Reviews: Useful Tool or Mouthpiece of Trolls?

red penThere’s a great word in the English language. When I first heard this word and explored its meaning, I knew that I would love it forever. That word is AMBIVALENT. One of the definitions, according to Dictionary.com, is “of or pertaining to the coexistence within an individual of positive and negative feelings toward the same person, object, or action, simultaneously drawing him or her in opposite directions.”

I am ambivalent towards book reviews.

One of the first things I was told when I started publishing two years ago is that you’ve gotta have reviews of your books. The more the better, in fact. I heard lovely, whispered rumors that once you hit a certain number of reviews, the algorithms for how Amazon recommends your books to people changes. (Unsubstantiated, by the way) I’ve also variously been told that you have to have good reviews because—oh my gosh!—people will decide whether or not to buy your book based on reviews alone!

On the other side of that coin, nothing turns me off of a book faster than dozens of 5-star reviews … and no other reviews. Wait a minute. Isn’t that an oxymoron? Isn’t it a good thing to have nothing but 5-star reviews? Um, not if those reviews are written by people who have never reviewed another book. And yes, you can tell whether a review is from “friends and family” by clicking on the reviewer’s name and looking at what else they’ve reviewed. I’m just as likely as not to pass on a book that has only high reviews as I am on one that has lots of negative reviews.

Okay then, what’s the point of reviews? We long for them and despise them at once. We know we need them, but the very thought of getting them makes our knees turn to jelly. Too many books have “sock-puppet” reviews, but what about books that are genuinely good and have lots of positive ratings? How’s a poor author supposed to sort this mess out?

I’ve come to the conclusion that reviews are a useful tool … if you know how to approach them. It’s lovely to get a good review and it sucks to get one of those horrible, vicious bad reviews. Those mediocre reviews in the middle can leave us feeling like “Huh?”. But good, bad, or indifferent, the truth is that not all reviews are created equal. The art is in learning how to tell if you’re reading a significant review or if you should ignore a throw-away review.

Reviews: Yay or Nay? © Wavebreakmedia Ltd | Dreamstime.com

Reviews: Yay or Nay?
© Wavebreakmedia Ltd | Dreamstime.com

To start with, I consider all 4- and 5-star reviews to be good. I love them, I cherish them, but to a certain extent it doesn’t matter to me what they say. Every once in a while a savvy reviewer will pinpoint exactly what you did right, and that’s golden. A lot of really great reviews, however, don’t contain a lot of information. The reader loved your book. Woo hoo! Success! But I have a feeling people don’t read those reviews, they only look at the numbers.

Bad reviews tell you so much more. They tell you so much more about the reviewer, for one. The first thing I do when I get a really bad review is to click on the reviewer’s name to take a look at other things they’ve read recently and how they’ve rated those books. Guess what? At least 75% of the time, a reviewer that leaves a 1- or 2-star review is a troll. Yours will not be the only book they panned. And yes, it does make you feel a bit better to see how viciously they’ve attempted to eviscerate someone else’s book. It’s also interesting to see what books they loved. Again, nine times out of ten I can tell at a glance that my novel was not the type of book they like. No harm, no foul.

Another thing you can tell from awful reviews is if you’ve hit a nerve with someone. The Worst Review Ever that I got about this time last year for my book The Loyal Heart was a scathing, bitter rant-fest about how I totally ripped off the plot of the BBC Robin Hood TV series. Ouch. I have seen some of that show, but it wasn’t the only influence. It was clear to me, however, that the reviewer was a devoted fan of the show. Good for them! Another 1-star review I got recently for Our Little Secrets ranted on at length about “modern PC issues” and how offended they were that a character like Phineas Bell (who is gay) would be included and allowed to get away with being how he was, which according to them was not historically accurate. *shifty look* Boy, that person really isn’t going to like the fourth book in this series, Somebody to Love, in which Phin is the, uh, heroine? (Yes, it’ll be an m/m romance) The point being, their objections were obvious and had nothing to do with the quality of writing or the story.

There are, however, a special class of reviews that you might be surprised to know that I treasure. Sometimes these are 1- or 2-stars. Most often they are the 3-stars. Those are the reviews that kindly point out what didn’t work in the story. Best. Reviews. Ever! Why? Because you can learn from these reviews. You can ponder what the reviewer had to say and think about how to use that advice to become a better writer. Sure, my knee-jerk reaction is the same as anyone’s would be: “How dare they! Do they not know I am amazing!?!?!” But once the ego calms down a little, I use these reviews as tools.

Ooo, I can't wait to read the review for this one!

Ooo, I can’t wait to read the review for this one!

I might also add that I read and study the reviews of other novels in my genre. Do I read the 4-and 5-star reviews? Nope. I read the bad ones. I read them to figure out if they sound fair or not. I read them to learn about what readers want to see in the stories they read and what they don’t want to read. Sometimes I read the comments after the reviews. NOTE: As an author you should never, ever comment on a review! It’s very bad etiquette. The biggest takeaways I’ve had from reading other people’s bad reviews is that readers don’t like bland characters who remain static through a story and they don’t like characters to do or think things that have no logical motivation. Note to self: make your characters three-dimensional and be sure to include a natural progression of action complete with logical cause and effect. And no falling in love just because the author wants the characters to fall in love!

