they start circling the review. They may down vote it. In the worst case scenario, they might leave comments or track down the reviewer on social media accounts. Basically a mob mentality forms with the reviewer playing Frankenstein's monster.

My first caution here:

Don't use the "not helpful" button under an Amazon review just because the review is negative.

There are reasons to use this button. I mentioned a few possibilities above (the review clearly references a different book and may have been left by mistake ... the review is unintelligible, possibly posted by a three-year-old who got a hold of her mother's kindle ...) but this isn't the author's call. Or the author's friends' call. It should be up to  the readers who are trying to make the choice about whether or not to buy that book. Does the review help them make a decision?

Another thing to remember:

Reviewers don't leave negative reviews just to be mean. 

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, reviews by an average reader are actually a fairly new conceit. Book reviews used to be the realm of paid professionals. A lot of people still don't like to write them or feel qualified to write them. Readers who do write them are a rare (I've heard about 1 out of every 100 readers actually leaves reviews) and dare I say a bit precious.
Even newer, however, is the concept that the writer may read the review and care about what the reviewer says. I don't think most readers assume the writer will read the review. I know before I became an author, I didn't. The writers I read were huge, mythological figures with their own castles and fan followings and if I ever met them, I'd just be praying not to say something stupid. With indies, however, this isn't the case.
Still, most readers assume it is.
I still occasionally get people saying things to me like, "I didn't know you were an indie I could talk to. I thought you were a real author."
I'm like, "Can't I be both?"
My assumption is that if readers caught on that writers were pretty much reading over their shoulder every time they'd write a review, they'd probably write even fewer reviews because of the pressure. That would leave the two classes of readers who actually WANT interaction with the author: the hard core fans and the hard core trolls.
That's why the whole, "DON'T RESPOND TO REVIEWS" thing is so important.

Reviewers usually aren't trying to ruin your day. They just didn't like your book. Why didn't they like your book? Maybe it's because ...

NO book ever has been universally loved.

If you haven't gotten a negative review yet, it just means you haven't been read by enough readers. Pick any best seller, any classic, any well-loved "disliking this book is like kicking a kitten" story ... chances are, it has negative reviews. Somebody just didn't get it. Somebody thinks it is overrated. Someone read it and was reminded of a bad experience in their childhood. Somebody thinks it poorly represents a section of people they identify with. 

And if you are a reader reading this, let me speak for at least one author (me):

It's perfectly okay to not like a book. 

It's also perfectly okay to leave a review about how you didn't like a book, even if the reason you didn't like a book is COMPLETELY personal preference. Ideally you will always be able to find books that are wonderful and suit your tastes so perfectly that you never feel inclined to write a negative review ... but that will only happen if we somehow homogenize literature and the people reading it so it is all basically the same stuff and readers all like the same thing ... so maybe not so ideal after all. 
And you saying, "I didn't like how the book was this and this and this" may actually draw in a reader who likes books that are "this and this and this." I discussed this in a previous post (here).

Writers do sometimes worry that bad reviews stop them from getting featured on certain sites, or skew their overall rating so that people won't even look at them anymore, but this is really only going to happen if the percentage of reviews tips towards strongly negative (and in my experience most readers are more apt to leave a positive review than a negative.). A couple of bad reviews won't hurt and ...

Trying to control the reviews or the reviewers ends up with a skewed system that benefits nobody.

Readers are already starting to be a little suspicious of reviews due to past scams. If writers attempt to manipulate reviews and ratings, the value of those things will drop even further. Readers will be even less likely to review if they get punished by down votes or worse, stalky writers. 

So what can you do?

If you're a reviewer, just leave your review ... maybe keeping in mind that the writer is a person and that you probably shouldn't be downright nasty. No need to tell the reader to go burn their laptop and throw all their pens in the river because you didn't like their book.
If  you're a writer, maybe consider not reading your reviews. If you can't handle it, can't laugh at it, or just don't want to know, not looking is an option.
If you know a writer, resist swarming to beat up on the reviewer for not liking their book. It might be a little cathartic (and possibly harmless if done in a private setting), but it doesn't really help anyone in the long run.
If you really want to help, read their book. If you like it, leave a review! That will make them truly grateful.


Oh, and if you need a book to review, Lands of Ash will be 99 cents this week! Click below to download on Amazon.

Lands of Ash (Elemental Realms Book 1)



Comments

  1. Great article! I've held in the past that I won't read reviews on my own books that are lower than 4 stars...but I don't think I'll be able to resist. ;) I completely agree with your thoughts on not down-voting for negativity. I'm skeptical of the "everyone come downvote this!" tendency I see in some places (although I understand it when a review is, say, laced with profanity or slurs and no content about the book...in that case it deserves a downvote even if I haven't read the book!).