One last point. Do I leave reviews? Yes. Sometimes. It’s a difficult choice to make. This wasn’t always the case, but nowadays I only leave positive reviews, and 99 times out of 100 it will be 4-stars. Unless you’ve knocked my socks off (thank you Courtney Milan!). I should also note for full disclosure that I leave reviews under my old online name with my former email address, because I’ve had that account since King Kong was a monkey (and not because I’m trying to hide my identity).

So what do you think? Reviews: yay or nay? Do you write them? Do you read them? Do you fear them like the Grim Reaper?

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11 thoughts on “Reviews: Useful Tool or Mouthpiece of Trolls?

  1. I’m one of those folks who buys based upon reviews, so I understand their value. I think book reviews for unknown authors are probably invaluable.

    And, like you, I tend to discount most of those 4 and 5 star reviews.

  2. Unless a reviewer attacks the punctuation, structure or formatting (lack of professional editing) of the book, must 1 and 2 star reviews are always rebutted by 4 and 5 star reviews. 1 star = “the author takes too long to develop the character” 5 star = “I love how the author takes the time to develop the character” . The worst reviews are a flat line of 3 stars. Books with most 4’s and 5’s and less than 20% 1’s and 2’s sell better than books with all 5’s. I applaud your desire to hone your craft from the legit reviews. My hat is off to authors who have invested months to years in their books so that some “troll” to comment in 10 minutes. This process is as old as print itself and writing both good and bad marches forward.

    • I’ve noticed that, Shawn. I’ve had bad reviews in which the reviewer complains that my characters are weak, followed immediately by a 5-star review in which someone says the characters are very strong. I see that a lot, actually. It all comes down to personal taste, I think, and what that reader wants to read. Maybe they just don’t identify with the character. It’s all so objective, but that’s part of the point. 🙂

  3. I only leave 4 or 5 star reviews and then I usually only say a few words. If you can get my inner critique to shut up and I don’t want to go to the bathroom for fear of missing something in the book, then you get 5 stars. And this can range from classics to m/m erotica. Four stars is the same except I can go to the bathroom without worrying I’ll miss something. LOL

    • Yep. That pretty much sums up my review strategy too! I sometimes wish that I could reach out and talk to a newbie author to offer them help when a novel isn’t quite ready to be published though.

  4. Good post, Merry. You hit the nail on the head in so many ways. I recently got a three star review where the reviewer had nothing but praise for the book. So why only 3 stars?? I guess to that reviewer, that’s her top.

    • I have a 1-star review on one of my books that glows with praise. I think they hit the wrong button on Amazon when they submitted the review. But that’s one of my favorite reviews, because for folks like me who read just the bad reviews on purpose, it’s glowing praise that they’ll actually read!

      I also think some people consider 3-stars to be “good”. That’s how the ratings work on Goodreads, I believe.

  5. Just like you, I’m somewhat ambivalent about reviews. You are right, though, that sometimes even the ‘bad’ reviews can be a tool, albeit in different ways. My first commercial release was panned with a 2-star rating in what I felt was a rather malicious review. It hurt, it stung, and I huffed and puffed about it.

    But my second release was gifted with a 2-star review that let me know the reviewer had fallen into my story hard enough to have a strong emotional reaction to my hero. So strong that the reviewer couldn’t imagine how my heroine could possibly end up with a terrible guy like him…

    The first review taught me the necessity of a thick skin, and that not all reviewers are created equal. The second taught me that sometimes the review is more about how strongly the reader connected to the story, and how to read between the lines in a review.

    Reviewers are readers-they have their own preferences and their own quirks. And if they fall into your story hard enough, sometimes they lose their equilibrium. Each review is subjective, and at the mercy of the reviewer’s personal prejudice. But they can certainly let you know where you can improve, if you pay attention.

  6. Merry, my first book will be ready for publishing sometime in the ‘not-too-far-distant’ future. I already decided some time ago that I would not read 1 or 5 star reviews for it. I’ve done the best I can do with my story, and if someone really loves it, that’s wonderful, or if they really hate it, I’m sorry about that. I can’t do anything about either of those. I do agree that the middle ones are probably the ones I will learn from.

    As to reading other people’s reviews, if I like the blurb and the type of story, I will order it unless every review is a 1 or 2 star, and even then, the reviews will have to be specific in what they didn’t like. I ignore the generic spewing of hate and nastiness.

    I don’t often leave reviews. I’m really awful at writing them, even when I love the book. But I won’t write a super negative review, and if I must say something negative, I do try to make it one of those ‘constructive criticism’ things. ‘Do unto others’, et al.

    Great blog.

  7. So far, I’ve gotten 4 & 5 star reviews, which I feel pretty lucky about. I know the bad ones are coming, but it’s like a rite of passage. Great post. I shared.

  8. When I give a five-star review it means I think about the story long after I finish reading the book. Nothing is wrong with a three-star review; it means the reader enjoyed the book. Usually I won’t even rate a book if I can’t give it three stars–unless it was by an established author from one of the big houses. They should do better.

    As for my own novel, it has mostly four and five-star reviews, but I did get one rating (sans review) of two stars. I checked the reader’s other books and discovered they were a lot higher heat than my PG13 novel, so I’m telling myself that she didn’t like it because it didn’t have enough sex. : – )

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