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    1. Yeah, some reviews are in the "what is this person on?" realm. There are plenty I argue with in my head, too, but I'm the champion of shrugging off negativity so I so far have been able to read most of my reviews ... haven't gotten a really bad one. The worst so far has been "was boring, didn't finish."

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  2. Love this post. I want to share this everywhere. I was asked to review a book I beta read for an author I kind of knew. I didn't love the book, but I could see how others would enjoy it, so I left my review. The author contacted me personally to tell me that my review was not good enough for her and that I needed to change it. Of course I refused, but it still bothers me.

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    1. Yeah, there was a blog post that was going around that basically told people not to leave "four stars" because it can ruin a novel's perfect score, and WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT? A lot of people I know use four star as their standard rating and only go up to five if they consider the book "life changing" or something.
      The reviews you really want are well thought out three stars, though. They're the most commonly read.

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  3. Thanks for addressing this topic. A five-star review from me tends to be hard won. I mean, scroll over the five stars on the Goodreads reviewing pane. See what it says? "I loved it." Yeah, I don't love very many books, but I really like quite a few.
    I've been told NOT to leave less than four-star reviews or else those authors or their fans will hunt down the books I write and give me a nasty pay-back review. Really? People who are writing books have time for taking vengeance on three-star reviews? That seems crazy to me.
    I read a book (or three) per week. My Goodreads reading challenge for the year is 135, and I've already read 111. If I'm not writing, I'm probably reading. Since I know reviews are like GOLD to authors, I try to review every book I read. Even if I give it a low score, I can verbalize my reasons. And many times it is just because the story didn't grab me.

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    1. I know one author who received a suspected payback review. I actually was using a "handle" rather than my real name for Amazon reviews long before I was an author, though, and that offers some protection. Goodreads, though, is still hooked up to my real name, but overall ratings tend to be a lot lower on Goodreads and most sensitive authors avoid it.
      Authors who use their reviews to tell how much their own books are better come up from time to time, though, and that's slightly more than annoying (and against Amazon guidelines, I think.).

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  4. I agree with most of what you say here, but if reviewers don't just leave negative reviews to be mean, why would they tweet it to the author 3 times and then tweet "why aren't you responding?" Trolls are a real thing. All the author can really do in that situation is not respond. Anything else risks alienating readers.

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    1. That's a small percentage, though. Trolls definitely exist. I'm not denying that, but they are the exception rather than the rule. I have 160 reviews on Goodreads and 308 on Amazon and I've yet to encounter something like this. That's not saying it doesn't happen. It obviously happens, but I'm saying we can't let that small minority define our attitude towards readers in genera.
      And yeah, the prescription for dealing with trolls has always been not to feed them.

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  5. As I've said in other places, sometimes in response to 'those threads' there is another point which is essential. Bad reviews give your good reviews credibility. I'm a reviewer, if I got paid for it I could easily be a full time reviewer, Even unpaid I read between 50 and 100 books a year. I give out ten or fifteen fives in a year. I give out about as many twos. People send me their books and ask for reviews. I wouldn't be doing them or my readers any favours if I tended to one end of the scale or another. Reviews are not about the author. They are about the book and the reader. Thanks for the article.

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    1. Yeah, I personally don't leave a ton of negative reviews because because I don't review unfinished books ... and I put down a lot a lot of books.

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  6. This is so great Heidi! I think too often we as writers forget to develop our tough skin and allow ourselves to be too sensitive. I haven't gotten any 2 or 1 star reviews, but I've gotten some three's and while it was disappointing to not have a "this author is the most amazing person since Moses" review, I appreciated the reader's honesty. Some of the points they made were considered when I updated my books with better editing and formatting. I use reviews to tell me what readers liked and didn't like. It's really not a popularity contest. At least, not to me. :)

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    1. I've been lucky so far. I think I have one one star and a decent amount of threes. I also don't write anything controversial, though. I literally write about kittens.

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  7. I remember clearly my first one-star review. I was actually RELIEVED to see it! The book had been doing amazingly well (far, far better than I'd ever dreamed) and was racking up so many five-star reviews that I KNEW the kickback had to be coming, because that's just how culture is.... When the one-star finally appeared, with the predictable "not as good as everyone says and not helpful to me," I was actually happy. My reviews now looked more balanced and "real," and the bad review wasn't even a bad review, just a response to hype and an identification that this reader wasn't the demographic I was going for.

    We shouldn't be upset that someone outside of our target market didn't like the book. That's why we have a target market. If someone *inside* that market didn't like it, well, we should assess whether or not they have good reason, and grow from that.

    And if it just isn't a thing, well, that happens too. And it's not a big deal.

    Thanks for this very realistic take on the review issue!

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    1. I recently had a blogger give me a one star but only on their blog and I was wavering on asking them to post it to Amazon ... but it felt pushy so I didn't. Plus it had a mild spoiler in it. Spoilers in reviews do annoy me, mildly, but you get this from both positive and negative reviews.

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